Chapter four: The ‘Frankenstein thing’ or the monsters we fear

Chapter 4

We have a choice of what myths, what visions we will use to help us understand the physical world. We do not have a choice of understanding it without using myths or visions at all. Again we have a real choice between becoming aware of these myths and ignoring them. If we ignore them, we travel blindly inside myths and visions which are largely provided by other people. This makes it much harder to know where we are going[1].


Mary Midgley

Introduction:  Of Monsters and Mutants

In their book The Molecular Gaze, Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin discuss monsters in relation to bioart, a new form of contemporary art involving techniques borrowed from biology. In the chapter mutation, manipulation and monsters: the new grotesque in arts, they describe how research in genetics and, especially, the possibilities of genetic manipulation have resurrected a long-standing interest in monsters and mutants in popular culture and the visual arts. ‘The monsters and mutations of contemporary culture and visual art are expressing the ethical dilemmas and the ambiguities that are inherent in science and technology – activities that can cure or kill, create or destroy, provide benefits or cause harm’ (Anker and Nelkin 2004: 76). In their discussion of the (artistic) imagination and biological science underlying popular visions of the monstrous, they not only show how the definition of the monster is time-dependent, but also how closely it is related to developments in (molecular) biology. ‘Once called “freaks”, today’s “monsters” are construed as beings with mutations that are expressed as bodily aberrations. As genetics guides one’s vision of the normal, anomalies have turned into congenital deformities, oddities into specimens and monsters into mutations’ (Anker and Nelkin 2004 : 47).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, monsters were virtually everywhere. Princes collected them; naturalists catalogued them; theologians used them for religious propaganda; scholars charted their occurrence and their significance in exquisitely illustrated books (Leroi 2003). In those days, monsters were human beings with developmental deformities like those associated with Siamese twins and Cyclops – physical deformities which were taken to be a punishment by God. The ontogenesis of monsters was taken to lie in unnatural acts that offended the Divine laws. Thus, despite the monster’s bodily malformation, the issue at stake in the phenomena of monstrosity was not physical, but moral (Graham 2002).

The etymological roots of the term ‘monster’, derived from the Latin monere (to warn) suggest that abnormalities of this kind were taken to be dangerous (Anker and Nelkin 2004). Associated with grotesque deformity, gross incongruity, and inhumane cruelty, monsters represent a threatening force, a terrifying and convincing deviation from the natural, as well as something that draws public attention and must be exposed to the public gaze. An alternative etymological reading starts from the French montrer, or the Latin monstrare, to point out, or show forth, as the origin of the term ‘monster’[2]. A monster is something to be shown, to be displayed, precisely because it is so different and frightening. Following this etymology, the purpose of a monster is to reveal the Divine Will (Graham 2002). Although those who warn us about Divine Will evoke fear, they also attract curiosity. The fear of monsters is often accompanied with fascination. Freak shows, the public exhibition of human oddities such as dwarfs, giants and Siamese twins, were a popular form of entertainment from the late 17th century onward to the early 20th century. At the start of the 17th century, natural philosophers like Francis Bacon began to take a more scientific perspective on monsters. Teratology, ‘monster studies’, replaced the old medieval wonder books. Scholars no longer explained abnormalities in terms of Divine punishment, but in terms of natural causation (Leroi 2003).

Monsters have always been, and still are, of great value to biology. Monster research is of particular importance for developmental biology. By studying anatomical abnormalities, developmental biologists gain insight into the complex mechanisms underlying normal development. Since the discovery of the homeobox genes in 1984, molecular biology has become a dominant discipline within the field of developmental biology. Today, most developmental disorders that lead to phenotypic abnormalities can be explained on the basis of genetic defects or mutations (Leroi 2003). This process the ‘geneticisation’ of developmental biology entailed a ‘demystification’ of the monster. Freaks that were traditionally seen as monstrosities lost their mystical character. They are no longer monsters, they have become genetic mutants.

But, as Anker and Nelkin point out, in spite of these new insights from modern biology, the term ‘monster’ did not loose its archetypical significance. With the aid of modern biotechnology, humans are capable of altering the ‘blueprint’ of life and recreating living organisms. During the molecular revolution, the life sciences reduced the naturally occurring (mystic) monsters to genetic mutants. At the same time, with the art of genetic engineering, scientists are creating a new class of potential monsters. Therefore, classical definitions of the monster are no longer adequate. Monsters are no longer the effect of Divine interventions or nature’s contingencies. Today’s monsters are human creations. That is why Anker and Nelkin argue that the monster metaphor is more relevant than ever. ‘The growing possibilities of altering the body, tampering with nature, and manipulating reproductive processes are clinically and philosophically seductive, yet troublesome as well. They promise control and even perfection, but they do also evoke fundamental questions of authenticity, identity and bodily integrity – the same questions that, two centuries ago, inspired Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein’ (Anker and Nelkin 2004: 3). If the questions are the same as two centuries ago, what has changed since 1818?

