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Frankenstein and bioethics

January 21, 2006

This was one of the most fun papers I’ve ever had to write. As you can see from the categories, it covers a few topics, specifically, bioethics, Gothic literature, and a local library exhibition. These strange and diverse subjects come together to expose some of our fears about the future, as I’ve discussed in recent posts. It summarizes a warning that we all must heed: If we prevent legitimate, honest scientists from studying stem cell usage or cloning, we may be leaving the irresponsible and dishonest to continue the work. Is biotechnology really something we should force into a dark, unregulated underground? Can the answer—and potential results—be found in an 18th century novel? I’ll let you decide for yourself.


A separate note: I wrote this during the midst of the Hwang scandal, and so had to update a bit before publishing here. For a more in depth and often amusing look at the scandal, please visit: blog.bioethics.net.


A Visit to Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature


When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley decided to write a ghost story, our greatest fears lay in the unknown realm of death. Rather than focus on this classic emotion, however, she highlighted a new horror: the fear of creating life. At the turn of the 21st century, as the average human lifespan is lengthened and the amount of available natural resources dwindles, Shelley’s vision has resurfaced. Controversy surrounds issues like abortion, stem cell research, and cloning. Has the focus of our fear changed? Like the protagonist of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein do we now fear life instead of death?

Dr. Hwang in 2005 (Image courtesy of Newsday)In South Korea in 2004, Woo Suk Hwang claimed to use cloned human embryos to create viable stem cells. These versatile cells, grown to genetically match the patient receiving the transplant, would have been able to grow into any type of human tissue. The research, combining several controversial technologies, was leading towards the treatment of a wide variety of diseases and extending the human lifespan. Hwang planned to help establish human embryo cloning labs in the United States and Britain.

In November of 2005, however, the project began to collapse. Hwang admitted to rumors that he used eggs from a junior scientist for his research, violating the accepted ethical codes for such practice. Soon, it also became apparent that most of the research conducted by Hwang had been faked; there was simply no easy way to harvest stem cells from cloned embryos. Eventually, Hwang resigned.

The controversy over Hwang’s practice surfaced amongst a series of ethical questions surrounding the creation of life. Currently, some states  some type of legislation in process concerning cloning or stem cell research. Several states are considering legislation on these issues, as reported by MSNBC earlier this year. Some states encourage it, others don’t. (This even seems to cross party lines, at times.)

Some opponents of genetic research claim if we use artificially grown human tissue to save or create life, we may create a monster. On the other hand, if we shy away from the subject, are we leaving such work in the hands of potentially irresponsible men like Hwang? Then, as we neglect responsibility and pass it along, will we discover that we are the true monster?

Remind anyone of Frankenstein?

A traveling exhibition recently stopped at the Boulder Public Library (now at the Lafayette Public Library) to answer these questions and more. The exhibit, “Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature,” uses a variety of mediums to explore the theme. In addition to informational displays covering the history of the novel and bioethical issues, props from the stage and screen were available for viewing. The library also hosted a series of events, from film screenings and discussions on ethics, to magic shows for children. These elements combined to create an exciting and informational exhibit.

Tall, black panels, filled with life-size images, stood amongst glass cases, filled with creepy-looking apparatus, created a spooky atmosphere. One display was devoted to a stage version of Frankenstein, performed by the CU-Boulder Theater Group. The monster’s costume from the play stood towering over the entire exhibit. The striking mask, completing the ensemble, was reminiscent of a Tim Burton creation and Phantom of the Opera, eerily greeting visitors as they entered.
 
An original poster from the 1931 production. (Image courtesy of Filmsite)Nearby, in a section devoted to the history of the horror film, the popular vision of Frankenstein prevailed. Even those who have never seen the original film generally know the typical scene: The mad doctor and his assistant, amidst giant apparatus, bring the monster to life with an electric spark. As the monster opens his eyes, the doctor shouts, “It’s alive!”

The 1931 production, starring Boris Karloff, was the first and most famous portrayal of this type. In the film, the monster, a hideous brute with spikes protruding from his neck, lacked any form of compassion. After escaping from the lab, where he had been assembled from various corpse parts, he encountered a young girl. After befriending the child, he thoughtlessly tossed her into a lake. The monster was then pursued by angry villagers, until meeting a final, violent end at a burning windmill. His maker, Dr. Frankenstein, barely survived the climatic struggle with his creation.

A criminal brain (Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine)Not all of the images from the 1931 production of Frankenstein were imagined. In the film, the monster’s violent behavior resulted from the use of a “criminal” brain. The monster’s brain, stolen from a laboratory from Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz, was severely deformed.

