Mary Shelley published the initial version of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus almost 2 centuries ago. This saga is now so embedded in our culture (1) simply using the word ‘Frankenstein’ summons deep-seated emotional reactions. Applied as a label that single word may serve as a damning and deadly weapon. Mary Shelley’s literary masterwork and the inescapable myth fashioned from it are about to be recounted in the coming battles over biomedical advances. On the occasion of its 200th birthday, her Frankenstein story remains alive and powerfully relevant.
The first sentence of a recent New York Times article written by Carl Zimmer (2) assesses our current situation concisely –
“As biological research races forward, ethical quandaries are piling up.”
Synthetic human embryos may be created that no longer adhere to the evolution-ordained development patterns. These developments will make existing guidelines governing experimentation on human embryos obsolete. The work promises spectacular benefits for human health, however, research on and exploitation of synthetic embryos will pose extremely difficult ethical dilemmas (2). Synthetic embryos are the latest theme in the much bigger and fast unfolding grand story of biotechnology. Three-parent babies, gene editing, stem cell treatments and the new field of synthetic biology are here. How to manage these and other emerging capabilities, ensure their benefits are distributed equally and whether we wish to allow certain research efforts to proceed in the first place must now be decided.
The core themes of Frankenstein are readily applicable to the new technologies. Scientists today are violating sacred tenets of human reproduction and biology, vying to ultimately supersede the works of Nature. Their intentions are good, the currently stated goals admirable, but are any human beings wise enough to seize such authority and where might these activities take us? (3). Mary Shelley was inspired by the science of her day and the controversy sparked by bold ideas (4). The technologies and hypotheses have changed, but the centerpiece subjects of Frankenstein – human aspiration, choices and their consequences – are timeless and timely.
The Frankenstein myth is about to undergo a revival because to some extent the modern era scientific community has re-enacted Mary Shelley’s story. Recognizing the far-reaching implications of biotechnology and the tensions they generate, Jon Turney examined how science and popular culture collide in his book Frankenstein’s Footsteps (1). A significant part of the general public narrative about scientific advances has been influenced directly and indirectly by the deep-rooted Frankenstein myth, a process that seems certain to continue and expand in the future. Mr. Turney details another important issue regarding previous public debates over biotechnologies – scientists have evaded dealing with the problems definitively. Facing resistance to unsettling implications of new capabilities, scientists have sometimes reassured the public by pointing out – correctly – that many concerns were merely distant possibilities. Avoiding problematic philosophic arguments and concentrating on narrowly focused technical matters of safety and developing research guidelines, the scientific community confined the debate to arenas in which they were authoritative. Previously distant goals have been achieved, the biotech future has arrived on multiple fronts and postponed discussions must now occur. The Frankenstein myth is about to be in vogue again.
Mr. Turney’s book is almost 20 years old, but it outlines a longstanding approach scientists use to manage public debates about research. The basic goal is to allow research to proceed without undue limitations and one means to control discussion can be calling for public input. The problem is that getting more than token participation on the issues is challenging. With gene editing, synthetic embryos and gene drives, scientists have undertaken proactive efforts to inform colleagues and the general public of new developments as well as once again dutifully calling for dialogue. Hopefully, the calls are sincere and outreach efforts will be effective because the current environment is one in which the authority of elites is being questioned and undermined. Scientists may discover that they and un-elected institutional leaders may set guidelines for research, but will be far less able to channel the decisions as to how, when and where the use of new technologies will be permitted. If unease over new scientific developments increases, disenfranchised citizens may discover they are able to express their opinions quite effectively through political processes (5). For those with misgivings about the complex new technologies to manipulate human genetics and reproduction, the Frankenstein myth may be used to frame debates in ways most people instantly and viscerally understand.
Disparate branches of biotechnology research have come to fruition almost simultaneously. In addition, the technical know-how and capability to perform cutting edge biological research is already massively proliferated and in private hands. Will researchers in all nations abide by the same rules? Will corporate scientists be able to balance serving the needs of the company against responsibilities to the public to conduct operations safely and ethically? What of the DIY biohacker communities or garage biologists? What system of ethics will they recognize? The Frankenstein myth is adaptable and it is probably going to be covering a great deal of new territory soon.
At a time of stunning technical success, the scientific community is in some peril. For example, the leading researchers involved in the invention of gene editing tools have founded private companies to exploit them commercially. Financial conflict-of-interest may make it impossible for the most accomplished scientists to be accepted as trustworthy honest brokers for the essential public discussions ahead. If the top experts are easily dismissed as protecting personal financial stakes, cleverly crafted alternative facts (6) utilizing weaponized Frankenstein labels may become dangerous. In an era of ‘fake news’ it may become difficult for citizens to establish which competing narrative is factual.
Science is a human endeavor which means it will never be perfect. Scientists often take pride in pointing out that a fundamental strength of their enterprise is that findings are challenged and interpretations revised accordingly. Spectacular advances are now changing our notions of what it means to be human, what rules of Nature must remain inviolable and whether we will seize control of our own evolution. Fantastical stories of fact and future possibilities are being written today. Scientists must make meaningful efforts to explain their results fully and respect the thoughts of the public regarding how they wish our future to unfold. Unless the scientific community is willing to make a good faith effort to communicate with the public, some amazing modern achievements could be eclipsed by the revival of a singularly powerful, 200 year-old narrative.
(1) J. Turney. 1998. Frankenstein’s Footsteps. Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. Yale University Press.
(2) C. Zimmer. 2017. A New Form of Stem-Cell Engineering Raises Ethical Questions. The New York Times, 21 March 2017. https://nyti.ms/2nvQUyI
(3). A. Lammers and T. Peters. Genethics: Implications of the Human Genome Project. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=813
(4) R. Holmes. 2017. Science Fiction: The Science that Fed Frankenstein. Nature, 27 July 2017. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v535/n7613/full/535490a.html
(5) S. Reardon. 2016. ‘Three-parent baby’ claim raises hopes — and ethical concerns. Nature, 28 September 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/three-parent-baby-claim-raises-hopes-and-ethical-concerns-1.20698
(6) D. A. Barclay. 2017. Column: Can Librarians Help Solve the Fake News Problem? PBS NewsHour, 6 January 2017. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/column-can-librarians-help-solve-the-fake-news-problem/