Is Frankenstein no longer a myth?

If we have to believe Anker and Nelkin, the life sciences have changed in such way that ‘Mary Shelley’s novel is no longer a myth’ because biotechnology has given all the resources we need ‘to engineer the human body for cosmetic as well as therapeutic purposes’ (ibid.: 71). And, as they write in the closing paragraph of their chapter on monsters, the continuing tampering with genes might lead to ‘a gruesome parade of horribles’. How can we interpret this horrific vision of biotechnology? This is an important question, because Anker and Nelkin do not stand alone with their reference to Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster is more or less the archetype of popular ‘biotech-monsterphobia’. What is it exactly that people like Anker and Nelkin fear about biotechnology when they refer to Frankenstein? This question implies three sub-questions. First of all, what is it exactly that is ‘no longer a myth’? Secondly, do scientists really possess the resources necessary for re-engineering the human body? And thirdly, if this proves to be the case, are contemporary biotechnologists indeed examples of scientists who are following in the footsteps of Victor Frankenstein? In other words, how does the myth of Frankenstein relate to new developments in biotechnology, now and in the near future?

In order to answer these questions, I will first of all subject the Frankenstein myth to a close rereading. What are the essential ingredients/characteristics of the Frankenstein myth? Why did the story become a myth? And why do people feel that the Frankenstein story is relevant for understanding the implications of biotechnology today? Subsequently, I will turn my attention to the contemporary monsters of modern biotechnology: genetically engineered and mutant mice. I will tell the story of four supermice and their creators in order to illustrate the (future) possibilities of genetic human enhancement. I will argue that, in the days of the supermice, rereading Shelley’s novel is of great importance. Myths play an important role in our perception of the world. In our understanding of modern biotechnology, the Frankenstein myth is beyond doubt the most influential myth. It has helped us to frame the issue. But exactly how does the Frankenstein myth influence our ‘spontaneous’ (that is: culturally and socially constructed) responses to biotechnology? Shelley’s was the first effort to flesh out the intuitive reception of what was just beginning to take shape. Now that the project of redesigning life seems to becoming reality, I believe it is important to return to this first original effort and see what we, who live at the beginnings of a biotech revolution, may learn from it.


Part One: The Frankenstein myth

The story of Victor Frankenstein

Frankenstein is the story of a young and ambitious scientist, seeking dangerous knowledge, and his hideous creation. Victor Frankenstein is haunted by the ambition to unravel the secrets of life. He wants to control life and to learn how to put life into lifeless matter. ‘With the greatest diligence’ he wants to become involved in ‘the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life’ (Shelley 2002: 42). He is very clear about what it is he is after. He dreams about the glory awaiting him if he ‘could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death’ (ibid.: 42). Victor is soon captured by the spirit of scientific discovery. He describes enthusiastically how ‘in other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder (ibid.: 52). What exactly he is doing in his laboratory and elsewhere remains somewhat unclear, but it involves ‘collecting bones from charnel-houses’ and disturbing ‘the tremendous secrets of the human frame’ with ‘profane fingers’ (ibid.: 55). One dreary night in November, he finally succeeds with his experiments. He puts life into a humanlike creature he has made himself from various materials, including human remains. Initially he is excited when he sees ‘the dull yellow eye of the creature open’ (ibid.: 58). But only a moment later, he finds himself filled with horror and disgust. The experiment turns out to be a catastrophe. The creature he made looks like a wretch. He abandons it and flees from his laboratory, in order to return to the beautiful places where he spent his innocent, dreamy youth. But the traumatic event will not leave him in peace. When his younger brother is viciously murdered, it is clear to him that his hideous creation is responsible for this violent death. Unable to work things out with the monster he himself created, Victor must then witness how his best friend and wife also fall victim to ‘the fiend’. Sorrow and regret are the results of Victor’s irresponsible behaviour. At the end of the story, he sets out to reunite with the monster who has decided to retreat from the civilized world. When his life is coming to an end, Victor Frankenstein confesses the story of his life to Captain Walton, who finds him almost frozen, wandering in an Arctic waste. When Victor recognises the ambition of the young adventurer, he warns him about the possible consequences of scientific aspirations. ‘You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to you, as mine has been’ (ibid.: 31).

