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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Retrospective Reading: Frankenstein and the Embryology Debate

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I recently presented a conference paper on science fiction, considering the theoretical problems of reading retrospectively, after its one-time futuristic visions have now been technologically realised. In one of the examples I used, contemporary reviewers of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds were impressed by Wells' evolutionary imaginings of how the Martians might look, and how they might be defeated by bacteria; they enjoyed his novel presentation of heat rays, tripods and flying machines. But they do not seem to have focused much on how the invasion narrative was intended as a critique of Victorian society in his present, showing how quickly the veneer of civilisation would drop away under the stress of war. However, modern readings now emphasise the novel as a social satire, an approach given added plausibility since World War One did indeed bring Victorian civilisation almost to its knees, through the use of poison gas and flying machines.

In a lecture presented to the Royal Institution entitled "The Discovery of the Future," Wells ascribed to creative writers (himself included) the ability to discern the future with a near empirical accuracy. Like a palaeontologist who by piecing together fossil fragments is able to reconstruct prehistory, the creative writer is able to assimilate the ideas of the present and project a reliable scientific vision of the future. Whilst in the postmodern age of textual relativism such a view seems always suspect, Wells is not unique in holding this perspective on science fiction, though he is rare in the objective force of his argument. Wells would, I suspect, have got on with the recently departed Arthur C. Clarke, who similarly argued in his essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination" that good science fiction should be grounded in extrapolations of present reality, unless it was to become mere fantasy.

However, it seems clear that science fiction does not have any strong claim to predictive validity. Any judgements it makes are given empirical weight only with the benefit of hindsight. In order to seem predictive, science fiction only needs to be lucky once. Star Trek's communicator device seems not unlike a contemporary mobile phone, and so Star Trek is taken as a good predictor of the future. But where are the holodecks, warp drives, and voice-activated computers? Certainly, all these sorts of things will come to pass eventually - virtual reality, space travel, intelligent-type machines. But in reality they will come about not because Star Trek made them so, and not primarily because science has been inspired by the series, but because when they come to be we will recollect the fiction and structure the contemporary technologies according to its earlier, fictional versions. If science fiction seems to present an accurate picture of the future, it is principally because fiction is always going to be reframed in terms of the present.

The reason for this excursion into literary theory of science fiction is that the recent debate about the embryology bill currently being legislated in Parliament has also employed a science fiction text in considering the ethics of the present. The bill would allow scientists to create human-animal embryos for research purposes. Cytoplasmic embryos containing 99.9% human DNA, and the remainder animal, would be grown in the lab for a few days, and then be harvested for stem cells to be used in research into cognitive degeneration diseases: Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Motor Neurone Disease.

However, whilst the scientific research that would be allowed by the legislation is specific and with particular medical benefits, the reaction to the bill - orchestrated by the Catholic church - has been anything but subtle. Particularly grabbing the headlines was the Easter sermon of the Archbishop of Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith O'Brian. He polemicised:

This bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life.

In some other European countries one could be jailed for doing what we intend to make legal.

I can say that the government has no mandate for these changes: they were not in any election manifesto, nor do they enjoy widespread public support.

The opposite has indeed taken place - the time allowed for debate in parliament and indeed in the country at large has been shockingly short.

One might say that in our country we are about to have a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion - without many people really being aware of what is going on.

Many excuses are being made for this present legislation, particularly that cures will soon be found for various diseases which afflict mankind through this legislation.

My objection to the Cardinal's squeals of objection lies in his use of the terms "monstrous" and "Frankenstein" as a catch-all phrase designed to prevent engagement with his argument on any logical grounds, instead invoking the spirit of innate disgust. Given my introductory discussion about the retrospectivity of science fiction, what happens when Frankenstein is introduced into a debate like this (as it has previously been in relation to Genetic Modification, in the form of "Frankenfoods")?

The use of the "Frankenstein" metaphor disrupts logic. It prevents readers and listeners from considering what the science's future really is - immediate and specialised, to grow cells for a few days in a petri dish - and expands it in a limitless bubble of blind ambition. As we inevitably reconstruct the present science in terms of the past text, it seems as if Mary Shelley definitively predicted this would happen, that scientists in a laboratory in Newcastle would try to tamper with life in a grand way (they are, objectively, not doing this - simply manipulating a few cells not whole human bodies). Therefore, any other such claims made in the fiction take on empirical weight as the definition of where science will inevitably, with absolute predictive truth as envisaged by Wells, want to travel morally in its discovery of the future.

Like a giant and unilateral weight, the fiction text is dropped on the science to make a number of associative predictions. The Cardinal invokes sexual deviancy: "The norm has always been that children have been born as the result of the love of man and woman in the unity of a marriage." Frankenstein indeed insinuates a slightly incestuous relationship between Victor and Elizabeth; because Frankenstein was right about scientists tampering with life, it must also be right about the horror of a society in which heterosexual monogamy is no longer an automatic given. The Cardinal challenges us to allow life "to triumph over these deathly proposals"; given the connection with Frankenstein, the implication is that if we fail to prevent the legislation we are performing the moral equivalent to Frankenstein's graveyard robberies. Because one aspect of Frankenstein's legacy appears to have come true, so must all the other aspects of the text.

Rereading Frankenstein, though, as I currently am, I am struck by how much more nuanced it is. Frankenstein is far from pure evil, which is why he is such a compelling and interesting figure. His ambition is directed to the best of purposes, to "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption." This is a reading which would also apply to the scientists, but the focus in the Cardinal's argument is not on them personally, but on the hideous objects - hybrids of life and technology - which they create. Does the Cardinal not think that scientists doing the work have themselves weighed carefully and personally the ethics of doing this research against the ethics of failing to pursue research which will almost certain provide great medical benefits? In the novel there are numerous cases of ambition and intent for far less admirable and transient ends than those of Frankenstein - financial gain, sexual desire - even if Victor's methods are the most distasteful. Victor Frankenstein may confront the reader with a moral case, but he is far from simply morally corrupt. Frankenstein is a dialogue in the life sciences, not a diagram against it. It is also a science - in the broadest sense - of human life, human nature, human passion and desire, and where the limits of the desire that drives civilisation should be curtailed.

Frankenstein is a wholly appropriate text to bring to the debate about embryological research, and the biosciences generally. Its nuances make it an ideal philosophical abstraction by which we can think through the ethics of science in a general sense, outside of the frantic contexts of our current time. However, it needs to be done in a way that treats the narrative with the complexity it deserves, not just extracting those elements which seem to mesh, with absolute predictive force, with where science is in the present. Constructing the present in terms of the past is a dangerous business, because we are doomed to carry out only the lessons from it which stand out most starkly. Those who oppose embryological research need to read carefully the fictional texts that they choose to use as empirical evidence; they should not unreflexively extract those moments that seem to suit their singular ends so well in the present.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:33 pm

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