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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mary Shelley, Dr. Frankenstein, science and ethics revisited (book review)

Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition
of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Wikipedia)
Each year the column Dispatches From The Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2010’s winners. These are the kind of stories that, if they aren't true, might as well be; people are that outrageous and just look at the mess the world is in. My favorite screwup in this particular collection (if favorite is the right word) is this one (to quote from the website):

The Mary Wollingstonecraft Shelly [sic] Award (the author of Frankenstein) goes to the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University for using Defense Department money to turn the beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, into a cyborg. The beetle is fitted with an electronic backpack attached to the animal’s wing muscles, allowing scientists to control the beetle’s flight path.

The idea is to use the little beastie (actually, as beetles go, kind of a big beastie) to crawl or fly into areas where the “enemy” is. Once the “enemy” is identified, the military can target the area with bombs, rockets or artillery. This is a tad rough on the beetles.
According to researchers Michael Maharbiz and Hirotake Sato, the long-term goal is to “introduce synthetic interfaces and control loops” into other animals. “Working out the details in insects first will help us avoid mistakes and false starts in higher organisms, such as rats, mice, and ultimately people. And it allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions about free will, among other things, that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”
Geez, I wouldn't even do that to a franken-scientist, much less to a harmless, necessary beetle. Can you believe they said this ?! (it's definitely worth a double-take): 
“Working out the details in insects first ... allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions ... that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”
Wow. Out of the mouths of ethically-challenged scientists. In a way it's unfortunate that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley [editors of Dispatches from the Edge, please take note; this name should be spelled correctly because it will long outlast you] should be perpetually associated with the ethical lapses of what people are calling Frankenscience; her own writing cautioned strongly against the very sort of horrors the prefix "Franken" now signals. She made the point about the doctor's mistake so well that it's still the iconic image for this kind of ethical lapse almost 200 years later; unfortunately, not enough people have grasped the point, yet.

[Thanx and a tip o' the hat to Steve Bartholomew of Charged Barticle for alerting me to the Dispatches from the Edge story.]

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840, accompanied by lines from Percy Shelley's poem The Revolt of Islam calling her a "child of love and light". (Wikipedia)
Funnily enough this very morning I was going through some old papers and came across an op-ed piece I wrote for SLJ back in 1999, on the very subject of science and ethics. An editor had asked me to do an "Up for Discussion" column on books for teens that deal with questions of science and ethics after I wrote the following review of a 1998 biography of the writer we know as Mary Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)  (Wikipedia)

Before  I get to the review, though, I must digress a bit here to recognize that Mary Shelley's mother was the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the revolutionary 1792 work Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Shelley's father was the philosopher William Godwin, who put his lofty intellectual ideals before any consideration of kindness or empathy. Or that's how he always strikes me, since one of his moral arguments, I seem to remember, is that if you have to choose between a Rembrandt or a cat (or was it an old lady?) to save in a fire, of course you must save the painting, because that (he held) was obviously the object of higher value. He wasn't, in short, a cuddly daddy and Mary Shelley never knew her mother, who died shortly after Mary's birth.

But back to the book review... Almost all of the books I reviewed in SLJ were of adult books that older teens who had grown beyond "YA" would like. On the other hand this biography was one of the few I reviewed that was intended for/marketed to younger readers (ages 8-12), but I think it would be of equal interest to adults. It certainly was to me. Mary Shelley's fascinating if disastrous life embodies a Romantic ideal that still plays an important part in our culture, inspiring women to take tremendous risks in the pursuit of what we most believe in. Often, at great personal cost.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein's Creator (Barnard Biography Series) by Joan Kane Nichols

Teens should find the story of this romantic rebel who followed her ideals and dreams at an appalling personal cost to be compelling and surprisingly modern in many ways.

Shelley might at first seem an odd choice for an entry in a series devoted to "role models for young women today," since Nichols clearly outlines the rumors and scandals that have long surrounded the writer and her circle of literary friends who included Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Yet she also shows the core of integrity and the basis of the ideals that underlay Mary Shelley's many dangerous choices, and reveals the strength of character that enabled her to spin literary gold from her life's darker side.

In showing the elements of Shelley's life that went into her unforgettable novel, elements of class and rebellion and art and poverty, Nichols paints a vivid picture of early 19th-century London and its people, and succeeds in bringing her subject to life for readers today.

Whether Shelley was (as the cover asserts) "the first science fiction writer" is debatable, but there is no question that Frankenstein has become our culture's quintessential morality tale about modern science. Countering common misconceptions often held by those who have never read the novel upon which so many subsequent works were based, Nichols argues convincingly that Shelley was not saying (as many now believe) that Frankenstein was wrong to have created his monster; rather, she was showing that the doctor's error was in not taking responsibility for it. This lesson is particularly timely as young adults enter a minefield of ethical dilemmas in science and technology.


Here I must mention that a customer-reviewer on Amazon did what I had been tempted to do, but resisted, headlining his review "Author sparks life into long-dead writer." :-D


So the SLJ editor suggested I might expand upon that last point -- that Shelley was saying that Dr. Frankenstein's real mistake was not in creating the monster, but in his not taking responsibility for it. If you read Frankenstein again (it's still a very compelling and highly readable yarn), you'll see this is true. (This project for SLJ also led to my collaborating with another librarian on a critical examination for SLJ of a rather large encyclopedia on science and ethics, for review as a reference book; can't remember if they used that, though.)

Anyway, I love being asked for my opinions on things I have absolutely no formal qualifications to have them on. Challenged to come up with some recommendations for teens, of books touching on matters of science and ethics, I was amazed at how little I found in the literature. And at how hard it was to steer clear of religion in this kind of discussion, because it seemed as if every definition and discussion of ethics ended up leading back to religion as the authority. (Similarly another book I reviewed, The Ethics of Star Trek, was really coming from a religious point of view - I touched on that one in an earlier post about books I reviewed while holding my nose.)

In the SLJ piece I steered clear of the religion/ethics problem as it wasn't in the purview of my assignment but here, finally, in my own blog, I can point it out; and just a decade later, questions of ethics ARE more often treated as a subject apart from traditional religious associations. Of course now it probably would be much easier to find leads on the subject, but the Internet wasn't the same, then, and for my recommendations I relied on my own reading, and on suggestions from fellow librarians, turned up through email queries.

Most of the books I ended up recommending in that piece were not actually written for younger readers, but they would appeal, I thought, to the right teens if they were steered to them. And of course they should still be of interest to their intended readership, adults. I'll add that article here later, if I can ever get my scanner working; when I looked it over, it still seemed timely. It appeared in the May 1999 issue of School Library Journal (SLJ), but I might have the only remaining copy.

corrected 12/31

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