The birth of a myth

In the two centuries that have passed since it was first published, the story of Frankenstein has truly become a modern myth (Turney 1998; Haynes 1995). In his book Frankenstein’s footsteps, science, genetics and popular culture, Jon Turney explores the birth of the Frankenstein myth. As he explains, whether a story becomes a myth depends on the number of times it is retold. The vitality of myths lies in their capacity to change, their adaptability and openness to new combinations of meaning (Turney 1998). In other words, a myth is a story that takes on a life of its own. A myth is a narrative that, through many retellings, becomes part of our collective memory, our reservoir of shared references. In the process of becoming a myth, the author more or less loses control over his or her own story. What is thought, felt and said about the story by countless others takes on progressively greater significance while the details and nuances of the original story are more or less erased. By the time a story approaches mythical status, the original version has become almost irrelevant. In that respect Mary Shelley’s novel is remarkable. It is a modern example of a myth: an almost ‘anonymous’ story that became firmly embedded in our culture (Turney 1998). Since its first appearance, the story has more or less emancipated itself from the original book. Frankenstein has been continually retold in various media (novels, plays, films, newspaper articles, etc.). Two years after its publication, the first stage version based on the novel was performed. And within three years, 14 other dramatisations appeared on English and French stages (Lederer 2002). The story is still being retold in comic magazines, horror movies, and motion pictures. Although only a few people have actually read the original book, everybody has heard of Frankenstein.

The rough outline of the Frankenstein myth (in all its adaptations and retellings) is the story of the mad scientist. These stories display a typical structure or script: a scientist makes a discovery that poses a significant threat to society, to the everyday world, either deliberately or by accident. Like the traditional monsters, these man-made monsters serve as a warning to those who intend to transgress natural or Divine laws. But this does not imply that the Frankenstein myth is a straightforward anti-science story (Turney 1998). Very often, the mad scientist is simply naïve. He failed to really consider possible consequences, but acts with good intentions. It is too easy to read the Frankenstein story simply as a warning about the dangers of scientific ambitions, as some readers (both in Shelley’s own time and today) have done. The subtitle of her novel, the new Prometheus, suggests that the novel displays a number of layers, and that its message concerning the potential dangers and benefits involved in penetrating the secrets of nature is more ambiguous. By introducing Frankenstein as the new Prometheus, Shelley is intentionally creating a character of mythical proportions. Frankenstein, with his scientific mindset, serves as a model for the new scientific ideal. Like Prometheus, Frankenstein could be considered a benefactor of humankind. His desire to renew life where death had apparently condemned the body to corruption, was a vision he shared with other medical ‘Prometheans’ of the early 19th century (Lederer 2002). But Victor Frankenstein was more successful with his experiments. He truly succeeded in finding the elixir of life. The creature he made was really alive. But, at the same time, the experiment was a dramatic failure, notably because the creature he made was hideous rather than perfect.

What is it that distinguishes the myth from other fictional narratives such as legends or fables that are also continuously being retold? Part of the answer is that myths seem to have a predictive power. Myths are stories intended to explain apparently inexplicable events, such as the creation of the world or the introduction of important technical devices (such as fire) or cultural conventions (such as marriage). In that sense, they have both explicative and normative meaning. They reveal fundamental truths about the human condition, often through the use of archetypes, and serve as moral guides. This should also apply to the Frankenstein tale if it is to be truly a myth. It should have a mythical aura and should convey an important moral message about modern technology. The truth of the Frankenstein myth is that those who go beyond nature, by artificially reshaping life, are playing with ‘fire’ and will be punished for this. Containment will prove impossible. Their artifacts will get out of control.

According to Jon Turney (1998), the Frankenstein story became a myth because Shelley’s novel was the first secular narrative about a scientist involved in the artificial creation of life. As Turney explains: ‘Frankenstein marks a transition in stories of men creating life because Victor does not invoke the aid of a Deity or any other supernatural agency. He achieves his goal by dint of his own (scientific) efforts’ (Turney 1998: 14). He has good intentions, but is blind to the consequences. ‘Natural philosophy is the genius that regulated my fate’, Victor Frankenstein confesses when he explains his deeds (Shelley 2002: 40). Herein lays the crucial difference between the Frankenstein story and other classical narratives like the Faust story, the Golem legend, and the Prometheus myth: it offers the first truly secular treatment of the great aspirations and fears of humanity, replacing eschatological punishment with scientific determinism (Haynes 1995).

