Frankenstein: A novel every biologist should read

A conversation among colleagues somehow turned to the question of what novel every biologist should read at least once in their lives. I was severely disappointed that nobody thought of my immediate first choice, Mary Shelley‘s horror sci fi classic, Frankenstein.

I recommend reading Ruston’s Shelley and Vitality after finishing Frankenstein, as it gives the necessary background. The story of Frankenstein can roughly be split into two parts: the Creature living and learning outside the lab, and the Creature’s rampaging in the second half.

While both of these contain value to a biologist, it’s the addition of the thematic background, as explored in the relevant parts in Ruston’s book, that makes Frankenstein my number one choice. Back in 1817, Mary Shelley had been hanging around with surgeon Sir William Lawrence, who had held a series of famous debates against John Abernethy over vitalism. Lawrence advocated the need for materialistic thought and the unnecessity of vitalistic ideas when it comes to biology and especially the human brain, saying:

But examine the “mind”, the grand prerogative of man! Where is the “mind” of the foetus? Where is that of a child just born? Do we not see it actually built up before our eyes by the actions of the five external senses, and of the gradually developed inetrnal faculties? Do we not trace it advancing by a slow progress from infancy and childhood to the perfect expansion of its faculties on the adult […]

Such thinking influenced Mary Shelley, as one of the themes that is pervasive throughout the book is the nature of the Creature. It’s cobbled up from adult body parts that Victor Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with the idea that life can be re-animated, brings to life by a spark of electricity. Is it human because of the composition of its body? Does it have morality? Does it have a conscience, feelings, a “soul”?

In fact, the Creature has none of those – it has the body of an adult, but the brain of a child. And this is how we see him develop and grow during the first part of the book, after his escape from the lab. He was deeply impressed by the moon, but had no words to call it by. He wanted to mimic bird song, but didn’t know how. But internally, he kept accumulating ideas. Much like humanity itself, he learned to tame fire, then learned cooking, then learned reading. He learned about history and society and culture by listening in on the villagers, and thus ended up acquiring a working moral system.

This not only an accurate depiction of child development, it also tangentially brings up one of my pet themes in in zoology and animal behaviour: plasticity. I’m one of those who (over)emphasise the role of plasticity in most of biology (and very highly emphasise it in the case of humans), and the development of Frankenstein’s Creature is a reflection of this view. While his building blocks set the arena for his development outside of human society, it was the environment that shaped how he developed specifically. It was the environment that triggered him to go on rampages, and it was the environment that triggered his yearning for a mate. It’s a bit of a tenuous link, admittedly, but this is one of the lessons I feel one can get out of a reading of Frankenstein.

More important is what Turney emphasises in his 1998 book, Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. The Creature is a manifestation of general popular attitudes towards biotechnology – the fears and the hopes that we have in it, although now it’s more about genomic tinkering rather than bringing people back to life with a taser. In this context, the relevant theme of Frankenstein is the role of science and the scientist in society. When confronting him, the Creature calls Frankenstein his creator, and begs him to create a companion in exchange for living in the middle of nowhere. Frankenstein agrees, but is soon doubtful and destroys the female creature due to his fears that they will reproduce and that he will have unleashed a new breed of monster onto the Earth – he didn’t want that responsibility.

When he destroyed the Creature, what was he destroying? An abomination that should never have been done, or scientific ingenuity? Frankenstein himself compared himself to Lucifer, the Archangel who aspired to beat God, in his dying monologue… but does mention that such an experiment will be tried again (“I have myself been blasted in all my hopes […] Yet others may succeed”). Unlike the mad scientist archetype prevalent in pop culture, the Frankenstein of the novel was a Romantic ideal of scientist, doing things out of a hedonistic interest, more akin to an artist.

What I get out of this passage is that as scientists, we are bound to our curiosity. Whether we work with subatomic particles, with colourful chemicals, or with life, we will be doing experiments that are “heretic”, that push the boundaries of what may be socially acceptable. As John Rambo once said, “this is who we are, what we do”. Nowadays, we grapple with such issues using bioethics, but the tension will never go away. It’s exactly the same conundrum faced by physicists and engineers whose research can be co-opted for designing weapons (the physicists of the Manhattan Project had interesting things to say in this regard).

Frankenstein and his Creature personify this struggle by giving us the points of view of both the experimenter and his results. Frankenstein put an end to his project out of a sense of moral obligation, although he knew its repetition would be inevitable. The Creature is left, knowing full well that while his deeds would remain chronicled, he himself would fade into obscurity, just a data point in history.

As an experimental biologist, I’ve done some terrible things. In order to map out the circulatory system of a crab, I injected a plaster into its beating heart and waited for it to suffocate as its arteries all became blocked, then dissolved the body in concentrated acid. I’ve created flies with legs on their heads instead of antennae. I’ve kept headless cockroaches on leashes, and killed them just to make fake fossils. I’ve deprived countless nematodes of a free life by keeping them caged in a glass vials. All this for the sake of satisfying my own curiosity. We biologists are no different than Victor Frankenstein, no matter how many bioethical committee hoops we have to jump through.

For this reason, I recommend reading Frankenstein. It may not have the gritty realism of a scientist’s biography, but even as a fantastical novel, it does touch very close to home.

By the way, while some of the movies are outstanding, they are all different from the novel. So read the novel to get all this. In the movies, Frankenstein became a dumb Monster (thanks, Boris Karloff!), not the eloquent Creature who quotes Paradise Lost. Frankenstein became a mad scientist with a quirky assistant in a crazy lab, not the obsessive scientist working alone in a surgical chamber.

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