Has our 'mad scientist' really created a Frankenstein's monster?


CULTURE SHOCK:Mary Shelley’s imagery has dominated coverage of Craig Venter’s laboratory creation. It perfectly illustrates the ongoing cultural divide between art and science, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

‘ONE OF THE phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” Thus, of course, the original mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel.

When Craig Venter, our contemporary version of the mad scientist, announced that he and his team had created a synthetic living organism in the laboratory, it was Shelley’s imagery that dominated the global media coverage. A Google search for Craig Venter + Frankenstein produced more than 50,000 results: “A real-world Frankenstein?”;

“Maverick Frankenstein scientist”; “Synthetic cells: the bride of Frankenstein?”; “Frankenstein’s Monster: Building New Life”; “ ‘Frankenstein’ doc creates life”; “Dr Frankenstein or medical revolutionary?”; and so on and on.

The problem with all of this is not just the linguistic cliche. It is the way a cliche of language shapes our understanding of an event. In the case of Venter’s achievement, the Frankenstein image lead to a gross exaggeration, both of the significance of what had been done and of the possible consequences of this alleged example of a scientist “playing God”.

The whole episode, in fact, perfectly illustrates the continuing cultural divide between art and science. Geneticists thought of Venter’s synthesis as science and therefore treated it with a degree of scepticism. The rest of us viewed it through the prism of a 19th-century romantic novel and all the movies that have been spun out of it.

In 1959, CP Snow famously posed the problem, of the “two cultures”, in which those steeped in literature and those steeped in science have so little in common that in moving between them “one might have crossed an ocean”. Fifty years on, the gulf between the scientific reaction to Venter and the interpretation of the story by almost everyone else suggest that the gulf is, if anything, even wider.

Venter himself, who is nothing if not a showman, is partly responsible for all of this.

In his anxiety to present himself as having made an extraordinary breakthrough, the Frankenstein analogy is actually rather useful. Frankenstein is, after all, in Mary Shelley’s subtitle “the modern Prometheus”, and Prometheus was the great benefactor who brought fire to humanity. The comparison is flattering, and Venter has used it himself. In 1999, outlining his plans to unlock the genetic code to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Venter deliberately evoked Frankenstein: “Shelley would have loved this!” The apocalyptic warnings of the possible destruction of the human race by Venter’s runaway new life forms were functions of an image he himself was happy to cultivate.

One of the interesting things about this resurgence of Frankenstein imagery is that – rather ironically for a narrative about cutting-edge 21st-century science – it has a decidedly retro feel. The Frankenstein metaphor was revived by James Whale’s classic 1931 movie. Within 18 months at least six more “mad scientist” movies had been released by Hollywood. In Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, Andrew Tudor lists the first principle of the pre-war genre as the presence of “the scientist who is obsessed with, and consumed by, his work, and who seeks, and seems to have mastered, the ‘secret of life itself’.” Tudor points out that this theme actually diminished in the second half of the 20th century. The classic mad scientist of the 1950s, in The Fly, is not on a secret-of-life quest. By the 1970s even the Frankenstein movies are either parodies (Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein) or self-conscious, over-the-top pastiches with no real sense of terror. The “playing God” anxiety more or less disappears.

“By 1974,” Tudor writes, “the centre of gravity of mad-scientist movies has long since moved away from the ethical issues raised by obsessive devotion to science.” And in any case, mad scientists were something of a dying breed in horror movies. Christopher Frayling notes in Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinemathat “psychotics took over from mad scientists in the period 1960-1984 . . . Pre-1960 horrors are dominated by science; post-1960 by sex and psychos.” (The great exception, it might be noted, is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, but he emerges in a political satire rather than a horror movie.)

One could speculate as to why this might be. Certainly, the consumer culture of the 1960s onwards is much more at home with artificiality and novelty. (Think of all those ads with sensible, white-coated scientists in their labs telling us about the benefits of the latest washing powder or toothpaste.) What we’ve seen with the Venter story is thus a resurgence of a pre-1960s image, and in some respects of a 19th-century cultural reflex. Scientists have been on a slow path to “creating life” almost since Mary Shelley wrote her novel. In 1828, just 10 years after Frankensteinappeared, Friedrich Wöhler added ammonium chloride to silver isocyanate to produce urea, thus doing the apparently impossible and creating an organic substance from inorganic materials. Wöhler was “playing God”.

The subsequent rise of organic chemistry encouraged the proliferation of “mad scientists” in literature. In terms of imagery, the chemist inherited the medieval tradition of fear of alchemists who are eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, crystallised in the various versions of the Faust legend. Thus we find, for example, Balzac’s chemist Baron Japhet, in The Magic Skin, declaring that “I believe in the Devil” and Balzac’s own description of chemistry as “that fiendish employment of decomposing all things”.

According to Christopher Frayling, after the 1931 Frankenstein movie “the ‘F-word’ was well and truly established as a label to be attached by the press to any questionable scientific discovery”. Even now, it seems, those of us who know a lot more about novels and movies than about science do what we all do when we’re stumped. We reach for the F-word.