Gothic Science

Over the past few weeks, the BBC has been running what it has called its 'Gothic Season', covering a range of subjections from art to architecture to literature. Several of these Gothic Season programmes have either focused on or included mention of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. By coincidence, this was also the book chosen for the first meeting of the Science & Society book group, which took place on 29th October.


Frankenstein is widely credited with being the first science fiction novel, although some may think of it more as a gothic horror. Several themes relating to science run through the novel, notably the potential dangers of science and an accompanying fear of science and what it might produce, and a scientific arrogance and disdain for others, and how this can lead to the scientist's downfall. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in 1816, and considering the world in which she lived, it is no wonder that these themes appear in the novel. In 1791, Luigi Galvani had published the results of his work on using electricity to stimulate the muscles of dead animals (making frogs' legs 'jump' and other similar experiments), and others had been building on his work since. There was also a growing interest in the science of anatomy, and the use of dissection in medical schools. Philosophers were asking questions about the nature of human consciousness, and what exactly it means to be human. All of these ideas come together in Frankenstein.


Interestingly, there is also a religious dimension to the work. Several passages echo biblical narratives, particularly those of Genesis (the creation of man in Genesis 2; God's regret at creating humanity in Genesis 6; the creature's need for a female counterpart also echoes Genesis 2). The creature's declaration that, if given a female companion, he will take her to a remote area where there are no human beings and live in peace expresses a longing for a return to Eden. In using science to bring about a new creation, the scientist has taken the place of God.


Ultimately, what we have is a story about responsibility. Victor Frankenstein created a creature that he should have loved and helped to flourish, but instead hated and rejected, with terrible consequences. The questions this raises for science are, "what is a scientist's responsibility with respect to his research? Is he responsible for the impact his 'creations' have in and on the world?" Frankenstein also raises questions about human arrogance versus humility - we are arrogant enough to think that we can discover the secrets of the universe, and should be free to do whatever science makes possible. Are we also humble enough to recognise the limitations of our knowledge and foresight, and to accept there may be consequences to our actions?

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