Frankenstein-the-monster myth continues to allow individuals to articulate uneasiness about the natural sciences, in particular biology. Of all the sciences, biology is the discipline that touches on the most powerful desires of human life. Biological research is about life itself: birth, sex, suffering, disease, disability, and death. We have always been prisoners of the body, victims of morbidity and mortality, and we desire that the power that biology might give us will relieve us from these burdens. The realisation that biology offers the prospect of ultimate control over the living realm evokes deep-rooted ambivalent feelings. The ambiguity in the story of Victor Frankenstein articulates a deeply-felt cultural neurosis about modern science (Turney 1998). This neurosis evolves out of a conflict between apparently incompatible basic attitudes towards science: (manifest) enthusiasm and (latent) fear. Enthusiasm, because of the progress it will entail in the medical sciences; fear because of the potential monstrous artifacts that are made in laboratories (see Zwart 2004). Frankenstein himself is the classical example of a person suffering from this neurosis. He is both extremely enthusiastic and extremely traumatised. After fleeing from his laboratory and abandoning his creature, he suffers from a severe nervous breakdown. Unable to act in a responsible way, he does not act at all. He is has paralyses of will and suffers from depression. The Frankenstein story is an archetypical myth that expresses deep concerns that trouble the modern mind. The many interpretations of the Frankenstein story offer a powerful illustration of the ways in which society responds to discoveries in biology and other sciences. Frankenstein is part of our cultural vocabulary and can readily be used to express fears and anxieties about the implications of new developments in science and medicine[3]. It differs from other classical myths like the Prometheus myth because it is neither a Divine power, nor a troubled conscience, but the artifact itself that turns against us. This is what the artist Adam Zaretsky refers to as Boomerangaphobia[4]. If a biotechnological artifact gets out of control and turns against us, there is nobody to blame but ourselves. The myth offers a vehicle for packaging and personifying fears and doubts about science and technology. This form of personalisation helps us to deal with these fears. The myth also contains an element of catharsis: namely, by punishing those who intend to go beyond nature. The fact that Frankenstein is punished offers a certain amount of comfort. In the end, cultural stability is more or less regained. Yet, the fact that he managed to achieve his goals remains a source of uneasiness.

Mad science

The ‘birth’ of the Frankenstein myth took place at a time when the method of experimental investigation was rapidly gaining prominence in the life sciences. The new scientists no longer studied the secrets of nature by relying only on books or observation (‘natural history’); they subjected nature to experimental procedures. The shift from natural philosophy and natural history to experimental life science is an important element in the Frankenstein story. The new powers over life and death are associated with the new, experimental approach, the new inheritor of time-old mythical aspiration. In the final decades of the 18th and in the early decades of the 19th century, a new practice of science evolved that we nowadays call ‘experimental biology’. Biology increasingly came to rely on experiments on living animals: vivisection. Biologists began to have dirty hands[5]. In the story, Victor testifies to Walton how he ‘tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay’ (Turney 1998; Shelley 2002: 55). Vivisection was not completely new at the time when Shelley wrote her novel (Harvey, Von Haller, etc.), but it was now done on a much larger scale than before, and it had started to become ‘normal practice’.

The ‘torturing of animals’, for several reasons, takes place behind closed doors, invisible to the public eye. First of all, in order to create a secluded space where specialists can freely work in a scientific atmosphere. But perhaps even more important, secrecy prevents exposure to, the ‘emotional responses’ of the public that would probably make this type of scientific work impossible. In Shelley’s novel, there is a clear tension between the importance attributed to this type of work by the scientists involved (i.e. Victor) and the moral sensitivities of his cultural environment. This renders the moral profile of this practice (the animal cruelty it involves, the use of human corpses, etc.) highly problematic. Somehow, the public needs to come to terms with this ambiguous image of the sciences. Turney describes how, in response to this ‘dirty work’, at the turn of the 18th century a paradoxical public image of the scientist develops. On the one hand, scientists are celebrated as heroes because of their achievements in the medical sciences. On the other, the image of the scientists in popular fiction begins to resemble that of the mad scientist. Whereas newspapers frequently report on medical breakthroughs as the result of scientific research, ‘The image of the fictional biologist, at the turn of the nineteenth century, is one of an unfeeling and obsessive scientist’ (Turney 1998: 54). Another famous fictional (late) nineteenth century scientist is Wells’s Dr Moreau[6]. While Frankenstein more or less represents the beginning of the 19th century, Moreau emerges when the century approaches its final years. His experiments on beast people -he tries to turn animals into humans by means of surgical operations- are of such an evil nature that he can only perform his ‘research’ far away from the civilised world on a secret island. This paradoxical image of the (biomedical) scientist, being, on the one hand, benevolent and, on the other involved in dirty business, is still persistent today.

