A detail of the inside cover art from the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Wikimedia Commons

Book Club: Frankenstein in the 21st Century

Frankenstein was unleashed on the literary world 200 years ago, but its message still has relevance to everything from gene editing to Facebook.

I’m Sarah Reisert, the Science History Institute’s awards program manager and organizer of the Institute book club. Our book club is an informal gathering of staff who have all read a common book (whether on the history of science, current science, or fiction related to science in some way), and we meet every two or three months to discuss it.

Our latest read was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, considered by many to be the very first science-fiction novel. Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, this classic story is a meditation on scientific ethics: How far is too far? Are there experiments we just shouldn’t do? What sort of responsibility do we owe our experiments? Responsibility to the world? It is one of my all-time favorite books, and it remains as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1818. The edition I read was the newly released version annotated for “Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds,” but you can read whichever version you have on hand.

In our book club discussion we talked about a number of contemporary situations where science and technology have entered an ethical grey zone. I had brought with me an article on the potential for human head transplants: where would China get a cadaver for the donor body, given its history of using executed prisoners as their body supply for transplants? Even if the process is a success, can you rightfully donate a body’s worth of functioning organs for a single head transplant when the organs separately might have saved five people?

What about parents who conceive a child to be a donor of some kind (such as for stem cells or bone marrow) for a desperately ill older sibling? Much like the companion that Frankenstein’s creature craves, those children (called savior siblings) have lives planned out for them for which they had no say. How do you balance the responsibility to care for the first child with a responsibility to care for the second?

What about CRISPR-Cas9? This gene-editing technology can target specific stretches of genetic code and edit DNA at precise locations, allowing researchers to permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms and (perhaps someday) make it possible to correct mutations at precise locations in the human genome in order to treat genetic causes of disease. Sounds great, right? Fixing disease at the source! But what if people begin using it to ensure their babies have blue eyes or grow up to be tall? What about creating pigs with organs that can be transplanted into humans? Is it more ethical not to go down that path at all, or is it necessary to help people who need those organs when the human donor list is woefully insufficient to meet that need?

In the technology arena look at Facebook. It’s recently been in the news for the laissez-faire way in which it handles data, not only of its users but also of people who don’t use the service at all. This data may have been used by ill-intentioned parties to manipulate people and influence the results of a national election, yet in the past Facebook has made only half-hearted attempts to protect its users. The company doesn’t even care to step in to stop the spread of blatantly untrue news stories, which is causing trouble in a lot of places but most terribly in Myanmar. Isn’t Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, much like Victor Frankenstein, who created something he cannot control and does not even care to try?

Those are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, but if you want even more questions, here are a few of our official discussion questions for you to mull over:

  1. The editor’s preface in the annotated-for-scientists edition starts off with, “No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein.” Do you agree? Are there other works you might suggest in its place?
  2. One of the footnotes in the annotated-for-scientists edition reads, “Victor’s grave robbing and torture of animals raise the following questions: Do the ends ever justify the means in research or in other areas? If useful data can be gathered through unethical means, should they? And if such data are so gathered, ought they to form part of the evidence base of science? Analysis of the history of human experimentation in the 20th century comes solidly down on the negative answer. … For a time, the ethical debate about human embryonic stem cell research focused on whether medical science should be permitted to progress based on research that was putatively unethical in its destruction of human embryos to derive pluripotent stem cells. Is such research always spoiled as the fruit of evil exploits?”
  3. How is science portrayed in Frankenstein? Consider that this book was written in the midst of vast scientific advances and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Are we living in a similar period today? What contemporary issues seem based on Frankenstein’s monster–type fears (e.g., Frankenfoods)? Can you think of any recent scientific or medical discoveries that could lead to a horrific story such as this, or modern scientists who could be considered Frankensteinesque in their pursuit of knowledge?

Coming up next for our book club: Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts!

P.S.: If you want to go further into depth with us about CRISPR-Cas9 technology and the scientific ethics problems inherent therein, save the following dates! On Thursday, October 11, 2018, we’ll be hosting a lunch with Katrine Bosley, president and CEO of Editas Medicine, a pharmaceutical company that aims to develop therapies based on CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. On Friday, November 16, 2018, the Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture will be delivered by Jennifer Doudna, geneticist and developer of CRISPR technology. Keep an eye on our website for more details as we get closer.

Sarah Reisert

is the Institute’s awards program manager.