Frankenblog, or, a Dark and Stormy Tale of Frankenstein, the History of Science, and the Internet.

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

As the leader of the A-Team, Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, said in nearly every episode of the ‘80s television classic, “I love it when a plan comes together.”  So do I. In this case, the plan refers to some of the upcoming programming variously linked with the UMIH, and right away it should be said that the so-called plan was not really planned, at least not by the Institute.  The UMIH Health Humanities Research Cluster arranged the two talks to be delivered this week by the gifted historian of science, Anita Guerrini, in collaboration with the Faculty of Science and the Robin Connor Lectureship; while the Frankenreads–Winnipeg events planned for Hallowe’en are the work of Michelle Faubert of the Dept of English, Theatre, Film and Media, and UMIH Research Affiliate Bryn Jones Square.

Still, the Institute is very pleased to help support these events.  What is more, these events do come together very nicely—rather like Hannibal’s A-Team plans—and I, for one, love it.   What I am on about, you ask?  Well, let’s start with the by now well-known fact that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “monsterpiece,” Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).  And Frankenreads, along with its local Winnipeg chapter,is an international celebration ofthis milestone anniversary organized by the Keats-Shelley Association of America.  Such bicentennial commemorations are certainly warranted and first began last year with a number of reissued editions of the original 1818 text.  (Readers of this blog will know that the slim and tidy edition put out by Penguin Classics is this author’s favourite).  Since then there have been many essays explaining “why Frankenstein still matters 200 later,” “why it is more relevant than ever,” how it still “reflects our hopes and fears,” and so on.  Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” as she called it, is a work of remarkable richness that allows us to rethink the human, and not just through the eyes of science, but also those of art and philosophy and emotions and politics.  It is an intricately layered book, “its structure of stories nested like Russian dolls.”

In addition to all the important things it has to say about gender and race, Frankenstein can also be seen as a referendum on the French Revolution, and it is laced with the ideas and influences of the likes of Milton, Goethe, Rousseau, Ovid, Spencer, and Gibbon, to say nothing of Shelley’s own esteemed father, William Godwin, and trail-blazing feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.  Its cultural legacy, then, is complicated and, despite emphasis to the contrary, it is much more than a cautionary tale for science and Silicon Valley technologists. We would do very well to remember that in Shelley’s day “science” was still a rather low and often sordid thing and did not yet rival the Arts in intellectual and cultural status.  Indeed, as several pieces by the nineteenth-century historian and philosopher William Whewell remind us, the term “science” would not begin to take on the meanings we associate with it today until the 1840s.

The deluge of printed material in the Romantic era introduced chaos and complexity to the arts and sciences, and the institutions that emerged to deal with all the newly available data and information swirling about served to transform, or rather, “transfigure” them, as Jon Klancher puts it in a way that better captures “the complications” Romantic writers “introduced with respect to time, change, progress, and other itineraries in the ‘arts and sciences’.”  After all, “transfiguration” still had deeply spiritual associations, often referring to the experience of some transcendent or radiant power.  The notion of cold, hard objectivity that we associate with science today did not first emerged until the 1860s.  Romantic science, therefore, had different contours and intellectual trajectories that we tend to overlook today.  It believed “science and poetic form could go hand in hand,” notes Richard Sha, and it recognized sensibility and feeling as serious and important means of knowing, and all of this has important implications for how we approach and read Frankenstein.   It helps us better recognize the expansive field of reasons for why this novel still matters two centuries later.

An accounting of these reasons will not be attempted here.   However, given how often it continues to be suggested that Shelley’s novel is a warning about Promethean over-reach, or the unblinking cruelty and excesses of scientific or technological ambition, it is worth repeating that it is much more than that. That emphasis is understandable of course, and decisions like M.I.T. Press’s to commemorate the bicentennial with an edition of the original 1818 text “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds” cannot be entirely faulted.  It is a way to read the novel, one that can provide a number of smart and valuable insights, but it is an approach that is ultimately too simple and too narrow.  For one thing, it strips out “nearly all the sex and birth, everything female in a work that,” as Jill Lapore argues, helped establish the origins of science fiction “by way of the ‘female gothic’.”

For another, the annotations and commentary in the M.I.T. edition tends to identify Victor’s mistake as a failure to think harder about his own scientific and creative responsibility.  They highlight the terrible consequences that so often follow from careless meddling with the natural order, and see Victor’s monster reflected in the atom bomb, genetic manipulation, and artificial intelligence.  While these sorts of comparisons across history might provide moral lessons for today’s scientists, technologists and the public at large, they can also be rather misleading and, frankly, make for bad history.  The decisions to make and deploy two atomic bombs, for instance, were much less a matter of scientific and technological ethics, and much more the product of the anxieties and perceived exigencies of wartime politics.  In other words, such comparisons often fail to fully meet Shelley’s novel—and all of the various scientific, political and ethical debates with which Shelley so unflinchingly engages—on their own historically specific terms.  And this fails both ends of the comparison.

This is where Anita Guerrini’s learned expertise in the history of science ever so neatly enters the frame, as her research helps give a proper context to the book and the contemporaneous issues it tackles. Shelley wrote her book at a time when experimentation in the life sciences was hitting new heights and this generated a gruesome demand for dead bodies.  However, Guerrini notes, in addition to experimenting with exhumed human bodies, Victor Frankenstein also dissected and vivisected animals, and it is no accident that his own “creature inhabits that liminal space between human and animal.” While Frankenstein has been examined as a commentary in the “burking” controversies and the Anatomy Act of 1832, Guerrini identifies another important series of issues, those centred on animals and questions of animal cruelty, as they were also a prominent form of criticism of science’s perceived excesses.