A life of its own

Frankenstein, however, seems to have been deprived more or less of his original ambiguity. In the two centuries that have passed since Mary Shelley published her novel, Victor Frankenstein became the stereotype of the mad bio-scientist, his hideous creation the archetype of science out of control. He is no longer a potential benefactor. He is simply portrayed as a mad scientist. His monster is no longer a pitiful creature seeking for acceptance and understanding. In the popular myth it has become a plainly evil monster. In the process of turning Frankenstein into a myth, the movie industry played an important role. Shelley’s story has been used as a source of inspiration for an impressive number of horror movies. The first motion picture of Frankenstein was made in 1931 by James Whale. It was the actor Boris Karloff who defined the popular image of the monster: a flat forehead of massive size, lots of highly visible stitches in the facial area and two metal studs protruding from the neck. In this movie and the countless Hollywood remakes that followed, the fate of Frankenstein and his monster became a clear-cut moral lesson illustrating the punishment that awaits ambitious scientists who play God by creating life. Much emphasis it put on the bloody revenge and horrible features of the monster and the evil or mad character of the scientist. As a result, in popular perceptions, the creature and its maker lost much of the complexity, that Mary Shelley had given them[7].

Whoever takes the trouble to read Shelley’s original novel will, however, understand that the monster is not born as a vicious and murderous creature, but is driven to his horrible deeds after years of sadness, loneliness and deprivation. It is the negligence of his creator Victor Frankenstein, who failed to take responsibility for his creation, that resulted in the traumatic failure of the monster’s efforts to become civilised. And this (abandonment and rejection by society) was what made the creature become a monster. Victor Frankenstein’s struggle with his own responsibilities – Should he kill the creature? Make him a female counterpart, in order to free him from his loneliness? Who is to blame for the terrible death of his young brother, maid, wife, and friend, he or his creature? – indicates that the novel is not at all a simple horror story. Rather, it is a story about science ethics and bioethics.

Frankensteinian ethics and contemporary biotechnology

To warn about the consequences of the search for dangerous knowledge is a key theme in the story. It is the reason why Victor confesses to Walton: ‘Learn from me’, he begs him, ‘if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow’ (Shelley 2002: 54). Nevertheless, the ethical lessons to be learned from Shelley’s novel are more than simple warnings about the catastrophic consequences of playing God. It is not an anti-science novel. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould: ‘Victor Frankenstein is guilty of a great moral failing, but his crime is not technological transgression against natural or divine order’ (Gould 1996: 54). Had Shelley believed that scientists should not explore the ‘cause of generation and life’, she would surely have chosen to portray him as a genuine moral monster (Segal 2001).The story tells us about the scientists’ responsibility for their work. It urges us to take good care of our creations. Indeed, it is a story about care rather than a story about control.

Another important theme in the novel is the way Frankenstein communicates about his experiments to the people that surround him (Zwart 2004). He is working night and day on his scientific project. Obsessed with his work, he becomes estranged from the research community to which he belongs. He does not communicate about his work: neither to his professional colleagues nor to the people who love and care about him. He does not even inform his own professor. He keeps the doors to his laboratory closed to the outside world. In a solitary chamber, or rather a cell, at the top of the house he keeps his ‘workshop of filthy creation’. Even when it becomes clear that his monster is on the rampage; hurting and killing his loved ones, he still does not confide in anyone. Rather than revealing what he knows about the murder of his young brother William, he prefers to say nothing. By remaining silent he lets the tragedy continue and more violent deaths follow. Only at the end of his life, when the monster has decided to withdraw from the hard and unwelcome world he was forced to live in, does Frankenstein confess his deeds to a stranger.

So the moral of the story is not to place a moratorium on all research involving matters of life and death. Rather, its moral is a much more modern one. It is about careful scientists’ communication with others. According to Gould, Frankenstein should have taken time to educate the monster in order to make him fit for our society and at the same time educate society in acceptance and tolerance (Zwart 2004)[8]. ‘Frankenstein’s monster was a good man in an appallingly ugly body. His countrymen could have been educated to accept him, but the person responsible for that instruction – his creator Victor Frankenstein – ran away from his foremost duty and abandoned him at first sight’ (Gould 1996: 61). In 1818, Mary Shelley identified a feature of scientific research that people find disturbing today: the idea that scientists do not share their information and the results of their experiments, but keep silent about their research and its possible implications (Lederer 2002).

