Facts So Romantic

Frankenstein in the Age of CRISPR-Cas9


Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia Commons

The so-called “year without a summer,” 1816, was bleak, if not strangely gothic. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted the year before, pitching volcanic ash into the atmosphere and obscuring the sun. Torrential rains pressed deep into the year, resulting in global crop failures. The birds quieted down by midday, as darkness descended, and for days at a time, a group of writers huddled by candlelight in a rented mansion on Lake Geneva. The dashing 23-year-old poet Percy Shelley and his 18-year-old companion, Mary, who had already taken to calling herself “Mrs. Shelley,” traveled to the lake to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron. On the night of June 15, 1816, they read ghost stories aloud. And then, Byron suggested they each try their hand to write one.

Mary Shelley would write her stunning exegesis Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus in just under 11 months. She set forth to write a penny dreadful but instead wrote a stinging commentary on the times that came to her in a flash, a waking dream. A collision of forces discharged in her writing, and she produced something more than a ghost story—a “book of ideas.”

A scientist sets out to create a more perfect entity, only to have it backfire as the thing he creates gets out of control.

Many in Shelley’s generation, including her companion Percy, sought to break with traditional values such as the monarchy, military, marriage, and social class, opting instead for reason of scientific inquiry, free love, and atheism; but this shift to impersonal rationalism also triggered recoil. Mary’s father, William Goodwin, author of Enquiry into the Principals of Political Justice “believed, like Voltaire, in the power of pure reason to solve all social, political, and personal problems. And like Rousseau, Godwin felt that humans are by nature benevolent and become evil only when abused by society. Government, he preached, and other institutions like marriage and the family, impose evil restraints on citizens and “must be abolished” urging “well-educated citizens working toward a better world by repressing emotions and reasoning person-to-person.”

Shelley was struggling to bring competing ideas into a “symbolic synthesis,” which, as literary critic Walter James Miller notes, included “her anguish as the neglected child of a genius” and “her dread of her father’s impersonal rationalism and her husband’s unconditional love of science.” The trick she pulls on the men in her life is to let them win to the full extent—the name of the main character in Frankenstein, “Victor,” is ironic. “I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature,” the scientist tells us. Frankenstein sets out to create a perfect human. So shall it be. The figure that he creates, which never gets a name, has a penetrating intelligence, and a ferocious love of life. He is 8 feet tall and bolts through the Swiss Alps with stag-like swiftness, has translucent, yellowish skin. He is, in a sense, engineered as the perfect machine. But no one cares a damn for him. He is alone, and his loneliness and existential grief drive him to exhaustion and the brink of insanity. As scholar Harold Boom has noted, Frankenstein and the figure he creates are “antithetical halves of a single being.” The monster signifies the rise of the Industrial Revolution and its machines, and shows how the things we create come to subordinate us to its apparatus, schedules, and order. . It needs us. It demands our time.

Frankenstein’s monster started out good. He saves a young girl who falls into a slipstream, but a mountaineer calls it out for malicious intent, shooting him through the shoulder with a shotgun. The fiend stares through windows. He has incredible intelligence and ability, but he cannot connect. This perfect figure is everything science could hope to dream about, but he is a neglected orphan. He soon demands friendship. Victor learns he is bound to the figure he creates, which results in a haunting effect.

What we seek from technology is based on our existential fear of being in control over our own lives.

Deeply distraught by his loneliness, the fiend ends up stalking members of Frankenstein’s family, killing them. When the fiend plants evidence that leads to the wrongful conviction of a servant, the scientist willfully buys into the gambit. The repression of the scientist relates to his obsession with mastering a technology—so much so that he is no longer conscious of his own role and motivations, which are concealed in his transhumanist project.

Shelley drew on a mythology of technology that goes back to the 6th century B.C. when the figure Prometheus stole fire from the gods and bestowed it to mankind. The “fire bringer,” is often associated with Lucifer, (literally meaning “light bearer”), who pilfered light from the heavens and brought it down to Earth. The “fall of man” implies an age when mortals are illuminated with knowledge. Immanuel Kant was the first to modernize the term, when he nicknamed his pal, Benjamin Franklin, “the Prometheus of modern times” for his nifty work with kites. In the early 19th century, Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus put the concept into terms of controlling biological forces. She not only arguably invented science fiction, but her novel offered a plot device for modern tales, including Flowers for Algernon, The Stand, The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Yann Martel’s short story “We Ate the Children Last.” We all understand the illusions. A scientist sets out to create a more perfect entity, only to have it backfire as the thing he creates gets out of control.

By the early 1980s, Richard Mulligan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology isolated genetic code and wrapped it up in a virus, returning it to humankind as a tool. In the same decade, companies such as Biogen and Genentech claimed the patents to control the first applications of genetic engineering. Scientists today are using the gene editing tool CRISPR to do things such as tinker with the color of butterfly wings, genetically alter pigs, and engineer microbes with potentially pathogenic or bioterror purposes. Last year, a group of 150 scientists held a closed-door meeting at Harvard Medical School to discuss a project to synthesize the code of a human genome from scratch using chemical techniques. As Andrew Pollack wrote in The New York Times, “the prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.” In August, Shoukhrat Mitalipov at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland reported using CRISPR to alter a human embryo.

The “fall of man” implies an age when mortals are illuminated with knowledge.

We are at the very start of the “industrial revolution of the human genome,” just as Shelley was writing at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Her essential insight is that science and technology can progress but will never achieve social control without a willful and ongoing abdication, or repression, of our agency. Shelley wants to tell us that what we seek from technology is based on our existential fear of being in control over our own lives, which have no ultimate solution, and which compels us to so eagerly pursue what psychologists call an external locus of control. But mythology is often first presented as a utopia, only to result in a dystopian reality: disenchantment, even nihilism, new inequalities due to the commodification of life, a dystopian capitalism where wealthy parents can use in vitro fertilization to improve the fate of their children.

Shelley’s novel is visionary. The equation of STEM fields with what is moral, good, and responsible is the hinge of the mythology as it continues to this day, both in overt projects of science, and in the subtle psychology. Clones would be parentless children, a “product of science,” while germline engineering would engender a quality of “otherness.” The murder that is pervasive in her novel is reflective of a solipsistic logic that achieves its authority in science and eliminates alternative perspectives and absorbs motives into the very practice of science. The orphans that are left in it—and Shelley is obsessed with the orphan—exemplify an existential grief that continues to permeate life even in the case of scientific mastery. Shelley is not so much concerned that technology—and this extends to AI or CRISPR organisms—will take over the planet, as she is incredulous that we hope it would; we hope something would be in control.

The insistence on genetic science and neuroscience as a wellspring of meaning and an illuminated reality is at odds with the existentialists’ observation that personality often finds itself foreign—this foreignness is problematic for science. We think if only we had better data, we’d have complete control. Data has illuminated everything, so much so that we can no longer imagine a deeper reality, or counter-reality, as expressed in a “year without a summer.”

Shelley wants to tell us that despite the awesome progress of science, we will never be free from the circular discussions of who we are, or why we are doing anything at all, or whether life is even worth it. In the darkness and depths, and in the night, is where we struggle to grasp at these answers. She shows that devotion to science and its patriarchal work culture can be a form of repression, or a denial of agency. Any genetically engineered organisms or CRISPR babies will struggle for survival and a meaning of existence too, and may return to haunt us through their impact on their ecosystem, which would include us. In Frankenstein, Victor tells the fiend he must go. But the fiend asserts his own sanctity in defiance. “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

Jim Kozubek is the author of Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9 published by the Cambridge University Press.

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