Today, the idea that brain shape relates to criminal pathology may seem outlandish; but in the early 20th century such views were prevalent in American culture. One of the panels at the Frankenstein exhibit discussed this oft-forgotten corner of history, showing a poster comparing deformed “criminal” brains with “normal” brains. Beneath the “criminal” examples were stirring labels such as “alcoholic vagrant; brain narrow; simple; mother died insane” or “sex pervert, vagrant; brain broad short anomalous… goiter; parents unknown” (Lerderer.)

A particularly memorable photograph in the same section gave recommendations for breeding practices. At a 1920 exhibition in Kansas, patrons were discouraged from having children who could potentially be mentally ill or criminally insane. A sign with flashing lights suggested that America needs “less of these” (babies born which might go insane or end up in jail) and “more of these” (normal babies, able to do “creative work” and “fit for leadership”) (Lerderer.)Some people are born to be a burden (Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)

In addition to subtly encouraging eugenics, the classic cinematic versions of Frankenstein also reinforced the traditional “mad scientist” image. The Dr. Frankenstein of the classic screen scuttled about the laboratory, connecting tubes of various smoking liquids. Author Christopher Frayling recently noted that some modern scientists, such as Einstein and Stephen Hawking, may have added to this perception. Even so, the negative stereotypes of the horror film industry, as he suggests in his new book, The Mad, the Bad, and the Dangerous: The Scientist and the Cinema have added to the general public’s sense of apprehension towards science.

Was Mary Shelly trying to discourage science and technology in her novel, or was this   Hollywood’s invention? One corner of the exhibit, devoted to the author’s life and influences, suggested the young author was addressing more personal issues. Frankenstein was written during a vacation to Geneva, where Mary, her husband (poet Percy Shelly,) Lord Byron, and John Polidori (who helped popularize the vampire myth) were trapped at the lake by stormy weather.Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton (Courtesy of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

(On a side note, the storm trapping the 1916 party was likely caused by ash from the eruption of the Indonesian volcano, Tambora, a year earlier. Coincidentally, Benjamin Franklin, who was considered Shelly’s inspiration for Dr. Frankenstein’s name and character, was the first scientist to make a connection between volcanic eruptions and the climate.) 

With little entertainment, the group held a contest to see who could write the most terrifying tale. While the contest was intended to be a competition between Percy Shelly and Lord Byron, sales records over the last century indicate that Mary Shelly was the true winner.

After some struggle for inspiration, Shelley decided to draw on her personal experiences. A year earlier, Shelley lost her first child shortly after giving birth. In her diary, she wrote, “I dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby” (Lederer.) Mary, who eloped to the already married Percy at a young age, spent much of her life traveling, and faced the loss of a number of children. In her writing, she focused on the themes of loss and abandonment, possibly expressing guilt for her irresponsible lifestyle.
 
The overarching theme of irresponsibility was suggested in the subtitle of Shelley’s novel, “The Modern Prometheus.” In both the classic myth of Prometheus, and the story of Frankenstein, man was given a divine power, only to abuse it and face eternal punishment. In the novel, the doctor, troubled at the loss of his mother, who died while giving birth, searched vainly for an alternative to death. He traveled far from home to attend school, hoping to learn the secret of life. Discouraged by the establishment, he was forced to turn to a hidden laboratory to complete his research. Eventually, he solved the enigma, and, without the assistance of any Fritzes or deformed brain matter, assembled his creation.

As soon as Dr. Frankenstein brought the creature to life, however, he ran, driven insane by questions of his motive. “I had worked hard for nearly two years,” he said, “for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body…. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Shelley 35.) While the doctor returned to his family, the abandoned creature was left to wander the countryside alone, rejected by everyone he met.

During the course of their separation, the monster learned to speak and read. While clandestinely observing a family in the woods, he was touched by tender human emotions, such as love. Shortly after he found joy, however, he saw how disfigured he was. Discovering the journal of his creator, he realized the doctor was responsible for his life, as well as his hideous nature. The doctor was therefore responsible for the dashing of his hopes to experiencing love firsthand. Bitter, the monster sought revenge against his creator, eventually killing everyone he held dear. In Shelley’s novel, by dabbling with nature, without compassion for his creation, the doctor discovered that he was the true monster.

Visible human male; visible human femaleAre modern scientists in danger of creating a modern Frankenstein? A prominent area of the Frankenstein exhibit highlighted the work of modern geneticists. One section focused on the completion of the Human Genome Project, while another focused on recent experiments in cloning. Here, two life-size figures stood out, showing the detail that can now be seen in the human body. The caption described the process used for the images, reminiscent of science fiction: thin slices of two cadavers, one male and one female, were photographed and assembled by computer, to give a complete, visible picture of the interior of the human body.

