Boris Karloff in the 1931 film Frankenstein

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Frankenstein 200 Years Later

The story of a scientist and the creature he brought to life continues to serve as a cautionary tale for today’s world

Even if you’ve never read the novel Frankenstein—or knew there was a novel—you know the story.

You’ve seen it depicted in movies and cartoons, and you’ve spotted the monster on cereal boxes and at Halloween parties. The tale of the rogue scientist and the creature he brought to life is 200 years old, yet it seems as if it were ripped from today’s headlines: scientists creating synthetic organisms; engineers designing increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems; researchers growing organs in petri dishes. How did Mary Shelley, just 18, come up with this story, and what can we learn from it today?

It all started with a dare on the unusually cold and stormy night of June 15, 1816, in a stately house on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. “We will each write a ghost story,” said the party’s host, the famous poet Lord Byron. Mary—born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were spending the summer with Byron, but the weather was so terrible that they huddled indoors reading by candlelight from a book of German folk tales about vampires and tortured souls.

Mary Shelley recalled later that the seed for Frankenstein had come to her in a vision deep in the night: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”  

Even if you’ve never read the novel Frankenstein—or knew there was a novel—you know the story.

You’ve seen it depicted in movies and cartoons. And you’ve spotted the monster on cereal boxes and at Halloween parties. The tale of the rogue scientist and the creature he brought to life is 200 years old. Yet it seems as if it were ripped from today’s headlines. Hot topics today include scientists creating synthetic organisms; engineers designing increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems; and researchers growing organs in petri dishes. How did Mary Shelley, just 18, come up with this story, and what can we learn from it today?

It all started with a dare on the unusually cold and stormy night of June 15, 1816. A group sat in a stately house on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. “We will each write a ghost story,” said the party’s host, the famous poet Lord Byron. Mary—born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were spending the summer with Byron. The weather was so terrible that they huddled indoors. They read by candlelight from a book of German folk tales about vampires and tortured souls.

Mary Shelley recalled later that the seed for Frankenstein had come to her in a vision deep in the night: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” 

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images (Mary Shelley); Courtesy of Simon & Brown (book)

Mary Shelley (above) wrote Frankenstein on a dare at the age of 18.  

‘It’s Alive!’

Often regarded as one of the first science fiction novels, Frankenstein tells the story of a young student, Victor Frankenstein, who abandons his studies to pursue his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He robs graveyards and slaughterhouses for body parts and cuts himself off from everyone. When Victor finally succeeds, the creature horrifies him and he flees, leaving this highly intelligent, inhumanly strong being to fend for himself. Repeatedly rejected by his maker and society at large, the creature becomes a monster, exacting his revenge by killing everyone Victor loves.

To create her novel, Shelley drew on her troubled past and her extensive book knowledge. Her mother, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had died after giving birth to her. (Shelley claimed she learned to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone—which she spent many hours visiting as a girl.) And Shelley’s own first child died at just a few weeks old. Frankenstein reflects this personal history: It’s a story about the dangerous and unpredictable process of bringing new life into the world.

Frankenstein is often regarded as one of the first science fiction novels. It tells the story of a young student, Victor Frankenstein, who abandons his studies to pursue his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He robs graveyards and slaughterhouses for body parts and cuts himself off from everyone. When Victor finally succeeds, the creature horrifies him, and he flees. His highly intelligent, inhumanly strong being is left to fend for himself. Repeatedly rejected by his maker and society at large, the creature becomes a monster. He takes his revenge by killing everyone Victor loves.

To create her novel, Shelley drew on her troubled past and her extensive book knowledge. Her mother, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had died after giving birth to her. Shelley claimed she learned to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone. She spent many hours visiting the grave as a girl. And Shelley’s own first child died at just a few weeks old. Frankenstein reflects this personal history. It’s a story about the dangerous and unpredictable process of bringing new life into the world.

