On a Halloween night much like this one, a teenage girl sat by the fire and wrote a story of dismembered corpses, mad science, and terrible revenge.
At the time, science was on the edge of some deeply unsettling questions about life, death, and reanimation. Italian physicist Luigi Galvani, in the 1780s, ran electric currents through dead limbs and watched the lifeless muscle contract as if controlled by a living brain. That gave rise to the idea that animals carry an electric current, or something very similar, in their living nerves and muscles. By the early 1800s, galvanism was at the forefront of physics, chemistry, and biology. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini followed up on his uncle’s work by electrifying the fresh corpse of executed murderer George Forster in1803 As the Newgate Calendar reported,
“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”
Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was just a child at the time, but she grew up in the center of the debates that followed. Her family home was a veritable parade of leading intellectuals, including Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Into the Godwins’ parlor, these scientists and philosophers brought news of experiments with electricity, magnetism, and the boundary between life and death. In the lecture halls of London, chemist Humphrey Davy spoke of a life force, a current like heat or electricity but more powerful than either, which could animate cold flesh.
Davy had been fascinated by galvanism during his early career, and his writings hint that he thought galvanism could be the key to the mysterious force of life. He wrote of “a new influence… which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only be animal organs.” Shelley (then Godwin) and her father often attended Davy’s London lectures in the years before she ran away with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She read one of Davy’s chemistry texts while she continued work on Frankenstein through the cold, dark October of 1816, and many of his words appear in the pages of Frankenstein, spoken by the lecturer Waldman.
But although the biggest questions in early 19th century science are woven into the story, they’re wrapped around a core of even bigger questions about scientific ethics and unintended consequences. The driving force of Shelley’s plot isn’t the monster’s anger or the horrible nature of reanimated flesh; it’s Viktor Frankenstein’s failure to consider the consequences of his experiment or plan to handle them. And that makes Frankenstein a cautionary tale that has grown even more relevant than it was in 1818.
In a 2015 paper, Gary Harrison and William Gannon wrote a mock proposal on Frankenstein’s behalf to an institutional review board (IRB), a committee responsible for vetting potential scientific research and deciding if it’s ethically acceptable to pursue. They wrote:
“We show Victor facing those issues of justice and emphasize how the novel can be an important component in courses or workshops on research ethics. Had Victor Frankenstein had to submit an IRB proposal tragedy may have been averted, for he would have been compelled to consider the consequences of his experiment and acknowledge, if not fulfill, his concomitant responsibilities to the creature that he abandoned and left to fend for itself.”
Science was a freewheeling affair in the early 1800s, and an observer as well-informed and perceptive as Mary Shelley must have worried that unchecked dabbling with the forces of life and death could produce terrible consequences. Today, we worry about the consequences of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and scientific and technological endeavors we haven’t imagined yet but will struggle to come to grips with in the next decade. We can’t predict all the consequences of research or innovation, and that is at the heart of Frankenstein’s horror.
Shelley channeled all that fascination and fear into the mother of all science fiction novels, the story carries an undercurrent of hope that science had the power to improve human life if wielded responsibly. She chose to subtitle the novel “The Modern Prometheus,” a reference to the Titan of Greek mythology who created humans from unliving clay and then gifted them with fire stolen from the gods. When the early relatives of modern humans first began using fire around a million years ago, it changed everything. Fire is an incredible tool for cooking, agriculture, engineering, and communication. But we do well to remember that it also burns.
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On a Halloween night just like this one, a teenage lady sat by the fire and composed a story of dismembered remains, mad science, and dreadful vengeance.
At the time, science
was on the edge of some deeply disturbing concerns about life, death, and reanimation. Italian physicist Luigi Galvani, in the1780 s, ran electrical currents through dead limbs and viewed the lifeless muscle agreement as if managed by a living brain. That generated the concept that animals bring an electrical existing, or something extremely comparable, in their living nerves and muscles. By the early 1800 s, galvanism was at the leading edge of physics, chemistry, and biology. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini acted on his uncle’s work by energizing the fresh remains of carried out killer George Forster in1803 As the(*************** )Newgate Calendar reported,
“On the very first application of
the procedure to the face, the jaws of the departed criminal started to tremble, and the adjacent muscles were badly bent, and one eye was really opened. In the subsequent part of the procedure the right-hand man was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in movement.”
(************** )Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was simply a kid at the time, however she
matured in the center of the
arguments that followed. Her household house was a genuine parade of leading intellectuals, consisting of Charles Darwin’s grandpa, Erasmus Darwin. Into the Godwins’ parlor, these researchers and thinkers brought news of try outs electrical power, magnetism, and the limit in between life and death. In the lecture halls of London, chemist Humphrey Davy mentioned a vital force, an existing like heat or electrical power however more effective than either, which might stimulate cold flesh.
Davy had actually been interested by galvanism throughout his early profession, and his works
hint that he believed galvanism might be the secret to the mystical force of life. He composed of” a brand-new impact … which has actually allowed guy to produce from mixes of dead matter impacts which were previously occasioned just be animal organs.” Shelley( then Godwin )and her dad typically participated in Davy’s London lectures in the years prior to she ran away with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She checked out among Davy’s chemistry texts while she continued deal with Frankenstein through the cold, dark October of 1816, and much of his words appear in the pages of Frankenstein(**************** ), spoken by the speaker Waldman.
However although the most significant concerns in early19 th century science are woven into the story, they’re twisted around a core of even larger concerns about clinical principles and unintentional repercussions. The driving force of Shelley’s plot isn’t the beast’s anger or the awful nature of reanimated flesh; it’s Viktor Frankenstein’s failure to think about the repercussions of his experiment or strategy to manage them. Which makes Frankenstein a cautionary tale that has actually grown much more appropriate than it remained in(***************************************** ).