How does modern biotechnology relate to the obscure activities of Victor Frankenstein? In contrast to Frankenstein’s fictional scientific environment, today’s life sciences are controlled by strong internal and external monitoring practices and guided by strict safety procedures. Unlike the situation in Mary Shelley’s days, where access to medical and scientific knowledge was limited to the wealthy and educated elite, today we have unparalleled access to information about scientific developments through the popular media, including television, film, radio, magazines and newspapers and, most recently, through the Internet. But, it is only on rare occasions that these sources of information confront us with real monsters, resembling Frankenstein’s. They hardly exist in laboratories. They are the product of imagination, produced by authors of fiction and Hollywood film directors. At the same time, biotechnology is progressing at an unprecedented pace, and it is not at all easy for the public to keep track of what the scientists are doing. In the field of animal biotechnology, breakthrough after breakthrough is being reported. Transgenic pigs are supposed to become donors of human organs; a cloned sheep demonstrates in vivo the extent to which we have become masters in mammalian reproduction, and the OncoMouse™ is expected to free us from cancer. Does this also imply that we truly have all the resources we need ‘to engineer the human body’? What monsters are hidden away in secret laboratories? And what monsters are bound to emerge in the near future if things continue to evolve in this manner?

Part Two: Transgenic mice and the longing for perfection

Human heath and genetically engineered model mice

If there were a suitable candidate for monster status in today’s laboratories, it would probably be the transgenic mouse. Transgenic mice are the pioneers in tomorrow’s world of biotechnology. Virtually everything in biomedicine that will be applied to humans will first be tested on a mouse. So, if we think we have all the resources needed ‘to engineer the human body for cosmetic as well as therapeutic purposes’ as Anker and Nelkin argue, mice will tell us whether this really is the case (Anker and Nelkin 2004: 71). The techniques of genetic engineering are not new. The first transgenic mice were born at the beginning of the 1980s, when a molecular bio-revolution took place as five different laboratories independently reported the successful transduction of foreign genes into a mouse embryo. In the 25 years that followed the revolutionary events of the early 1980s, transgenic mice have successfully invaded biomedicine. They have become part of the standard equipment of an average biomedical laboratory. In 2002, the year in which the mouse genome was ‘cracked’, Tom Clarke whom I quoted before in Chapter 2, estimated ‘the army of mice helping researchers each day all over the world’ to be 25 million strong (Clarke 2002).

The widespread use of the mouse as a research animal is based on the homology between the mouse and the human genome. Genomics research reveals that the mouse genome and the human genome are closely related. Transgenic mice, also known as ‘mouse models’, are created in order to study human genetic diseases. Mouse genes analogous to human genes are knocked out, while genes that code for human diseases are knocked in. Since the first knock-out mouse was made in 1990, the ‘knock-out mouse’ has become the most important model organism for biomedical research. The reason for the existence of these mice is their role in the battle against life-threatening diseases. It is here that I see a resemblance with Frankenstein’s creature. These mice are created on the basis of the same desire that drove Frankenstein to conduct his experiments. Both Frankenstein and contemporary biotechnologists acted, and continue to act, in order ‘to banish disease from the human frame’. Their ‘working materials’ also have certain features in common. Like the monster, transgenic mice are man-made living creatures, living artifacts. Because some of them carry human genes, they are also to a certain extent human. If not literally, they are quasi-human in the figurative sense. In scientific practice, mice serve as models for human diseases. In laboratory research, mice are stand-ins for human beings. In other words, transgenic mice are designed to be like us, humans. With their humanised genomes, they inform us about life-threatening human diseases. Transgenic mouse genetics is never an end in itself, it is always about human genetics. Being a mixture of, or intermediate form between, mouse and human, these mice are contemporary monsters that perhaps rightfully evoke associations with mythical monsters such as Frankenstein’s. But what is it we have to fear? These mice are neither out of control, nor hurting the innocent. They are safely hidden away in scientific laboratories specialised in the containment of hazardous materials. No human body parts are stitched on their backs. There is no physical resemblance with Frankenstein’s monster.

Is there any other reason to associate the genetic engineering (of animals) with the activities of Frankenstein? What horror scenarios may be awaiting us? Of course it is not the monstrous mouse, as such, that people fear when they refer to Frankenstein. What they fear are monsters that visibly resemble humans, monsters that are human. The ‘gruesome parade of horribles’ that Anker and Nelkin have in mind will be the horrifying result of engineering applied to human bodies, but made possible by the OncoMouse™. People who refer to Frankenstein, tend to express the fear that the human abnormalities that will be shown on tomorrow’s mass media freak shows are being created in today’s laboratories. Does the mouse research as it actually evolves justify this fear? Genetically engineered humans do not exist yet. Since mice are the practice material, so to speak, for human enhancement studies, mouse genetics is the place to look for (future) monster anthropotechnologies.