With such technology at hand, we may wish turn to Shelley’s Promethean myth for answers; but which version? Can the moral lessons of the novel be combined with the stereotypes presented in classic film? One of the movies included in the film series at the Boulder Library made such an attempt.

Robert Dinero as Frankenstein's creation in the 1994 film, The 1994 version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, featured Robert de Niro as the monster. This movie used elements from the classic film-noir genre, such as a lab filled with giant brass tubes and bubbling fluids, shot at sketchy angles, but also attempted to stay true to Shelley’s original novel. For instance, Branagh was able to recreate the emotions of the monster’s encounter with the family in the woods, but also included a slapstick scene in which the doctor and his creation repeatedly slip in a puddle of alleged amniotic fluid.

The combination of these themes made for a rather awkward production. The separate views presented are distinct: we either revel in our fears of the unknown, delighting in our fright as we do at the cinema, or we take the issues seriously, and face them for real. Will we soon be gawking at the scene of a scientific accident, or will we be ready to accept responsibility when necessary?

As a result of the fears surrounding genetics, many legislators are reluctant to address the issues. If lawmakers neglect the issue, are we leaving ethical decisions up to those who conduct the research? Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins Institute explained the issue in his book, Our Posthuman Future. “The politics of biotechnology does not fall into familiar political categories,” he writes. “[I]f one is a conservative Republican or a left-wing Social Democrat, it is not immediately obvious how one should vote on a bill to permit so-called therapeutic cloning or stem cell research.”

Fukuyama suggested that the pace of technological change indicates that it is time to deal with these issues. “If legislators in democratic societies do not face up to their responsibilities,” he warns, “other institutions and actors will make the decisions for them” (Fukuyama, 211.) Responsibility falls not only in the hands of researchers and legislators, but also to the tax-paying, voting public. If we expect to benefit from technology, in the form of longevity and health, we should support the technology by encouraging advancement with proper guidelines, rather than embracing negative stereotypes and misplaced fears.

As seen in the ethical misconduct by Woo Suk Hwang in South Korea, monstrous issues have already begun to surface. It is clear that if researchers cannot do work within proper guidelines, they should not be doing the work. (Hwang could have taken a note from Dr. Frankenstein, who showed how badly this can go.) However, one person’s mistakes should not prevent future research. On the other hand, we should learn from them, encouraging improvement. Perhaps, if Dr. Frankenstein had been encouraged in his work, rather than shunned in his own school, he would have taken more responsibility.

If we continue to discourage genetic research as being wholly unethical, only those researchers willing to compromise their ethics will conduct the research. They will inevitably be irresponsible. If we continue to embrace our fears, banning cloning in the US, we may be asking for an American underground version of Dr. Hwang to be more like Dr. Frankenstein. It is time to face our fears, so if we dabble with nature, we are prepared to take responsibility for our creations. For, as Shelley’s tale warns, no matter which path we choose in genetic research, if we neglect responsibility for that which we create, we will be the monsters.

“Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature” is a traveling exhibition, and has been showing at the Lafayette Public Library since January 13th, and will stay through February 24, 2006. For more information, please visit: www.cityoflafayette.com/library 

Sources
“Brains of Criminals.” (1920s Photograph.) U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bethesda, MD., 2002.
Dirks, Tim. “Greatest Films: Frankenstein (1931)” (Movie Poster.) Filmsite, 2005: http://www.filmsite.org/fran.html
Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.  New York, NY: Picador, 2002.
“Flashing light sign used with first exhibit at Fitter Families Contest.” (1920 Photograph.) American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, PA., 2005: http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/guides/eugenics.htm
Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad, and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema. New York, NY: Reaktion, 2005.
Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Boris Karloff. Universal, 1931: www.mnfilmarts.org/screenshots/Frankenstein.jpg
Gruselig. “Robert de Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” (Photograph.) Der Spiegel. Hamburg, Germany: http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/kino/0,1518,grossbild-284148-261195,00.html
Harpp, Karen. “Ask the experts: Geology: How do volcanoes affect world climate?” Scientific American. October, 2005:  http://www.sciam.com/askexpert_question.cfm?articleID=000D4121-91C5-1CD1-B4A8809EC588EEDF&catID=3&chanID=sa005
Lederer, Susan E. (curator.) “Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature.” Traveling Exhibition. Developed by the National Library of Medicine in collaboration with the American Library Association, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. November 2005. (All photographs are from program pamphlet unless otherwise noted.): http://www.boulder.lib.co.us/calendar/frankenstein/index.html
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Robert de Niro. WGA., 1994.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Unabridged. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.

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