Today’s students will one day choose how to use genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

Shelley was also well-versed in the philosophical and scientific ideas of the time. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known philosopher, and her stepmother home-schooled her, and Shelley studied Latin and Greek, and read widely in philosophy, the sciences, and other fields—extremely unusual for a woman of that era. Shelley was particularly interested in galvanism, a new scientific theory that electricity could be used to stimulate or restart life.

As a result, Shelley came up with a strange new kind of book that has the plot of a gothic adventure story filled with murder and mayhem but also reads like a work of philosophy. Because of its strangeness, its violence, and the author’s gender, only a third-rate publisher would take the project and the author’s name was kept secret. Finally, on January 1, 1818, Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus appeared in a print run of 500 copies in London. The reviews were mixed.

“Early readers did not like Frankenstein,” says Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws, a biography of Shelley and her mother. “They did not know who the author was, as it was published anonymously. When they found out that Frankenstein was written by a woman, they were horrified.”

One critic, Gordon says, thought the author must be as “monstrous” as the monster she created. But despite the public’s uneasiness, the proof of Frankenstein’s impact was in how quickly people “borrowed” it, and by that measure the novel was a huge success, with numerous stage adaptations in the years that followed. These plays often opened to huge crowds and scandalous publicity.   

When the English Opera House in London advertised the first adaptation of the “improper work called Frankenstein” in 1823, the advertisements said, “Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!!”

Shelley was also well-versed in the philosophical and scientific ideas of the time. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known philosopher, and her stepmother home-schooled her. Shelley studied Latin and Greek. She also read widely in philosophy, the sciences, and other fields. That was extremely unusual for a woman of that era. Shelley was particularly interested in galvanism. It was a new scientific theory that electricity could be used to stimulate or restart life.

As a result, Shelley came up with a strange new kind of book. It has the plot of a gothic adventure story filled with murder and mayhem but also reads like a work of philosophy. Because of its strangeness, its violence, and the author’s gender, only a third-rate publisher would take the project. The author’s real name was kept secret. Finally, on January 1, 1818, Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, appeared in a print run of 500 copies in London. The reviews were mixed.

“Early readers did not like Frankenstein,” says Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws, a biography of Shelley and her mother. “They did not know who the author was, as it was published anonymously. When they found out that Frankenstein was written by a woman, they were horrified.” 

One critic, Gordon says, thought the author must be as “monstrous” as the monster she created. But despite the public’s uneasiness, the proof of Frankenstein’s impact was in how quickly people “borrowed” it. By that measure, the novel was a huge success. It led to numerous stage adaptations in the years that followed. These plays often opened to huge crowds and scandalous publicity.

When the English Opera House in London advertised the first adaptation of the “improper work called Frankenstein” in 1823, the advertisements said, “Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!!”

VCG via Getty Images

Living robots? The robot Sophia was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia in 2017.

The Industrial Revolution

Shelley had put her finger on the uncomfortable intersection of scientific and technological change that was sweeping the world in the form of the Industrial Revolution—the rise of mechanized production and the shift from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial one. Experimental science was still in its early days. In fact, at the time the book was published, the word “scientist” did not exist. Shelley’s flawed character Victor actually predated its first use by at least 10 years. Shelley also harnessed much older religious and ethical dilemmas about creating life and taking responsibility for our actions.

Today, Frankenstein is one of the most read novels in history, available in hundreds of editions and translations. It’s assigned in more college classes in the U.S. than any other novel, according to the Columbia University-based Open Syllabus Project, and it appears on many high school reading lists.

The creator and the creature haunt us in film and television too, which is where millions of people have encountered variants of Shelley’s original tale. Many of these modern Frankensteins trace their roots back to the 1931 film adaptation, in which Boris Karloff plays the creature as a menacing but largely mute presence—a major departure from Shelley’s hyper-articulate and intelligent being.

In literature and film, the creature continues to be celebrated through reinventions like the recently published Pride and Prometheus, a mash-up of Shelley’s novel with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the recent movies Victor Frankenstein, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and Frankenweenie, a Disney animated film.  

