Skepticism

Monster Sunday 5: Frankenstein

I was going to write some more about zombies this week, but then I saw this article from the Guardian:

Gordon Brown today mounts a passionate and personal defence of scientific research using animal-human hybrid embryos as an ‘inherently moral endeavour’ that could save millions of lives.

Writing in today’s Observer, he challenges critics in the churches and elsewhere who condemn what they regard as ‘Frankenstein science’, arguing that MPs ‘owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures’ when they vote on controversial embryology legislation this week. 

Apparently some people think genetic engineering is the same thing as making a new person out of spare body parts dug up out of the local graveyard. Cut-and-paste monsters are actually more interesting to me, even if they are less controversial these days.

More on genetic engineering and spare body parts below the fold.

The human/animal hybrid embryo issue has been discussed in the UK news for some time now. Instead of being sidetracked into arguing about whether or not embryos have souls (they don’t), I’d like to focus on the animal/human hybrid part of this controversy. I am not sure why people are so freaked out about genetic engineering. In plants and livestock, it’s not really very different than what we’ve been doing for thousands of years with artificial selection. It’s just that now we have a much more direct way to manipulate the genes of our food sources.

Regarding the human/animal hybrid question – never mind that it’s a false dichotomy: humans are animals, we’re not vegetables or minerals, are we? – we share many of our genes with other animals already. Depending what study you read, humans and chimps share anywhere from 96 to 99 percent of our genes, and humans and rats share 25 percent of our genes. So, in a way, we already are hybrids of a sort. The fear of sharing genes, I’m guessing, is based on the idea that humans are somehow special and endowed with some kind of supernatural “humanness,” along with an unwillingness to admit that we are mammals, just like chimps and rats. I mean, the creationists can’t deal with the idea that humans and apes share a common primate ancestor. Their heads would probably explode if they even thought about the idea that humans actually are apes!

Novice HameI’m not sure why people think this concept is related to Frankenstein’s monster either. I guess they’re really afraid of hybrid creatures like Novice Hame in Doctor Who and C’mell from Cordwainer Smith‘s stories, rather than cut-and-paste monsters like the one Doctor Frankenstein created.

We should be careful and make informed decisions about what we do with technology (alas that doesn’t happen often enough), but technology itself is not good or evil. Take the cut-and-paste monster idea. We are already doing a very good job of using spare body parts from corpses. Here are a few examples:

  • Hand transplant: In 1998 surgeons in France grafted a new hand onto the body of a man who had lost his hand in a saw accident 16 years before. Unfortunately, in 2001 the hand had to be amputated because it was rejected. But we don’t give up easily!
  • Third US hand transplant: In 2006, the third US hand transplant was performed on a man who had damaged his hand in an industrial accident over 30 years before. As far as I know, he still has his new hand.
  • Full face transplant: Doctors have also performed full face transplants on patients who were so deformed they could not go outside for fear of being harassed and taunted. (Isn’t what that says about human beings very sad?) Unlike the movie Face Off, the recipient does not look like the donor because he keeps his own skeletal structure.
  • Face transplants: Here’s a slideshow with more info about face transplants. I can’t tell you more about it because after reading the text on the first picture, showing a beautiful little girl before her face was cut off in a lawn mower accident, I could not make myself watch the rest.

Most organ transplants, the kinds that have been happening for decades, are invisible and less disturbing. We may not be able to create a new life out of used body parts, but we can certainly save lives with the same technologies that many uniformed and superstitious people consider monstrous.

So if you’ve been wanting to become a monster but have been hesitating about the vampire or werewolf options, please think about become an organ donor. Unlike mummies, you shouldn’t have any need to hoard your spare body parts after you die. Let someone else use your body parts and you’ll gain a tiny piece of immortality.

This link is to a US site with information on becoming an organ donor. If you have links to sites in any other nations, please post them in the comments.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way insinuating that the people needing cosmetic surgery are monsters. I am thrilled that we have the medical technology to help these people gain new lives, and I hope that we can stop uneducated and superstitious people from hampering scientific research and preventing other life-saving technologies from coming into use.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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17 Comments

  1. I emphatically agree that the science of this, as all science, is not good or evil. I am only against a lot of genetic engineering because I don’t trust the humans in power to not abuse it.

