January 19, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Frankenstein is about US not STEM

I was reading my tweets the other day and came across this one: “I am reading the octopus book. My main hobby now is looking up from the octopus book in order to share octofacts.” This is popular science (communication) at its best.* It also made me think. If readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) had had access to twitter what would they have tweeted? Would they have said: “I am reading the Frankenstein book. My main hobby now is looking up from the Frankenstein book in order to share Frankenfacts”, or indeed, “Frankenscience”?

My guess is they wouldn’t. This is because Frankenstein is not about science, or more importantly is not about flawed science. Frankenstein is about flawed ‘creatures’. This for example is a description of Victor Frankenstein, not the monster: “I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness towards him or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up” (p. 12 in the MIT edition, see below).

Editing Frankenstein for STEM students

All this is a preamble to a few words I want to say about a new edition by MIT Press of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, published on the 200th anniversary of the first edition.

This is a special edition “for scientists, engineers and creators of all kind”, in particular for STEM students. It is edited by David Guston (director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State), Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, with an Introduction by Charles E. Robinson, essays by Josephine Johnston, Cory Doctorow, Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord, Alfred Nordmann, Elizabeth Bear, Anne K. Mellor, and Heather E. Douglas. It contains suggestions for further reading, a list of discussion questions and it has been annotated throughout by a whole raft of scholars, mainly from Arizona State University.

As Richard Holmes says in a recent essay and review: “It is interesting to see which parts of the novel attract the most attention from these scientific commentators. The greatest clusters of footnotes seem to gather beneath the two early chapters (3 and 4) describing Frankenstein’s scientific education at Ingolstadt and his ‘workshop of filthy creation’ (no less than twenty-two footnotes in fourteen pages). This sometimes risks becoming more of a cacophony than a conversation—Egyptian mummies, René Descartes, Scottish grave-robbing, Nazi doctors, Craig Venter and the genome project all crowd in. Yet more calmly distributed can be found excellent short pieces on robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, Luigi Galvani and the history of electricity, bioethics, regenerative medicine, and of course on the whole possibility of extending human capacities.”

This gives a flavour of the focus of the book which embeds Frankenstein in the pre-occupations of STS scholars with emerging technologies, from synthetic biology and genome editing to climate engineering and ubiquitous computing. The book is part of a huge project carried out at Arizona State University, namely the Bicentennial Frankenstein Project.

I ordered this book as soon as I became aware of it and read it over Christmas. I had just written an overview of an essay on science, culture and ethics by a working synthetic biologist in which I briefly reflected on a new deficit model. When I read this book, I thought I had found a good example of this model at work. According to this model, scientists have a deficit in moral reasoning and ethical reflection that needs to be filled through education and information. Only then can they be trusted to think responsibly about science and technology and to anticipate the harms it can do. Enter Frankenstein!

Frankenstein; or the Modern Deficit Model

Let me now give you some examples of passages that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Here is what the Editor’s Preface says about the annotations for example: “We wanted our version to be unique in bringing together the primary text and annotations and short essays by a diverse group of experts. This juxtaposition will allow STEM readers to explore critical understandings of the ethical and societal dimensions of scientific inquire” (pp. xii-xiii). The focus is on making STEM people aware of the relation between scientific creativity and responsibility. So far so good. However, on p. xvii of the Preface we read: “That fecundity [of interpretations of the novel] reveals something important about this story: Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed, and scientists and engineers should not be afraid of it.” That made me sigh a bit and think: Oh, those poor frightened scientists and engineers!

The Introduction states quite clearly that this book has been created for the express purpose of “educating” STEM students (p. xxiii). Charles Robinson claims that until now Frankenstein “has been primarily edited and published for and read by humanities students” (p. xxiii). I have been teaching science, culture and language to STEM students for some years. In the lecture in which I deal with Frankenstein I always ask who has heard about Frankenstein (many hands go up) and who has actually read the novel (surprisingly, quite a few hands go up)….I would like to compare that sometime to an audience of social science students.

On p. xxviii Robinson talks not only about Frankenstein but also about Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus who (and I didn’t know that) “is associated with all the evil released from Pandora’s box: fulfilling that myth have been the technocratic decisions leading to the pesticide DDT, the atom bomb, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the British government’s permission… that a stem cell scientist could perform genome editing despite objections that ethical issues were being ignored.” Philip Ball discusses this stream of accusations in some detail and ends by saying: “Without a doubt, Frankenstein asks challenging questions about research like this that touches on interventions in human life. But to suggest that it warns us to abjure such work doesn’t do Mary Shelley justice.”

The essays that follow the annotated novel are really interesting and I learned a lot from them. However, even here we find some rather uncomfortable remarks about science and scientists, such as “the novel chronicles the failure to anticipate the harm that can result from raw, unchecked scientific curiosity” (p. 201). I wonder what the world would be like today if we had only had ‘checked’ scientific curiosity! Strangely, we read a bit later about the “intrinsic value of new knowledge”, “valuable not only because it can benefit others or result in glory” (p. 205). Overall, Johnston sees Frankenstein as “a cautionary tale with a serious message about scientists’ and engineers’ social responsibility” (p. 205), while the next essay by Doctorow interprets it as “a story about technology mastering humans rather than serving them” (p. 210). I wondered: Isn’t Frankenstein rather about humans not being able to master the art of being human?