The central image of Victor bringing a dead body to life has become so embedded in our culture that we’ve made franken- a prefix to cast almost anything in an alarming and unnatural light, like “frankenfood.”

Shelley had put her finger on the uncomfortable intersection of scientific and technological change that was sweeping the world in the form of the Industrial Revolution. The rise of mechanized production and the shift from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial one marked the era. Experimental science was still in its early days. In fact, at the time the book was published, the word “scientist” did not exist. Shelley’s flawed character Victor actually predated its first use by at least 10 years. Shelley also used much older religious and ethical dilemmas about creating life and taking responsibility for our actions.

Today, Frankenstein is one of the most read novels in history. It’s available in hundreds of editions and translations. It’s assigned in more college classes in the U.S. than any other novel, according to the Columbia University-based Open Syllabus Project. And it appears on many high school reading lists. 

The creator and the creature haunt us in film and television too. Millions of people have seen variants of Shelley’s original tale in these mediums. Many of these modern Frankensteins trace their roots back to the 1931 film adaptation. In it, Boris Karloff plays the creature as a menacing but largely mute presence. His portrayal was a major departure from Shelley’s hyper-articulate and intelligent being.

In literature and film, the creature continues to be celebrated through reinventions. The recently published Pride and Prometheus is a mash-up of Shelley’s novel with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The recent movies Victor Frankenstein, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and Frankenweenie, a Disney animated film, also feature the monster.

The central image of Victor bringing a dead body to life has become embedded in our culture. In fact, we’ve made “franken-” a prefix to cast almost anything in an alarming and unnatural light, like “frankenfood.”

Robots & Clones

Above all, Frankenstein is a parable about scientific discovery and technological innovation. Victor’s great crime in the novel is not bringing something new to life but failing to anticipate the consequences of that act and turning his back on his creation.

The story Shelley wrote as pure science fiction now seems all too real. Every year, high school and college students around the world compete to create genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s) in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Researchers at Google and other companies are developing artificial intelligence systems capable of outperforming humans at many tasks, such as reading X-rays. Roboticists are building increasingly lifelike machines with limbs and sensors that allow them to mimic many human behaviors, like running, jumping, and manipulating objects with synthetic hands. Bioengineers have cloned sheep, dogs, horses, and monkeys. They’re even discovering ways of editing people’s DNA (see “Modern-Day Frankensteins?,” below).

Above all, Frankenstein is a parable about scientific discovery and technological innovation. Victor’s great crime in the novel is not bringing something new to life but failing to anticipate the consequences of that act and turning his back on his creation.

The story Shelley wrote as pure science fiction now seems all too real. Every year, high school and college students around the world take part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. In it, they compete to create genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s). Researchers at Google and other companies are developing artificial intelligence systems capable of outperforming humans at many tasks, such as reading X-rays. Roboticists are building increasingly lifelike machines with limbs and sensors that allow them to mimic many human behaviors, like running, jumping, and manipulating objects with synthetic hands. Bioengineers have cloned sheep, dogs, horses, and monkeys. They’re even discovering ways of editing people’s DNA (see “Modern-Day Frankensteins?,” below).

Today’s scientists may be able to learn from Victor Frankenstein’s mistakes.

Today’s high school students will be the next generation of engineers, scientists, politicians, and everyday citizens making choices about how to use genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

As we explore new technologies and their consequences, some scientists believe we can learn from Victor’s mistakes. After all, one reason he made such poor moral choices was that he closed himself off from society and refused to ask anyone for help or advice. Bioengineer Kevin Esvelt writes in an article for the website Slate that Frankenstein has much to teach us about scientific creativity and responsibility today. The message, he says, is clear: “Scientists should hold themselves morally responsible for all consequences of their work. The least we can do is muster enough humility to ask for help.”

