I allude to the posting of a couple of days ago about the summerless year and the little threesome of Romantic poets in 1816 challenging each other to write scary stories. Mary Shelley wrote the terrifying and captivating story of Frankenstein. This poor unfortunate creature, made from parts of dead bodies and brought to life with electricity fascinated my childish imagination – and ever since, from Boris Karloff from 1931, to the corny Hammer horror films of the 1970’s to a rather good production of the 1990’s.
The whole story is one of playing God, superseding humanity with science and arrogant manipulation of life itself. We now know that electricity is not life, and that “galvanising” a dead limb does not give life, but simply makes the muscles contract and move. We now have the spectres of genetic engineering and cloning, heralds of a post-humanist and trans-humanist world. I have every chance of not living long enough to see it in its full horror.
They have gone a step even further. Making people from scratch? No need for parents when you have the right chemicals. There is a secret project to create a synthetic human genome.
I ask many questions. First of all, would it work? Would the product be a biological organism with its own life and what we call a soul and spirit? Those of us who have read and watched Frankenstein are divided between the monster being a human being or some kind of malevolent machine. The creature’s various gestures of humanity in Mrs Shelley’s story lead us to believe in a being with a soul. The same question comes up with cloning and genetic manipulation. A possible opinion is that cloned humans would be as human and endowed with a spiritual soul as anyone born via two parents or conceived in vitro.
Another spectre is that of humans enhanced by machines or non-organic material. False teeth and prosthetic limbs have been around for a long time, as have pacemakers and metal replacements for arthritic joints. I have two pieces of plastic gauze in my body which a surgeon used to repair two hernias. All those devices are generally accepted in medicine and surgery and have distinctly improved the lives of those who need them. Science fiction evokes the possibility of futuristic computers planted in the human brain to enhance our mental performance. The idea of bionic humans has been on the go for a long time. Electronic devices can help people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Where is the dividing line between modern medicine and “playing God”?
My intuition would tell me that the difference is between helping incurably ill or disabled people using technology and making man what he is not. Even worse is the idea of creating humans or “synthetic humans” outside human reproduction. Cloning is monstrous, though it can be argued that nature occasionally clones, as in the case of identical twins. A Star Wars film shows a planet used as a clone farm and the products bred for the Empire’s army. The film The Boys from Brazil portrays Dr Josef Mengele as having escaped justice in 1945 and established a laboratory in South America to make clones of Hitler. In the film, a scientist explains the process to Ezra Liebermann, the fictional character based on Simon Weisenthal.
As the western world sloughs off Judeo-Christian principles of the sacredness of life and the dignity of the human person, we can begin to be very afraid of what lies in store in the future. This Angst has been with us since Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus from two hundred years ago. Technology evolves at a dizzying rate, but man seems just as morally bestial. This is certainly the reason why individual humans have a short life-span. I certainly would not want to see what might exist a hundred years after my death! It would either be a utopian or dystopian vision from science fiction or a black, charred and desolate planet without life.
Why want to create “perfect” humans? Wasn’t this kind of stuff supposed to have been done away with when the Nazis were defeated? Evidently, trans-humanism and eugenics were not specific to Hitler’s ideology. From Mary Shelley to Star Wars, we are faced with the fact that man is at his most ingenious when devising weapons of war and machines of destruction.
Some scattered thoughts, in response…
An impressive parable-like story (to my way of thinking) is The Birth Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne (about 7 years younger than Mary Shelley).
Another horrific ‘thing’ being worked on at the moment is porcine-human chimeras.
I loved the book Frankenstein as a boy, was surprised to find it unreadable as an undergraduate – and ought to try again! The sub-title attracts me strongly – or, The Modern Prometheus – the Greek myth can be read in various ways, but the thought I’d like to check by rereading the novel is, of being wrong-headedly insistently well-meaning (where there is not only ignorance, but evasiveness in that wrong-headedness).
Karel Čapek has been a famous name all my life, whose works I have never got round to reading – I’m very glad to have caught up with The War with the Newts recently, and really must go on to R.U.R. (and see, on looking him up, how much more prolific he was than I realized: how inviting – though probably a lot of ultimately strong, sobering stuff).