The Modern Prometheus Turns 200

With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe . . .

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrates its bicentennial this month, her story of “The Modern Prometheus” first published on January 1, 1818. Frankenstein is a central text in gothic literature and the science fiction genre, and the genesis of the novel — the storm-tossed night of ghost tales that Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron shared while staying in the Swiss Alps — is central to Romantic legend. Many scholars also note that Shelley herself regarded her first novel, conceived and written while still a teenager, as a life-defining event. In her late forties, her husband and Byron dead for two decades, Shelley returned to the shores of Lake Leman to gaze upon “the scenes among which I had lived, when first I stepped out from childhood into life” and to feel that “all my life was but an unreal phantasmagoria — the shades that gathered round that scene were the realities . . . ”

As reflected in the Chapter Five passage excerpted above, Shelley’s story turns upon the tension between creation and catastrophe, with Victor Frankenstein’s successful “spark of being” immediately regretted and inexorably revenged. In honor of the bicentennial, the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University has published a new edition of Frankenstein that is “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.” Given the wide spectrum of radical new science on the horizon, the editors hope “to ignite new conversations about creativity and responsibility”:

As we anticipate the third century beyond Mary’s vision, we open the door to what may be the most pervasive scientific and technical endeavors yet: the creation and design of living organisms through techniques of synthetic biology, the creation and design of planetary-scale systems through climate engineering, and the integration of computational power and processes into nearly every sector of global society and even the fibers of our being.

In “I Created a Monster! (And So Can You),” one of the essays accompanying the new Frankenstein edition, sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow cites the generational rules devised by Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy et al.) to remind us that every age has its “Frankenscience” fears:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

But today’s runaway pace of scientific change has set off alarm bells in many areas. In A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, biochemists Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg tell the exciting, cautionary story of the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR. Doudna, part of the team that designed CRISPR, regards it as a swelling scientific tsunami. “Practically overnight,” says Doudna in her Prologue, “we have found ourselves on the cusp of a new age in genetic engineering and biological mastery,” and we are running out of time to understand how to deal with it ethically and responsibly:

The issue is this: For the roughly one hundred thousand years of modern humans’ existence, the Homo sapiens genome has been shaped by the twin forces of random mutation and natural selection. Now, for the first time ever, we possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations — in essence, to direct the evolution of our own species . . . And it forces us to confront an impossible but essential question: What will we, a fractious species whose members can’t agree on much, choose to do with this awesome power?

In Scienceblind, developmental psychologist Andrew Shtulman says that far too often our conversations about science and our subsequent choices — what to eat and whether to vaccinate, never mind if to genetically engineer the species — is based on error-prone intuition, early-acquired assumptions and minimal information. For example, says Shtulman, most of us suffer from “widespread genetic illiteracy”:

In one recent survey, 82 percent of Americans supported mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering, but nearly the same percent (80 percent) also supported mandatory labels on “foods containing DNA.” If 80 percent of the American public doesn’t know that virtually all food contains DNA — as virtually all food comes from plants or animals — then what credence should be given to their opinions regarding genetically modified foods?