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200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

A teenage girl grieving the death of her infant daughter is sitting on the almost unbearably beautiful shore of a Swiss mountain lake. Her own mother, a pioneering feminist and political philosopher, has died of complications from childbirth exactly a month after bringing her into the world. Her philosopher father has cut her off for eloping to Europe with her lover — a struggling poet, whom she would marry six months later, after the suicide of his estranged first wife.

Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) is just shy of her nineteenth birthday. She and her lover — Percy Bysshe Shelley — are spending the summer with Percy’s best friend, the poet Lord Byron, whose wife has just left him and taken custody of their infant daughter, Ada Lovelace. One June evening, Lord Byron proposes that the downtrodden party amuse themselves by each coming up with a ghost story. What Mary dreams up would go on to become one of the world’s most visionary works of literature, strewn with abiding philosophical questions about creativity and responsibility, the limits and liabilities of science, and the moral dimensions of technological progress.

Mary Shelley

The year is 1816. Decades stand between her and the first working incandescent light bulb. It would be more than a century before the Milky Way is revealed as not the whole of the universe but one of innumerable galaxies in it. Photography is yet to be invented; the atom yet to be split; Neptune, penicillin, and DNA yet to be discovered; relativity theory and quantum mechanics yet to be conceived of. The very word scientist is yet to be coined (for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville).

Against this backdrop and its narrow parameters of knowledge barely imaginable to today’s vista of scientific understanding, Mary Shelley unleashed her imagination on Lord Byron’s challenge and began gestating what would be published eighteen months later, on the first day of 1818, as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Its message is as cautionary as it is irrepressibly optimistic. “The labours of men of genius,” this woman of genius writes, “however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Two hundred years later, Arizona State University launched The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project — a cross-disciplinary, multimedia endeavor to engage the people of today with the timeless issues of science, technology, and creative responsibility posed by Shelley’s searching intellect and imagination. As part of the celebration, MIT Press published Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (public library) — Shelley’s original 1818 manuscript, line-edited by the world’s leading expert on the text and accompanied by annotations and essays by prominent contemporary thinkers across science, technology, philosophy, ethics, feminism, and speculative fiction. What emerges is the most thrilling science-lensed reading of a literary classic since Lord Byron’s Don Juan annotated by Isaac Asimov.

Editors David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, who consider Shelley’s masterwork “a book that can encourage us to be both thoughtful and hopeful” and describe their edition as one intended “to enhance our collective understandings and to invent — intentionally — a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive,” write in the preface:

No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s remarkably enduring tale of creation and responsibility… In writing Frankenstein, Mary produced both in the creature and in its creator tropes that continue to resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Moreover, these tropes and the imaginations they engender actually influence the way we confront emerging science and technology, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of scientific research against its anticipated and unforeseen pitfalls.

It is almost impossible to imagine what the world, the everyday world, was like two centuries ago — a difference so profound it seeps into language itself. With this in mind, the editors offer a thoughtful note on their choice of referring to Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as “the creature” (rather than daemon, which Shelley herself uses, or monster, as posthumous criticism often does). In consonance with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight into how naming confers dignity upon life, they write:

It is worth pointing out that the way we now use the word creature ignores a richer etymology. Today, we refer to birds and bees as creatures. Living things are creatures by virtue of their living-ness. When we call something a creature today, we rarely think in terms of something that has been created, and thus we erase the idea of a creator behind the creature. We have likewise lost the social connotation of the term creature, for creatures are made not just biologically (or magically) but also socially.

This nexus of the scientific and the social at the heart of Shelley’s novel comes alive in a lovely companion to the annotated edition: Reanimation! — a seven-part series of animated conversations with scientists by science communication powerhouse Massive, exploring the prescient questions embedded in Shelley’s novel — questions touching on the nature of consciousness, the evolution and definition of life, the ethics of genetic engineering, the future of the human body and artificial intelligence.

