Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, is as compelling and thought-provoking in 2010 as when the novel appeared almost 200 years ago. Shelley subtitled her opus The Modern Prometheus. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, although certainly no god, was a brilliant scientist who paid bitterly for the fruits of his genius. His loved ones were tragically murdered by his inhuman creation and he was doomed to suffer relentlessly for his deeds, as was Prometheus. The Titan Prometheus believed he was helping mankind by giving them the gift of fire. Frankenstein believed he was furthering the cause of science by creating a living being from dead flesh. Prometheus and Frankenstein shared the classical tragic flaw of hubris. Hubris is the arrogance that leads one to overestimate one’s abilities and importance and take actions that likely result in great harms. In Greek literature a person’s hubris usually helped cause his destruction.
Dr. Frankenstein successfully created new life. The monster was a genius, but his physical qualities were abhorrent to others and he was shunned. The being recognized his unfortunate uniqueness and was greatly pained by his enforced solitude. He wreaked terrible vengeance upon Frankenstein for the perceived crime of bringing the creature into the world.
One possible conclusion from Shelley’s cautionary tale is that science should never proceed unchecked. Science needs always to be constrained by moral principles and its activities need to be referenced against potential harms. Frankenstein’s hubris blinded him to the likely untoward outcomes of his research. He was only focused on the task he had set himself. He gave no thought to what such a creature would think or how it would act. He certainly never considered potential consequences to others that would flow from the existence of such a creation.
Opponents of reproductive cloning often draw unflattering parallels to the story of Frankenstein and his monster. There are some things scientists should never consider and some actions scientists should never take, they say. It is suggested that creating life – which is exactly what reproductive cloning would be, if successful – is the ultimate act of hubris. Frankenstein provides fictional evidence of this. Dr. Frankenstein took it upon himself to create life, and his family and friends were the ones to pay the terrible cost of his actions in the loss of their own lives.
Those opposed to RC suggest that creating life should not be undertaken by scientists. But this is not a consistent position. Many of these persons do not also oppose in vitro fertilization or other assisted reproductive technologies. All fertilizations which occur in laboratories – using instruments, petri dishes, and refrigerators – are examples of scientists creating life. It is not at all clear why one form of creation is acceptable and even sought after in certain circumstances and another is deemed reprehensible and a crime against nature.
Creating life may not be the major issue in reproductive cloning. But as individual members of society, we all need to guard against hubris and its consequences.