The dangers of playing God

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831. Featured as frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Shelley’s novel — Source: Wellcome Library via Public Domain Review

On Mary Shelley’s birthday today, I am currently reading the annotated edition of Frankenstein, 22 years after reading it for the first time before I could acquire the language I have now and understand the ideas presented in her work on the ethics and considerations for social issues with regards to scientific and technological creations, and how to govern them responsibly.

We can thus discern two kinds of cautionary tales in “Frankenstein” (there are others): one Miltonian and the other Promethean. The former is a warning to “creators”—scientists, engineers and what this new edition of “Frankenstein” calls “creators of all kinds”—of the risks of hubris: reaching to exercise knowledge and powers that are not fully understood, whose consequences cannot be predicted and which cannot be controlled. The latter, however—the Promethean—is a warning to these same creators that, when they do exercise that knowledge and power, they must be willing to take responsibility for the things they create, for the work of their hands, which is what Prometheus did and what Victor failed to do.

One thing that stands out for me is that Shelley’s work, as a literary work, is seen as the first work of science fiction. This was also a reflection of Shelley’s education and upbringing, where she was exposed to science as well as social science and humanities during her time. However, these two fields are seen as a complete opposite today, when they should work alongside each other.

Such reasoning puts the A back into STEM and demonstrates that there really are not Two Cultures, science and the humanities — there is only one unified theory of being created by us as a means to give form to a reality that we never fully know in itself. The Shelleys are attempting to tell us that the humanities, including in this case Frankenstein, offer a representation of the world that is just as valid as an engineer’s blueprint.

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Comments 2

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