    I can just see a whole army of George Bush clones running around! *Shudder*

  2. Come on! Frankenstein is not the monster, the monster is the monster, Frankenstein was the guy who made the monster…

    Well, I guess the whole point of the book kind of is that Dr. Frankenstein was the monster, and the monster was just a person who caught a lot of bad breaks… but… well… It’s just a pet peeve of mine when people call the creation Frankenstein, which, upon rereading, I don’t actually see you doing, unless that’s what you meant by the title.

    Also, hybrid cloning is friggin’ cool. The wonders of cutting-edge science always are.

  3. I’d never thought of organ donation as being Frankensteinien, but I quite like the idea. Brings a smile to my face.

    I am a registered organ donor. I don’t understand the fear people have about it. I won’t be needing the organs when I’m dead, so pass them on, I say.

    For Australian readers, a link:

    Australians Donate

  4. The last time I read Frankenstein I realized that there weren’t any monsters at all. The doctor was trying to find a way to defeat death. Which is not a good idea. However, when the book was written death was much more of a problem. The creature that Dr. Frankenstein made wasn’t a monster. He was a child without a father. But he learned and then made his own way in the world. They were both noble and flawed in their own ways. As for the fools who object to the science they object from fear. Fear has long been the driving force of conservative and right wing politics. They don’t know what it is about the science that scares them but they do know that it scares the shit out of them. If they are afraid then it must be evil. Because the fault could never lay with them. They are righteous and the chosen of god, so the fault must lay with science.

  5. The Boy had a cervical disc replaced with smooshed up bone from a donor (aka a dead person).

    All he needs now is a brain so he’s thinking about going on a more zombie-like rampage, feeding on the brains of random creationists.

    I’m thinking he’ll starve to death.

  6. Well “Frankenstein” makes a good buzzword, which is all that your typical neo-Luddite can understand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the origin of the term ‘Frankenfood’ was supposably created by an English professor (ie: knowledge of bio-chem = zero).

    Of course if you want to make their brain experience a ‘divide by zero’ error – just mention that about 80% of the worlds insulin is made by gene-modified bacteria.

    **Insulin = good, gene tech = bad, insulin = gene tech, insulin = good…bad…gooobaaa…Bzzt…
    **Error…this unit as suffered a metaphysical dichotomy and shut down.
    **Please return brain to manufacturer for resetting
    **Consider upgrading to the new MegaWoo 1000 brain
    **Capable of holding 10 contradictory stances at once!

    As for Frankie’s monster, it was born bad (in the original books) and had no qualms about killing to get something. The original movies had the brain that of a murdering criminal. The whole emo-wangst stuff was added later (mainly for the more modern movies).

    As for vamps and fizzies – what happens if a vampire has an organ doner card? Or is a werewolf a human/animal hybrid?

  7. The monster wasn’t born bad – it was born a blank slate and was subjected to horrors from pretty much the beginning, so it got nasty pretty quick – seeing your wife utterly destroyed before your eyes for the crime of being “hideous” would do that to people with a much firmer grounding in morality and ethics, I believe.

  8. It quite happily did some nasty things long before the attempted ‘bride’.

    Killing of William out of spite for Victor, and framing the maid – and it never was a ‘wife’ anyway as the work was never completed or animated, and was never destroyed ‘before his eyes’ in any case (it was dumped in the lake).

    And then the string of ‘spite’ murders afterwards, the torching of the Delacy house when he grabbed for the old man and was chased off by his son. Not to mention the continued threats of enternal war and everlasting destruction on mankind.

    “I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin. … I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery”

  9. No, no, no! The Creature was hounded out and hunted from the time he was “born!” The very first thing that had happened to him was that he was rejected by Frankenstein!

    The incident with the blind man’s family came first, you know –The hope of some sort of normal existence, snatched away from him with great cruelty. It was afterward that the Creature wanted to find and punish Frankenstein.

    I’m with Rystefn on the the whole Frankenstein issue.

  10. Actually it wasn’t.

    Until the DeLacy incident he had been chased off once (an anonymous village), and ‘rejected’ by Victor once – (which is an interesting claim anyway as Vic was collapsed with fever after being horrified at his creation and was out of action for several months). A very long way from constantly.