Although usually presented as laboratory animals necessary in our fight to conquer life-threatening diseases, not all transgenic mice represent the ill and the weak. On the contrary, serious research is undertaken on mice that can be referred to as genetic enhancement studies to further improve the normal and healthy. For example, biologists are studying the process of ageing by producing mutant mice that live longer. Others study decay of the physical body (muscles) in genetically engineered super-muscle-mice in order to learn how to stop or deter the process of physical ageing in humans. And, last but not least, there are biologists who study genes that are regarded as coding for intelligence in the smart mutant mouse. Unlike the majority of genetically modified mice that are only identifiable by the codes that describe their genetic mutations, mice that participate in such enhancement studies are given a name[9]. These mice are supermice. They are part of research projects aiming at mouse improvement and, as a future implication, the enhancement of the human body. Therefore, they carry the names of superheroes. Yoda is famous for his longevity; Doogie is the smart one; and He-Man and Marathon Mouse are the ones with the superior muscles, useful for strength and endurance.


In 2001, Richard Miller and his group reported about lifespan extension in (naturally occurring) mutant dwarf mice in the scientific journal PNAS[10]. In this paper, they stated that: ‘These observations show that a single genetic difference can retard multiple indices of senescence as well as an increasing longevity in mammals’ (Flurkey et al. 2001: 6736). When one of these dwarf mice reached its 4th birthday in 2004, it was nicknamed Yoda. The mouse was named after the 900-year-old yedi Yoda, known from the popular SF movie series Star Wars[11]. After celebrating his 4th birthday, Yoda’s picture appeared in several newspapers and on Internet websites (Ayres 2004; O’Connor 2004). 4 years is a rather exceptional age for a mouse that has not been on a special restrictive diet. The average lifespan of an ordinary laboratory mouse is 2 years[12]. Mice in Miller’s stock usually grow to an average of 3 ½ years. According to Miller, Yoda did reach a milestone. When asked about the future applications of his research results to human health, Miller responded to a NY Times reporter ‘that it was not a lead in for gene therapy’. His idea wasto find out what the key controlling chemicals are, so that the problems people now are facing in their 60s or 70s can be postponed for another 20 or 30 years’ (O’Connor 2004: A2). Miller’s mice do not only get very old, they also remain in a strikingly good physical condition. Probably the most important reason for being able to grow that old is their enhanced resistance to a number of lethal and chronic diseases. They do not develop arthritis for many years, they are resistant to cataracts and they are resistant to cancers. Their immune system stays healthy for a very long time. Interesting lessons could be learned from these mice. As Miller explained on the Australian ABC radio programme The Science Show, he would like to ‘be able to translate the mouse findings to figure out ways to produce medicines basically so that people in their 80s 90s, up to the age of 100, 110 perhaps, are also active and viable and have good cognitive powers and retain most of the functions they had when they were middle-aged’[13].

He-Man and Marathon Mouse

A tempting thought. Imagine that with the aid of biotechnology we can really live longer, retaining a mid-life condition. The next step would, of course, be the wish for a younger and stronger body. If we are able to ‘live forever’, we also want to feel ‘forever young’. We need a healthy and strong body that keeps in shape despite old age. This might not just be a fantastic dream. Like old age, a young and healthy body is one of the promises made by today’s biotechnology. At the end of the 1990s, a group led by H. Lee Sweeney at the University of Pennsylvania reported results on mice injected with synthetic genes that indicated that stronger muscles are in fact technically possible by means of genetic therapy. The results of their experiments with mice that were injected with a virus carrying the IGF-I gene suggested ‘that gene transfer of IGF-I into muscle could form the basis of a human gene therapy for preventing the loss of muscle function associated with ageing’ (Barton-Davis et al. 1998: 15603).

