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The Danger of Science in Frankenstein

Two classic stories, Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde raise the question of the dangers of science. This is an especially relevant question in today’s society, when stories of cloning no longer raise eyebrows, debate about stem cell research is commonplace, and procedures that once marked the state of the art in scientific technology, such as paternity tests, can be purchased in the form of over-the-counter kits at the local drugstore.

In today’s world, we must be at the ready to answer the questions of science as they arise, often more quickly than we as a society can keep up, and the texts in question can often offer some direction, or at least some perspective in regard to the dawn of our science-based ethical challenges. While some might argue that the fantastical content of the two novels in question could not possibly have foreseen the challenges of modern scientific ethical questions, I contend that they did.

Frankenstein details the case of a master’s creation who, lonely and miserable, eventually turns on the “mad scientist” who created him. In such likely lies an analogy, if not an outright allegory, postulated by Shelley and her circle of intellectuals, that science would one day turn upon itself and the consequences would be disastrous. Jekyll and Hyde, in the meantime, is an even more intimate portrait in which the symbolic body actually turns in upon itself – the medical doctor versus his own dark side, turned against himself by a potion he himself created.

While the most relevant interpretation of both works is, of course, the simultaneous yet mutually exclusive sides of human nature, we can take the analysis further and look at the question from the perspective of scientific advancement and the questions it raises. In both texts, the element of science is clearly identified as an “other” – if not evil outright, then at least to be feared, dreaded and looked upon with doubt. Frankenstein paints the more poignant picture; alone, left only with the freakishness that is its very nature, the monster (science) has nowhere to turn to find meaning for its existence aside from its creator (mankind).

In terms of cloning, in utero sex selection, regeneration of new body parts and other almost-commonplace technology of our own age, it’s easy to hypothesize that Mary Shelley wanted us to think about the consequences of science before it was too late. Dr. Jekyll, on the other hand, calls attention to the ability of humanity to adjust to anything upon repeated exposures – to get used to the idea of potentially dangerous scientific advances simply because they exist and we hear about them again and again. Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr.

Hyde after drinking a synthetic elixir … at first. After a number of transformations, Mr. Hyde can appear without consuming the potion as a precipitating event. In a symbolic sense, Robertson draws attention to humanity’s failings in this respect – the ease in which we fall into the traps of acceptance of what appears, on the face, to be commonplace, sometimes regardless of its roots. Society has failed, in many ways, to address the question of scientific advance until it is too late, or until science has soldiered on much further than the average citizen might want it to go.

Little detail of any actual scientific procedure is given in either Frankenstein or Jekyll, allowing modern readers to easily apply the lessons of these stories to contemporary problems (Silver). Thus, today’s readers can draw their own parallels from the headlines, from cloned body parts to selection of fetuses based upon sex or other traits, and look back to the long-ago counsel of Frankenstein and Jekyll to flesh out possible moral and ethical implications.

Both pieces offer a serious perspective and set of questions about the dangers of science, even in light of their reputations for slight silliness, brought about mostly by comical Hollywood movies and the numerous references those inspired. The fact that the texts have become such an integral part of the collective culture speaks for itself. (Wolf) But if the time to ask earnest questions about the consequences of society’s scientific forays is now, have we missed something?

After all, these books were published more than one hundred years ago. Clearly society must adapt to rephrase its collective questions to address the advances of science as they evolve. There will never, by the nature of both inquiry and science, be a static, all-encompassing or simplistic set of answers. But have we answered today’s queries in a manner sufficient to address the gravity of the situation suggested by the very act of Shelley and Stevenson having written their seminal texts?

For example, a 1997 moratorium on cloning in California set forth a “five year moratorium on cloning of an entire human being” and legislators, scientists, bioethicists and other interested parties came together in 2001 to discuss what to do when that moratorium expired. While the fact that a moratorium was imposed in the first place is promising – at least someone was thinking about the issues, or would get around to thinking about them in a few years – the fact that the issue was still so thoroughly up for debate so near the expiration date is not.

Clearly, after five years at the helm, the soluations were still lacking, if in place at all, and the convening of the panel with just over one year until the moratorium tolled is troubling. (California Cloning) The scientific questions in our two texts, of course, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and relating to a number of areas of inquiry. As mentioned above, one is the use of science to illustrate man’s conflicts against society and against himself, and vice versa.

