Frankenstein as an Evolutionary Singularity

Friday, October 23, 2015

by Robert Lowery


“If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”


From the mouth of Victor Frankenstein, this statement may most clearly represent the thesis of Mary Shelly’s book. While the latter outcomes are not the work of scientists, (and I must defer to experts on literature as to her motives), this statement, if applied to the pursuit of knowledge, (or any quest of serious significance) would result in a complete lack of noteworthy progress. It is overstating an argument against the pursuit of knowledge. However, her concerns about the progress of Science were not misplaced. Indeed, while frequently categorized as Horror, Frankenstein should more aptly be given the designation Science fiction, as it aims to predict of the potential dangers of an elevated understanding the mechanics of life. With every new discovery in the field of molecular biology, humans get closer to being able play God. Transgenics, while already being applied to a variety of animals and plants, offers a Promethean dimension when applied to humans. Our nearly instinctive desire for improvement presents a strong motive, which may ultimately inspire some, in the future, to attempt to improve our species. While some potential genetic improvements would be less controversial, such as the elimination of heritable disease, others, (however well-intentioned) may have dire consequences: notably precipitating a speciation event among the descendants of contemporary humans. If the created were to be great in intelligence, and most importantly begin to consider itself as separate from our species, we may become problematic. Speciation events tend to be very unpleasant when the environment in which two descendent populations develop is limited in resources, as unfortunately our planet happens to be, because generally only one population wins. Whether this would happen quickly or slowly through graded steps would matter little ultimately as humans as we know it may become extinct as a result. Even a few well placed changes to the current human genome may be sufficient to generate a far superior version of ourselves in terms of health, longevity and intelligence. This new breed may look at us with derision, particularly as our record of stewardship and fellowship is fairly abominable and may only get worse. With the exponential rise in global population and the incumbent wars that develop as we outstrip resources and ruin what resources exist with our ever-expanding civilization and industry, we are unlikely to make a good first impression. Although a handful of laws, conventions, and agreements attempt to prevent such a singularity from ever being risked, changing political circumstances may present opportunities to individuals or groups desiring such a development to pass. Whether within 100 or 1000 years or more, it may ultimately be inevitable.


Interestingly, Shelley foreshadowed a similar speciation event in her work, when describing what fates may befall his monster and its putative mate when she wrote, “Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? I had before been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created; I had been struck senseless by his fiendish threats; but now, for the first time, the wickedness of my promise burst upon me; I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.” And, so in the spirit of the season, I would suggest to you that the story Frankenstein is one, which is very timely, describing a very real danger, which (while I said it was Science Fiction) is entirely HORRIFIC!!




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