This comes across a bit in Maienschein and MacCord’s essay where they write: “The point here is that the moral of Mary’s tale is not simply restrictive – that is, ‘do not mess with creating life’ – but also instructive – that is, be aware that organisms, especially humans, require time and particular stimuli to realize fully the norms of their species” (p. 219).

Nordmann’s essay, by contrast, made me a bit weary again, as it seems to perpetuate some strange preconceptions about science. He says that “the world of sciences is a disenchanted world with causal knowledge about the arrangements of facts” (p. 224). I bet scientists would find such a comment rather arrogant and alienating. Later this view of the scientist as a describer of a disenchanted world is opposed to the technoscientist who tries to actually make things, indeed ‘control’ things (p. 223). Technoscientists are the potential Victors in this view of science. “The dispassionate scientist describes things peacefully as they are, no matter what good or ill they signify. But there is no such tranquility when Victor or one of our contemporary technoscientists seeks to perfect his or her powers on ‘a dreary night of November’” (p. 228)….

I really liked Bear’s essay, which echoes some of my own thoughts: “He [Victor] undertakes his research in a spirit of self-aggrandizement: it’s not knowledge he seeks but power and renown, and this ambition leads him to become far more of a monster than the creature he creates.” And she doesn’t say: all scientist are self-aggrandising egomaniacs!

Mellor’s essay by contrast posits modern science as mainly bad and dangerous. She says that Frankenstein “implicitly endorses instead a science that seeks to understand rather than to change the workings of Mother Nature”. Mellor sees this bad type of science (which wants to change things) exemplified in germ-line engineering through CRISPR-Cas9 and “the current scientific possibility of producing what Victor Frankenstein dreamed of, a superhuman ‘designer baby’” (p. 244). I think, like Victor, modern scientists want to “banish disease”, rather than create designer babies. Furthermore, unlike Victor, they not really keen on the “raising of ghosts or devils” (p. 23)!

The final essay by Douglas talks about the allure of ‘technical sweetness’ and says: “Scientists whose work suddenly raises the red flag – for example those whose work gets labeled ‘potential dual-use research of concern’ – often balk at the imposition of restrictions and the requirement of deeper reflection.” (p. 241) No evidence for this assertion is provided. Let’s just look at two quotes from genome pioneers:

Here is Jennifer Doudna: “Another conundrum with genome editing is the potential ecological consequence of coupling the technology with systems like gene drives, which can propagate changes rapidly in the environment. It’s not entirely clear how we should go about assessing unintended consequences. There have already been a few cases when a journal has contacted me about manuscripts under review to ask my opinion about dual-use concerns on genome-editing work. This is clearly a work in progress.”

And here is Craig Venter: “Unlike the Frankenstein character, who initially didn’t consider how his work might go wrong, Venter says he recognizes that editing and rewriting genomes could ‘contaminate the world’ and cause unintended harm. ‘I think we need to be very smart about when we do it and how we do it,’ he says. He thinks Shelley ‘would highly appreciate’ his work.”


In conclusion, we have to ask: What have the editors of this new edition of Frankenstein created? And have they created it responsibly? Have they anticipated the impact of their book on its readers? Have they reflected on the consequences of unleashing it on the public? Their intentions have been good, but the result is in parts rather condescending and patronising. A little bit more thought would have shown them that this book tends (as Richard Holmes writes) “to treat the novel as a machine to think with, rather than as an imaginative experience to explore”. Perhaps they thought a machine would be a good thing for STEM readers?…

I agree with Philipp Ball who said: “Frankenstein, after all, was never intended as an instruction manual to the bioethicist or the engineer. It is better seen as a catalyst, even an agent provocateur, that lures us into disclosing what we truly hope and fear.”

Frankenstein is about US not ‘STEM’. As Fiona Sampson, Mary Shelley’s most recent biographer, wrote in an article for The Guardian last week: “Frankenstein identifies the mismatch between human experience and what we are expected to become as technology and science advance.” (“The Creation Myth”, The Guardian, 13 January, p. 3)

Science and society should attempt to do this ‘becoming’ together, not apart.

*Footnote added 9 April 2018: A book by Alice Roberts provoked a similar reaction on twitter: Emily Dude wrote: “Feeling like a kid enjoying science class at primary school again reading by – added bonus annoying the other half by shouting every 5 minutes ‘wow, listen to this, it’s amazing!'” I am now collecting these tweets!

Notes added 9 February 2018:

For similar assessments see Philip Ball, Jon Turney, Jill Lepore

Added: 15 March: See also Kat Eschner’s review for the Smithonian

Image: Editions of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, displayed at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, as part of Giorgio Sadotti‘s artwork THIS THIS MONSTER THIS THINGS; Andy Mabbett – Own work



Posted in public engagement with scienceresponsible innovationScience Communication