Science put the characters in the positions in which they find themselves – Frankenstein’s monster versus his creator, and Dr. Jekyll essentially facing himself – but at the same time, only through science do they exist in the first place (Mansfield, 107). This rather contemporary spin on a classic conflict is at the intellectual center of both books, if not their hearts; it provides extra intrigue to the already established plotline and surface conflict (one thing versus another thing, or thing versus self).

(Berson) This draws us back to the question of whether society has truly considered either its debts or its responsibilities to science. We often hear of how much we owe to science, and the majority of those assertions are incontroverted – Salk vaccines, heart transplants, screenings for various diseases, and other advances that allow for longer spans for large sectors of human life. Yet, even with the acknowledged advantages of the enormous scientific leaps of the past few centuries, there are the obvious drawbacks.

Population explosion and overcrowding threaten the population as a whole, both its healthy and unhealthy consituents, and many well-to-do populations (like many of those in the United States) clearly no longer experience cruel and once-common natural population controls. Infant mortality rates plunge as world population rates and hunger skyrocket, often unchecked. Scientific creation gave rise to sophisticated means of warfare, both weapon- and chemical-based. Clearly, scientific progress is not without its serious drawbacks and implications.

Did Shelley or Stevenson foresee such conditions, when citizens and leaders alike would be left to question their fates, much as the characters of Frankenstein and Jekyll did? It is difficult to say with any definite clarity what they might have predicted. However, what is likely is that they realized they could not know the exact routes science would take – and that these two writers were not attempting to account for every turn in the proverbial road that science would encounter along the way.

Rather, the novels can be looked at as an almost allegorical primer, in which the stories themselves caution the reader to be on guard for whatever might come his or her way in terms of scientific advance and the ethical questions it might raise. (Shelley, Stevenson) Just what kind of ominous “ethical questions” might arise? Any weekday newscast in today’s climate might give rise to queries about whether it might be possible to clone humans (as some have cloned beloved pets) and, if so, what the responsiblities to such products of cloning might be.

In terms of stem cell research, in which embryonic stem cells that might be otherwise discarded are used in tests to work toward cures for ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, questions arise as to where the cells come from, and if harvesting those cells encourages procedures like abortion or use of unused frozen embroyos no longer needed for in vitro fertilization. As in Frankenstein and Jekyll, the scenarios seem farfetched but plausible, unlikely but imaginable.

Frankenstein might take this to extremes, with a living caricature of a man coming to life only to turn against its creator; but in the computer age, what was once a fantastic and theoretical concept is no longer unimaginable. Whether Shelley intended to overblow her conclusions in order to bring her audience to a mid-point reasoning, or whether she actually foresaw such a climate of technology is unknowable, but regardless of intent, her story contitutes a masterstroke of progressive questioning.

(Shelley) Meanwhile, in Jekyll, the idea of inner turmoil is far from unfamiliar territory, be it in the arts or the course of everyday existence. But the idea of creating a new self through the chemical concoction of a potion could perhaps be looked at through the lens of the age of morphine (which gave rise to the novel in the first place), and extended to the modern day to shed light on the effects of antidepressants, painkillers and other drugs.

The possiblities for areas of inquiry are almost as numerous as the themes and motifs found within the text itself. (Stevenson) Certainly, a blanket approach of certain attitudes toward scientific advance should not be implemented (not only would this be a narrow approach, but a quickly outdated one as science progressed and changed), and no far-reaching ban of cloning, stem-cell research or other procedures would necessarily be the answer to what science needs to do to exercise control so that it does not turn in upon itself.

Rather, whether they consiously set out to do so or not, the texts encourage us to question the dangers of science, and to take into account the great risks that can come with great advances. Works Cited Berson, Misha. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Seattle Times, April 17, 2009. “The Ethics of Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research”. Report from California Cloning: A Dialogue on State Regulation. Santa Clara: Santa Clara University, October 12, 2001. <http://www. scu. edu/ethics/publications/cloning. html> “Frankenstein.

” New Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003 ed. Mansfield, Harvey Claflin. Manliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Philadelphia: Courage Classics, 1987. Silver, Alain and James Ursini. “Frankenstein: A History of Horror”. <http://eric. b. olsen. tripod. com/frank_nov. html> Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Other Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Limited Editions, 1993. Wolf, Leonard, ed. The Essential Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. New York: Byron Preiss, 1995.

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