Modern Frankenstein

The novel Frankenstein reflects on not only the creative genius of a 19th-century writer but also her interest and concerns in the future of science and technology.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On a dark, rainy night, sounds of thunder are emitted from a dimly-lit attic in Germany. The body of a human-like being is lifted through the roof and struck by strong electric currents. As the body lowers, the spectators of this eerie episode crowd around the body anticipating something remarkable about to happen. Suddenly, the gnarly fingers of what seemed to be a lifeless corpse twitch. The twitch then develops into a complete arm movement.

“It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” exclaims the scientist, who dedicated two years of his life to resurrect this inanimate body. However, he will quickly discover the brutal consequences that will come with this creation.

Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, is a celebrated classic horror story that has since been followed by many play and movie adaptations, most notably the 1931 film adaptation, Frankenstein.” Shelley’s riveting plot of the evil genius Dr. Frankenstein and the misunderstood creature he creates is rooted not only in her remarkable storytelling, but also in the scientific experiments and advancements of the early 1800s.

One such concept is galvanism, the theory of reanimating dead body cells through electrical currents, which was first proposed by the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani. In the 1780s, Galvani used an electrical machine and a scalpel on the nerves of skinned frogs and discovered that when the scalpel came into contact with the nerves of the animal, muscle contraction occurred. Next, he tried to initiate muscle contraction without the use of an electrical machine, which proved successful when he found that just the mere contact of a copper hook on a frog’s spinal cord led to twitching of the muscles. Today, we recognize this as the reaction of our nerve cells in response to the metal contact. However, Galvani credited this phenomenon to “animal electricity,” the notion that animal tissues hold electric currents which stimulate the muscle contractions that he observed in the frogs. Galvani’s experiments with animals and electricity inspired numerous discoveries regarding our body’s chemical makeup and science fiction culture.

Later, with the discovery of “animal electricity,” Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, transitioned from animal to human subjects to carry out experiments involving muscle twitching and electricity in the early 1800s. The College of Surgeons invited Aldini to perform his experiment on George Foster, a recently executed criminal charged for murder. Up until 1832, executed criminals were sent to the college to be used for surgical procedures and dissections in front of an audience, emulating a theatrical performance.

When Aldini was electrifying the subject, spectators saw many facial features move by themselves, such as eyes opening and the jaw quivering. At one point, the legs and thighs were said to be moving on their own. These observations amplified the theory of “animal electricity” and stirred up the idea of bringing the dead back with electricity, eventually inspiring Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.

While galvanism is now an outdated scientific concept only present in science fiction, electrophysiology, the study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, is an important scientific field with roots in Galvani’s findings. Electrophysiology has contributed to the development of defibrillators, which are used to send electrical impulses to fix the rhythm of someone’s heartbeat, almost like bringing them back to life. Pacemaker defibrillators also manage heart failure by monitoring the rhythm and sending shocks when they sense irregular beats.

Additionally, the picture of Frankenstein’s monster and playing God by creating and controlling life can still be found not only in popular culture, but also in modern laboratories and the minds of progressive scientists. One field of science that exhibits the way in which humans can manipulate and build organisms to their liking is synthetic biology, which includes bioengineering and genetic modification. Similar to Dr. Frankenstein’s aspirations, humans can manipulate natural biological systems to meet certain criteria. The rising popularity in tinkering with CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, in debatable applications such as embryo editing brings back Shelley’s concern in the moral boundaries of man’s use of science.

This concern also extends outside of just biological fields. The rapid incorporation of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in our daily lives proves another way in which Shelley’s Frankenstein still resonates with modern situations. Just as Dr. Frankenstein assembled different parts of a human body and brain to create his creature, we engineer robots and technology to imitate human actions and in some cases, emotions as well. This transition to a life centered around A.I. leads to a fear that is shared amongst many: the possibility that artificial intelligence will turn against humans. Ironically, this possibility is called a Frankenstein complex, a reference to Dr. Frankenstein’s eventual demise by his own creation.

Though A.I. is encoded with specific instructions from humans, the possibility of a Frankenstein-esque story taking place is an unsettling issue that raises more awareness as the technological world progresses. Coming straight from contemporary science fiction films is the fear that the machines we create may someday surpass the intelligence of our own race. In part to avoid this situation and take heed of Shelley’s cautionary tale, ethical guidelines are set out to preserve the safety of humans, encompassing cases of morality, anti-weaponization, and liability. At the end of the day, it is up to us to uphold the ethics of creating A.I. in an era of continuous scientific and technological endeavors.

Though a horror novel from the 19th century, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” showcases a plethora of references to scientific advancements and also voices concerns surrounding the morals of these advancements. From Galvani’s ideas to the ethical issues of current scientific fields, this classic gothic novel gives us cautionary insight into the future of science.