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Frankenstein and Scientific Innovation

The story of Frankenstein is the go-to parable on the dangers of scientific innovation and can be blamed for many of the fears surrounding scientific and technological advancements.

Epochs in history are often separated by a significant technological advancement: the atom bomb, the steam engine and even fire (if we go back far enough). Yet, major scientific and technological advancements are often feared in their time, as is the case today with new technologies like gene editing and artificial intelligence. Many of these fears are emotionally grounded in the story of Frankenstein, the go-to parable on the dangers of scientific innovation. As a non-scientist who has recently delved into the ethics and governance of gene editing, it is safe to say that many of these fears are detached from science and that gene editing is, by and large, not viewed rationally. Given that the publication of Frankenstein is nearing its bicentennial celebration it seemed prudent to revisit the story and in light of recent advancements in gene editing. 

Aside from the fact that Frankenstein is the doctor in the story and not the nameless monster, Mary Shelley’s magnum opus is frequently misunderstood. This can perhaps be attributed to a long history of retellings: most people’s conception of the story is heavily influenced by the 1931 film where Boris Karloff played the monster as a groaning, lumbering and murderous brute. But many would be surprised to learn that Shelley’s monster can not only read and speak but ruminates on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In truth, the novel is not a simple story of “Man plays god by creating monster. Monster kills people” and is far more ambiguous. The monster is a sympathetic character that cares for and protects an impoverished rural family, saves a little girl from drowning and longs for a lover. Frankenstein meanwhile is revolted by the monster he manically sought to create and abandons it to fend for itself, driving the Monster on a path of vengeance against its creator. It can be argued that Shelly pontificates more on bad parentage than scientific hubris, and that Frankenstein is more a lesson on bad scientists than bad science. 

So where does that leave us with gene editing? The recent advent of CRISPR has made gene editing significantly cheaper and more accurate, renewing the debate on whether gene modification is wise, natural or right. So how should we think about it and what can we learn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 

Let’s be Scientific 

You are currently reading this article on a computing device powered by electricity, sitting in a room (or vehicle) constructed by engineers, enjoying a life expected to last twice as long as your ancestors hundreds of years ago. Long story short, scientific progress has been good for humanity so as a general rule, so it’s better if we don’t impede it unnecessarily. This is not to say that gene editing should be unchecked, just that any restrictions should be based on scientific reasons such as irreversible ecological impacts. Accusations of ‘playing God’ or gene editing being ‘wrong’ ignore a long history of human tampering: humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals (like dogs) for desirable traits for hundreds of years. If indeed, humanity fully carried out the belief that nature is sacrosanct we wouldn’t besmirch the Earth by living in structures of steel, brick and concrete (nor pollute it with our affluents). 

Technology =/= Application 

Nuclear energy vs. nuclear bombs. Space exploration vs. ballistic missiles. Entertainment films vs. stalking footage. Just as is the case with Victor Frankenstein abandoning his creation, it is not the act of invention that is wrong, but what is done subsequent to it. Many technologies are not inherently evil and can be put to good use as well as bad. This is very much the case with gene editing; it could have massive public health benefits such as potentially preventing mosquitoes from spreading malaria and treating a host of diseases just as it could potentially foster eugenic programmes and reduce biodiversity. A technology should be divorced from its applications (and any practices it may encourage) and be viewed separately. So gene editing may help address food security in an increasingly populated planet but may also lead to bad results if crops are purchased through flawed agricultural financing systems or planted poorly (through monocropping and the poor pesticide practices). The major reason for distinguishing between gene editing and its applications are that the misuses can be addressed through regulations that also allow the technology to benefit millions. 

Regulation > Outright Ban 

Curiosity (what can it do?) and self-interest (what can it do for me?) have been drivers of scientific research for centuries. Victor Frankenstein was driven both by a curiosity of the galvanising effects of electricity as well as a desire to create beings that would worship him. A simple ban will not stop powerful motivations like these. A more likely result is that it will drive activity underground much like prohibition of alcohol in the USA did. In the case of gene editing the mafia will be replaced by countries with either weak regulations or weak enforcement of them. This increases the risks inherent in gene editing, which are not just scientific ones like ecological impacts; with human gene editing there are significant ethical concerns as well. For example, to prevent exploitation, informed consent should be taken from patients and the confidentiality of their genetic data also needs to be protected. So, it is better that gene editing be allowed openly with restrictions rather than relegate it to the dark corners of the world where there is minimal academic and ethical oversight. 

The Balance of National Interests

Victor Frankenstein ends up chasing his creation across the world until he reaches the Arctic where he is found by Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer. The world today is not only significantly more charted, but more interconnected, and gene edits have the same scant regard for international borders that the monster had. There is a global debate right now on what is the best regulatory approach to gene editing and it is vital that India is an active participant in setting any new standards. A failure to do so will not only circumscribe its ability to address major health and food security problems but also constitute a lost opportunity to take a stance independent of other major powers. The best example of this independence can be seen in India’s position on generic drugs. India was not only able to reduce healthcare costs domestically but also leverage exports to developing nations. 

So What Now? 

It can be seen that the story of Frankenstein has been retold so many times that it has become an almost mythical tale of good and evil. This has removed the story of its ambiguities and simplified the lessons it has on how to approach science. But it is crucial that any regulation of gene editing (or any other technology) should be grounded in science and fact. As such, scientists should play a key part in setting standards. But at the same time, they should not be allowed free reign and the concerns of ethicists, ecologists, medical practitioners, farmers and the public at large should be given voice in any discussion. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, these people will ensure that scientists also ask “Should we?” instead of just “Could we?”. But given the potential benefits of gene editing, perhaps the real question moving forward is “How should we?” 

About the author

Madhav Chandavarkar

Madhav Chandavarkar is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. He earned a 5 year degree in law from Symbiosis Law School only to discover he didn't want to be a (practising) lawyer. His interests include free speech, constitutional law and pop culture.