Shelley’s novel first appeared on the eve of the antivivisection debates that gripped Britain in the 1820s, and by the time the revised second edition came out in 1831, Britain had witnessed a period of intense debate over the morality of human and animal dissection.  The heat of these debates seems to have been fanned by a visit the French physiologist François Magendie (1783-1855) made to London in the early 1820s. A notorious and unapologetic vivisectionist, Magendie’s public experimentations on living animals seem to have increased the public’s suspicion of surgeons and their dubious experimentations on living animals and dead humans.  Shelley’s fictional character of Victor Frankenstein tapped into these fears surrounding surgeons and their arrogant and cruel search for the secrets of life through dissection and vivisection.  Of course, as Magendie’s example reminds us, these fears were not a fictional matter as a whole cast of real historical figures actually carried out this type of scientific research and experimentation.

The renowned Scottish anatomist and physician, William Hunter (1718-83), was another early contributor.  Moreover, William Hunter figures prominently in Professor Guerrini’s research and he will be the subject of her talk this Friday afternoon.  William was a leading teacher of anatomy, and the outstanding obstetrician of his day, and by 1800 he (and his brother John, also a leading anatomist) had made anatomy and dissection essential to surgical teaching.  In fact, Guerrini believes that Magendie may have performed several of his experiments on living animals in the Great Windmill Street surgical school originally founded by non other than William Hunter.  Hunter, then, played an important part in helping to develop the modes of experimentation that would lead many to condemn Victor Frankenstein and Magendie for their cruelty and arrogance, and to dismiss their science as hollow and irresponsible.

In this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that William Hunter has been similarly criticized in recent years—though rather more scandalously.  It has been so scandalous in part because Hunter had long been recognized as one of the great luminaries of Enlightenment medicine.  The main reason for the scandal, however, was a result of the original source of the shocking reappraisal of Hunter’s historical legacy, a New Zealand journalist, amateur historian, “and collector of miniature portraits,” Don Shelton.  In his essay “The Emperor’s New Clothes” published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (2010), Shelton presents a “prima facia case” showing Hunter (and his contemporary William Smellie) was in fact “responsible for a series of 18th-century ‘burking’ murders of pregnant women, with a death total greater than the combined murders committed by the famous 19th-century murderers, Burke and Hare, and Jack the Ripper.”  The emperor’s new clothes indeed.  This is pretty dramatic stuff.  It is also quite problematic.

For starters, it turns out that Shelton, while certainly knowledgeable of history, is not the best historian.  His dramatic conclusions are unfortunately also very thin and easily explained away.  Secondly, and more importantly, Shelton’s conclusions generated a great buzz and were reported in the Guardian and the Observer and in a Radio 4 interview, along wide range of other media outlets. Before long the Wikipedia entries for both William Hunter and William Smellie were changed to reflect Shelton’s dramatic claims.  It is often a shame when truth gets in the way of a good story, but Shelton’s conclusion are not sound and the speed with which they spread and his ability to deflect challenges by simply urging people to read his more lengthy self-published e-book are alarming.  Our hunger for a sensational story seems to have trumped key aspects of critical thought and intellectual engagement.  So, I invite you, dear readers, to join us on Friday to learn more about the real William Hunter and his important and influential work.

Still though, it is quite fascinating that Shelton’s claims found such a wide audience.  They did so because they clearly appeal to the public appetite for fallible founders, healthcare providers who turn from healing to murder, and of course the flaws of science.  Such eager dissent and distrust is not exactly rare, especially these days.  It can be readily seen in the fears of big pharma and the purported links between vaccinations and autism, amongst climate sceptics, and all those who condemn GMO foods or, rather, “Frankenfoods”.  These inclinations are all quite human, but they can also be quite dangerous.  The questions and issues that prompt them are fraught and require measured reflection, dialogue, a willingness to explore, and an openness to complexity and deeper understanding.  Ours are scary and fast changing times full of all sorts of unintended consequences, much like the rapidly industrializing world Shelley inhabited. All of this recalls something of Victor Frankenstein, a figure who cannot find fault with himself and his actions so instead focuses his blame on science.  Of course, I am not saying that those who oppose Frankenfoods are the same as Frankenstein, only that both live in difficult times that can disorient and challenge ones sense of control, agency and responsibility.

Now let me be clear (and try to wrap this frankenramble up).  In addition to highlighting some of the remarkable complementarity of these upcoming campus events, my point is not to cow all before the sovereignty of science. Neither is it to condemn the internet and new technology, and still less is it to disenfranchise amateur historians and all others who love, enjoy and consume the past.  Rather my point is twofold.  First, to stress, once again, that the humanities generally, and history specifically, matter.  However, I will go further and say I believe they actually can and should be actively used to both help shape public attitudes and to make meaningful, informed public policy.  And my second point is this interrelated one: I share the late Roy Rosenzweig’s belief

that professional historians need to shift at least some of their attention from the past to the present and future and reclaim the broad professional vision that was more prevalent a century ago.  The stakes are too profound for historians to ignore the future of the past.

And I hope you will agree that this too is a good and timely plan, and I also hope you will join me at these events, (and all the others we have planned this year), to help carry it into action.

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