In the first film — which calls to mind Freeman Dyson’s assertion that “a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet” — BBC science communicator Britt Wray and ecologist and biologist Ben Novak echo poet Denise Levertov’s lament about our tendency to see ourselves as separate from nature through the lens of genetic engineering and synthetic biology:

I’m really hoping that synthetic biology as a whole can drive a different appreciation — a different definition and relationship — of what we see to be nature. For years, we have peddled this notion that humans are separate entities from nature — there’s the arrogance that humans are somehow divinely above nature and we’re the caretakers of the world and we can do whatever we want with it. But there really hasn’t been a universal realization that we are nature.

Perhaps the central animating question of Shelley’s novel is what she termed “the nature of the principle of life” — that curious island of being amid the vast cosmic ocean of nonbeing. This is what theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker and exoplanetary scientist and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf consider in the second film, exploring the nature and definition of life on Earth and beyond, and what we mean by intelligence when we speak of intelligent life:

We’ve really thought about life as being a binary phenomenon — something is alive or it’s not… In the context of origins of life, that’s really critical, because you want to talk about the transition between nonliving things and living things… [But] life in general is actually a process that occurs across multiple scales, and you can talk about a cell in my body being alive or you can talk about me being alive and you can also… go up in scale and maybe think about societies as being alive. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about life… it has this kind of hierarchical structure where you have many layers of organization.

[…]

We might be able to understand more universal properties of life based on organizational principles — [not] just focusing on the things life is made of, but how it is organized. That’s [why] reductionism has been hard in biology — because we always try to separate out these scales and treat them separately. But [in reality] you have ordered processes and dynamics across multiple scales — that really is the intrinsic indicative process of life.

In the third film, philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers and comparative neuroscientist Danbee Kim examine the nature of consciousness — a philosophical inquiry that occupied Plato, entered the realm of science through William James’s pioneering writings, and has been the subject of another lovely animation by Massive:

Trying to go directly from the cells to behavior is not going to be possible. Why? Because there are actually several levels of organization in between them. If you start with the cell, then the next level of organization would be a circuit. And how does the nervous system as an organ interact with other organs in the body? And then, after that, is the organism and all the movements produced by an organism.

But that still isn’t behavior, because behavior is something that arises when you have goals for your movements and the only way for you to really pick or even decide a goal is not in a vacuum — it has to be within your environment: What other creatures, what other organisms, do you have to coordinate with in order to exist in your immediate local physical space?

[…]

It’s this interplay between brains, bodies, and the world that, in the end, allows us to develop these goals… and the development of those goals is what I would call cognition.

In the fourth film, molecular biologist Kate Krueger and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar consider the common human impulse for transformation, which undergirds both our most primitive Stone Age tools and our most advanced gene editing technologies:

Once we see the development of culture and social interactions, we actually see for the first time our species being able to step outside of and above biological evolution.

[…]

It’s very rare that humans like to sit still and do nothing and maintain stasis. While we love what we know and we do want to maintain it, I think all of us would love to make the world a more interesting place and a more useful place, and be able to do more things and climb higher and move faster. This is also part of our nature — the desire to create and to grow and to change.

In the fifth film, engineer and ethicist Braden Allenby and biomedical engineer Conor Walsh contemplate the widening gap between our technological capabilities and our wisdom, and consider how the abiding philosophical question of what it means to be human is changing in the era of CRISPR and wearable robotics:

When you start to get a much more rapid change in technology, particularly technology that affects the human… you begin to get human as a process. The idea of human that we have is already changing much more rapidly than we know, but the process of human has simply accelerated. It continues, and we remain human.

In the sixth film, historian and philosopher of science Margaret Wertheim, neuroscientist and AI researcher Daniel Baer, and engineer and ethicist Branden Allenby reflect on our perpetually evolving definition of and ethical parameters around what constitutes intelligence and what makes an intelligence “artificial”:

I suspect that we are not going to think we see a conscious machine even when they are running the planet… We have an extraordinary ability as humans — as soon as we offload something to machines that has to do with our cognition, we call it simple and it’s obviously not part of intelligence. [For example], the first people who were called computers were in fact very highly trained mathematicians, many of them women, who did systemic mathematical solutions for very complex equations for things like ballistics… and they were regarded as extremely intelligent. That lasted until TI came up with the first calculator and then, suddenly, we decided that mathematical calculations weren’t part of being intelligent. So my suspicion is that we already have machines that, to at least first degree, are AI.