Today’s high school students will be the next generation of engineers, scientists, politicians, and everyday citizens making choices about how to use genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

As we explore new technologies and their consequences, some scientists believe we can learn from Victor’s mistakes. After all, one reason he made such poor moral choices was that he closed himself off from society and refused to ask anyone for help or advice. Bioengineer Kevin Esvelt writes in an article for the website Slate that Frankenstein has much to teach us about scientific creativity and responsibility today. The message, he says, is clear: “Scientists should hold themselves morally responsible for all consequences of their work. The least we can do is muster enough humility to ask for help.”

Ed Finn is the co-editor of “Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”

Ed Finn is the co-editor of “Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”

Modern-Day Frankensteins?

Scientists are discovering ways of altering human and animal DNA—and wrestling with the potential consequences

WFIRM

Scientists have 3-D printed ears and other human body parts out of living cells.

What if scientists could cure some of the worst inherited diseases by removing genes that are responsible for the disorders and replacing them with healthy genes? Or rid a person of cancer by programming the cells in their body to attack the illness? Experts say we may not be far off from making these once-unthinkable possibilities a reality now that scientists are discovering ways of editing genes so they behave in different ways.

This new technique for the cut-and-paste style of editing DNA is called Crispr. The first human trials of the gene-editing technology are slated to begin in the U.S. and Europe this year. In China, such experiments have been going on since 2015. The Wall Street Journal reports that in China, at least 86 people have had their genes edited.

But Crispr and other medical advances raise a host of concerns, similar to the ones Victor Frankenstein wrestles with in the novel Frankenstein. Scientists have begun debating, for example, whether creating “designer babies” by pre-selecting their genes to rid them of diseases and perhaps even give them more desirable traits would be safe and ethical. Or whether we should modify the genetics of mosquitoes to stop them from carrying malaria without fully knowing what effect that will have on the ecosystem. Those debates will only increase as scientists become more adept at manipulating life the way Frankenstein did.

“When the technology gets to the point of being safe and effective enough,” says Dana Carroll, a biochemistry professor at the University of Utah, “the question is, in what circumstances would you use it?”

What if scientists could cure some of the worst inherited diseases by removing genes that are responsible for the disorders and replacing them with healthy genes? Or rid a person of cancer by programming the cells in their body to attack the illness? Experts say we may not be far off from making these once-unthinkable possibilities a reality now that scientists are discovering ways of editing genes so they behave in different ways.

This new technique for the cut-and-paste style of editing DNA is called Crispr. The first human trials of the gene-editing technology are slated to begin in the U.S. and Europe this year. In China, such experiments have been going on since 2015. The Wall Street Journal reports that in China, at least 86 people have had their genes edited.

But Crispr and other medical advances raise a host of concerns, similar to the ones Victor Frankenstein wrestles with in the novel Frankenstein. Scientists have begun debating, for example, whether creating “designer babies” by pre-selecting their genes to rid them of diseases and perhaps even give them more desirable traits would be safe and ethical. Or whether we should modify the genetics of mosquitoes to stop them from carrying malaria without fully knowing what effect that will have on the ecosystem. Those debates will only increase as scientists become more adept at manipulating life the way Frankenstein did.

“When the technology gets to the point of being safe and effective enough,” says Dana Carroll, a biochemistry professor at the University of Utah, “the question is, in what circumstances would you use it?”

The Evolution of a Monster

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired more than 90 films, about 80 stage adaptations, and at least 650 comic books and cartoon strips. The first Frankenstein film (1931) in the sound era featured actor Boris Karloff as the monster (shown, above). How has the creature changed since then?  

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (The Munsters); The Advertising Archives/Alamy Stock Photo (Bride of Frankenstein);

Bride of Frankenstein Movie, 1935 (left); The Munsters TV, 1964 (right)

Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock.com (Franken Berry); Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (Frankenweenie)

Franken Berry Cereal, 1971; Frankenweenie Movie, 2012

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Hotel Transylvania Movie, 2012

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