Not long ago I was in a catacomb, listening to the Creature from Frankenstein bemoan his loneliness. I was at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The catacomb, a narrow stone corridor where the dead lay in dank vaults, was host to an opera recital, Sketches from Frankenstein, by composer Gregg Kallor. At the end of the catacomb, as if at the end of a cave, singer Joshua Jeremiah, a lumbering man with a bone-rattling baritone, embodied the Creature. With a spectral piano and cello for accompaniment, the melancholy Creature pleaded for Victor Frankenstein to create him a mate. “Oh, my creator, let me be loved,” he sang. “By someone. By something. Just once.”
The moving performance, a credit to Kallor, was also a reminder of the emotional depths in Frankenstein, a quality nearly forgotten in the teenage Mary Shelley’s evocation of fear and longing at the dawn of industrial science. Frankenstein is so often read as an allegory of scientific hubris, of humans’ ability to play God with nuclear power, genetics, and artificial intelligence, that its poetry and complexity have all but been obscured by images of Robert Oppenheimer, Craig Venter, and Ray Kurzweil. Shelley didn’t write an admonition on playing God. She wrote a story about humanity losing its soul. The two are not necessarily joined in the flesh.
We open this month’s theme, “Quandary,” with articles that rebalance the fear that science is out of control, that playing God has set humanity on an inexorable path of destruction.
Tania Lombrozo, a professor of psychology at Princeton, informs us that playing God is a natural human tendency that has powered advances in medicine and technology. The value of playing God is amplified by the philosopher Julian Savulescu. He tells interviewer Steve Paulson that while many people may now have an aversion to human cloning or genetic engineering, they “will vote with their feet once those technologies offer significant benefits.” Where does that aversion come from? Drawing on a recent journal article about people’s aversion to playing God, which begins, of course, with Frankenstein, Lombrozo goes on to explain that, yes, that aversion stems from religion, but also from humans’ ingrained belief that they rank above the rest of nature.
The May issue presents new essays, articles, and interviews that crack open quandaries in manifold fields of science. A feature by Harvard neuroscientist Grigori Guitchounts, written in first person and based on his own practices, delves into one of the most talked-about quandaries in science: to experiment or not experiment on animals. Along with new stories, we showcase articles from our archives that remain timely explanations of how quandaries in science have been resolved—sometimes to the benefits of nature, sometimes not. The articles aren’t accompanied by music, unfortunately, played in a sonorous catacomb. But they do sing of the insights of science.
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