In the seventh and final film, BBC science communicator Britt Wray, theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker, and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar examine what may be the overarching philosophical concern of Shelley’s masterwork — the God complex with which we wield our tools and regard their creations, and the interplay between fear and curiosity indelible to all innovation and to every leap of science:

What makes Homo sapiens special and different is their ability to innovate on the fly, come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, [and] learn from the mistake of others and communicate rapidly… to build upon the mistakes of the past.

Complement Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds with philosopher Joanna Bourke’s synthesis of three centuries of ideas about what it means to be human and Maya Angelou’s arresting message to humanity in the golden age of twentieth-century scientific breakthrough, then visit Massive for more animated conversations with leading scientists about some of the most exciting frontiers of science and the most morally complex questions of our time.

BP

The Lady and Her Monsters: Real-Life Frankensteins and How Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece Came to Life

The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.

Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.

Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:

[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.

Mary Godwin — later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein — may also have been born at the moment of lightning, but her mother’s life ended nearly a week later from birthing complications. Young Mary was born into an age of Galvanism, when experiments in electricity had just begun to interest the scientists of the Royal Society. In The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (public library), Roseanne Montillo brilliantly joins the live wires of Mary Shelley’s life and work with those of cutting-edge dissections and electrical experiments.

Mary Shelley, c. 1840, by Richard Rothwell
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.

Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:

an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.

If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.

‘A Galvanized Corpse,’ a political cartoon from 1836 by Henry R. Robinson
Image courtesy Library of Contress

That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.

The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:

No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

BP

Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

“Rejoice, go and remember me.”

Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation

A sole voice rises from antiquity, cuts through the long silencing and erasure of women, cuts through the Ancient Greek tradition of heroic poetry about war and worldly valor, to sing to us in her soulful authoritative voice a new kind of poetry — the personal, consummately intimate poetry of the inner world, the poetry of passionate love and heartbreak, of longing and loss, of the rapture of the natural world — a sensibility that would come to color everything from the cosmogony of the Romantics to pop music.

Celebrated as the Tenth Muse, Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) endures as the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression and of the basic human right to love whomever one loves — the original champion of what we, two and a half millennia later, have the hard-earned luxury of calling LGBT rights, for unlike Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson twenty-some centuries after her, Sappho did not alter the gender pronouns of her poems to conceal the same-sex nature of her loves — so much so that her native island of Lesbos has woven itself into the etymology of same-sex love in the modern world’s dominant languages.

Death of Sappho by Miguel Carbonell Selva, 1881. (Available as a print.)

And yet she comes to us only as a faint echo across the whispering gallery of time, erasure, and collective memory — the nine-volume set of her complete works burned with the Library of Alexandria; it is rumored that the early Christian dogmatists of the Byzantine empire burned most of her remaining works as too scandalous for so openly celebrating same-sex love. But the tiny subset of splendor that does survive — nowhere more splendidly than in poet Anne Carson’s enchanting translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (public library) — has radiated an aura of genius so immense that it has moved more than one hundred generations and influenced such disparate titans of thought and artistic vision as Mary Wollstonecraft, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsburg, and Judy Chicago.

Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate from artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979.

In one of her most staggering poems, Sappho invokes with intimate particularity one of the most universal human experiences: heartbreak at the end of love — that singularly discomposing maelstrom which, in the words of the contemporary poet and philosopher David Whyte, “begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot [and] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day,” and which modern science has shown to share a neuropsychology with drug withdrawal. Epochs and civilizations later, Sappho’s lyric portal into this elemental dimension of the human heart comes newly alive in a haunting choral invocation by Constellation Chor — New York City’s vocally and culturally kaleidoscopic vocal ensemble, founded by the visionary aural architect Marisa Michelson, who composed the piece and performed it with ensemble members Jen Anaya, Kalli Siamidou, and Tamrin Goldberg.