    And of course the DeLacy incident has a family in hiding suddenly finding a creature grabbing their father and yelling at him (the creature fears discovery by Felix before it can make its case) and toss him out – it would have been unlikely they would have sat it down for tea and biscuits even if it was a normal person.

    So two rejections and he goes nuts. Three if you count the drowing girl incident (the only real rejection) where the decision is reinforced. An average human could get rejected that many times a day if they tried. Even its desire for a bride is ‘me me me’ (who cares if the bride doesnt want to be the monsters mate – something Victor considers). At the very least it was a sociopath, at worst pyschotic.

    “‘If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion….”

  11. I think the problem is in education. Quite a lot of “educated” people think humans are not animals (we shouldn’t be Homo Sapians-Wise Man, but rather Pan Sapians-Wise Chimp) or are shocked to learn than half of the population is below average intelligence. (Of course it doesnt help that we use the word hybrid which implies a crossing of two things that are unrelated)

    Its hardly suprising people are worried about things they don’t understand. Hell, we’ve only been vaccinating people for 200 years and there are still people who question it!

    It’s not that people are stupid but that the gap between a typcial high school graduate and science-as-applied is now so huge as to render anything you may do prior to grad-school almost worthless. Think of all the science based or critical thinking skills you know. Did you learn them in school or did you learn them at a later date from popular science books, the internet, or for example TV shows like mythbusters? Hand on heart, I learnt nothing from formal education prior to uni, my mum taught me the three R’s (actually one R, a W and an A) before I started school and I didnt learn a single thing from 7 to 18.

    So its hardly suprising to find the majority of people reluctant to embrace scientifc advances.

    ps. A typcial high school higher level science question today shows a picture of a Daisy, a fish & a dog then asks to indicate which is a mammal! Some kids get this wrong

  12. @russellsugden

    I suspect that would depend more on the teacher. My old chemistry and physics teachers made science fun (lasers, explosions, etc) and in doing so led you down the ‘why’ path. So that is a possible factor.

    Another is reading prior to formal education. One of the first books I ever read (at about 5-6 years old) was a hard covered, foolscap sized yellow book “How Things Work”. It displayed the basic inner workings (in a way a child could understand) of things like windscreen wipers, washing machines and even nuclear reactors. Next in line was Sherlock Holmes and the ‘deductive method’ (just a pity A.C. Doyle was a class one woomeister). And even Doctor Who (Tom Baker) helped with ‘no such thing as magic, just the unexplained – which is why I seriosuly dislike the current RTD series).

    While books can help though, its not a substitue for a good teacher. But todays teachers are overworked, underpaid, constantly litigated against so it is unsurprising they have much entheuasism. And even if you do get a good one, a lot of the population view such students as ‘geeks and nerds’ and are merciecly vilified by other students.

    Re the PS: Considering something like 40% think lasers work by sound waves, and dont know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, I’m not surprised.

  13. He was a child without a father.

    Actually, he was a child without a mother.

    There was a scandal in NYC in which corpses were being stolen and sold for their collagen and other non-donated parts. I think Alaistair Cooke (the guy from Masterpiece theater) was one of the bodies.

    Apparently they make some wrinkle-fillers from the stuff.

    My good friend Jeremy Kareken has written a play called “the Sweet Sweet Motherhood” with professor Lee M. Silver. It is about an undergraduate who proposes carrying a human-chimp hybrid to term. Google his name and you’ll see some reviews of the play, including a RadioLab episode. I can assure you that the playwright is a bona-fide skeptic and very pro-science.

  14. Whilst I love bashing reactionary crazies as much the next person, I think it’s important to remember the happy ending to this story. Amidst all the hullaballoo our parliament quietly voted not to ban hybrid embryo research by quite a convincing majority (66%) in a free vote (not coerced into voting along party lines): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7407589.stm. And, to be fair, they have a pretty good track record of getting things right on scientific research. For all the anti-science shouting going on, the UK has really good research regulation and this decision will help to keep us as world leaders in biomed research. We should get angry when people attack science but also recognise and be happy when pro-science decisions are taken :-)

    Aneurin, London

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