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
] at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
costly
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
delicate
you would let lose your longing

and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [ ] no dance
] no sound
[

Complement with Epictetus, writing seven centuries later, on the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak, Rebecca West’s extraordinary love letter to H.G. Wells in the wake of their romantic collapse, and the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time, then revisit James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on love, reimagined in music.

BP

William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind

How the ability to call your idea “by various names, borrowed from various languages,” empowers you to conceive that idea “in a way precise, clear and unconfused.”

William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind

Language is not the content of thought but the vessel that carries thought, the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking in order to anneal our understanding of the world. The more spacious the vessel, the more latitude we have to clarify our own thoughts, to reach farther horizons on the waves of the mind. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” In language we fathom ourselves and our own lives; in language we compose, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, “the Constitution of the inner country.” And yet language is inherently moored to the territory of an outer country — to the lexicon, vocabulary, and folkloric tongue of a people and a place.

Nothing furthers the reach of thought in language more surely than proficiency in multiple lexicons, which confers upon the bilingual or multilingual mind a lush advantage of thought. That is what the radical philosopher William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) explores in a passage from his altogether excellent 1797 book The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the collection of essays he composed while his partner, the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with their daughter, who would one day write the visionary Frankenstein.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Nearly two centuries before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that the function of language is “to give people the words to know their own experience” and James Baldwin lamented the exclusionary nature of any single language, which may not reflect the experiences of the diverse people forced to speak it, Godwin makes an ardent case for how the knowledge of multiple languages liberates the mind and swells the power of the human spirit. (A crucial meta-sensitivity to language as an emissary of time and place is due in reading Godwin: His use of the masculine to address universal humanity is a reflection of his era’s lexical convention — he was writing two centuries before the unsexing of he as the universal pronoun — and not of his beliefs: Godwin was an ardent exponent of gender equality, who courageously bore the opprobrium such radical views earned him, who forged with Wollstonecraft a a trailblazing marriage of equals, and who, in an era when girls were entirely excluded from real education and the world of ideas, raised his daughters with uncompromising focus on the life of the mind.)

Advocating for teaching young people multiple languages, Godwin writes:

He that is acquainted with only one language, will probably always remain in some degree the slave of language. From the imperfectness of his knowledge, he will feel himself at one time seduced to say the thing he did not mean, and at another time will fall into errors of this sort without being aware of it. It is impossible he should understand the full force of words. He will sometimes produce ridicule, where he intended to produce passion. He will search in vain for the hidden treasures of his native tongue. He will never be able to employ it in the most advantageous manner. He cannot be well acquainted with its strength and its weakness. He is uninformed respecting its true genius and discriminating characteristics. But the man who is competent to and exercised in the comparison of languages, has attained to his proper elevation. Language is not his master, but he is the master of language. Things hold their just order in his mind, ideas first, and then words. Words therefore are used by him as the means of communicating or giving permanence to his sentiments; and the whole magazine of his native tongue is subjected at his feet.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

Epochs before Susan Sontag insisted that words are a tool of personal agency, Godwin argues that our vocabulary furnishes the building blocks of our understanding, which in turn foments our capacity for effective action in the world:

Words are of the utmost importance to human understanding. Almost all the ideas employed by us in matters of reasoning have been acquired by words. In our most retired contemplations we think for the most part in words; and upon recollection can in most cases easily tell in what language we have been thinking. Without words, uttered, or thought upon, we could not probably carry on any long train of deduction. The science of thinking therefore is little else than the science of words. He that has not been accustomed to refine upon words, and discriminate their shades of meaning, will think and reason after a very inaccurate and slovenly manner. He that is not able to call his idea by various names, borrowed from various languages, will scarcely be able to conceive his idea in a way precise, clear and unconfused.

Complement with The Lost Words — writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s courageous act of resistance against the impoverishment of our language, which is an impoverishment of our imagination — and Iris Murdoch on language as an instrument of truth against tyranny, then revisit Godwin on how to raise a reader.

BP

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