It was in 2001 that the IGF mouse started to receive wide public attention (Hruby 2002;Swift and Yeager 2001; Fitzpatrick 2002; Purgavie 2002; Brownlee 2004; Henderson 2004; Sokolove 2004; DeFrancesco 2004; Garreau 2005; Naam 2006). By then, it turned out that these mice, two years after injection, developed 60 percent more muscle mass than an average mouse. Two years after the initial experimental treatment with the gene transfer, these mice’s strength remained intact. This is, of course, very interesting, not only for people with particular forms of muscular dystrophy, but also for example for the (professional) sports community. ‘Are the mice representatives of a future generation of athletes?’, as E.M. Swift and Don Yeager write in The Observer. Because of their massive muscles the mice were named after He-Man (‘the most powerful man in the universe’), the popular muscled superhero from the toy series the Masters of the Universe[14].The He-Man mice received massive attention from the sports and fitness community. In September 2001, an article about these mice was published in Sports Illustrated. The ramifications for sports are obvious: to enhance the gene is to enhance the performance. Not to mention the potential. ‘If researchers are developing genetic therapies to treat broken bones, muscle tears and ligament damage, performance enhancing sports applications aren’t far behind’, remarks Patrick Hruby in The Washington Post (Hruby 2002: C01).

How great the potential for sports could be, is easy to illustrate. ‘Even if you train you lose speed’, explains Sweeney in the interview with Swift and Yeager. ‘It happened to Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Jeremy Guscott, among others. But it hasn’t happened to He-Man [the mouse]. Because of the gene that was injected two years ago, the mouse grew exceptionally large muscles, and those muscles keep producing IGF-I. He-Man in the throes of mouse old age, remains as mighty as he ever was, an Arnold Schwarzenegger of mice. […] He effortlessly climbs a ladder with 120 grams of weights – equal to three times his body weight – strapped on his back’ (Swift and Yeager 2001: 44).

Will these remarkable results also come within reach for human athletes? To Theodore Friedman, member of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), the answer is: Yes, gene therapy, such as He-Man underwent, will also be applicable to humans (Swift and Yeager 2001). According to Bengt Saltin, Professor of Human Physiology of the University of Copenhagen and also a member of WADA’ s special committee on gene doping, humans are not that far behind. But he has some hope for tomorrow’s sports. ‘I guess I am naïve but I hope ethics will win out. If I ‘m wrong it’s the end of sports as we know it. Sport will be a circus of unbelievable performances’ (Swift and Yeager 2001: 44). Others are more sceptical about the morality of sports and the temptations of genetic enhancement: ‘Even after knowing the potentially damaging, sometimes fatal, side effects of the performance enhancing drugs now available, athletes of all cultures have not hesitated to experiment with them. They’re the 21st century Fausts, willing to bargain future health for present glory’, writes Patrick Hruby in The Washington Post (Hruby 2001: C01). Sweeney has certainly discovered that. In 2004, he still receives emails and calls from sports people with requests to perform this gene treatment on them. He has been contacted by several athletes, most of them weightlifters and sprinters who have heard about his research and wonder if he is looking for human volunteers on whom he might test the IGF-1 gene. A high school football coach asked Sweeney to treat his whole team (ibid.; Brownlee 2004).

According to Sweeney, in the end the public will accept genetic interventions like his IGF treatment ‘because it will want them’. He believes the day will come when this is going to be commonly used in the general population because the population ‘does not like getting old and weak and ending up in a wheelchair’ (Swift and Yeager 2001: 44). So, in the eyes of the creator of He-Man the idea of biotechnology applied to the human body in order to be better adapted to old age is not simply a matter of science fiction. Of course, Sweeney is aware of the ethical implications of his work. ‘Even in its infancy, this technology clearly has tremendous potential to change both sports and society. The ethical issues surrounding genetic enhancement are many and complex’. But, nevertheless, he does not feel uncomfortable about future consequences because ‘for once we have time to discuss and debate them before the ability to use this power is upon us’ (Sweeney 2004)[15]. This remark seems reassuring. But it is questionable whether this is a realistic view of the situation. It is perhaps too optimistic a view on the level and impact of the ethical debate on biotechnology and genetic enhancement, and perhaps too modest a view with regard to the state of the art in biotechnology. The biotech future could be closer to us than he realises. In the words of WADA’s Friedman: ‘It is not rocket science. If you ask a molecular biologist, or even his students, how he would implant genes to change muscle function within half an hour he could write down three or four ways to do it’( Swift and Yeager 2001: 44).

Three years after He-Man hit the newspapers, the marathon mice from San Diego excited the sports community. Researchers from the Salk Institute injected a human version of the PPARδ gene into the mouse DNA (Salk Institute 2004). The genetically engineered mice which were the result of this treatment could run twice as far as their unaltered buddies (Anonymous 2004). In contrast to He-Man, these ‘marathon mice’ are transgenic. This means they will pass on their athletic talents to their offspring. In the laboratory of Ron Evans of the Salk Institute, the transgenic mice were run on oxygen-infused enclosed treadmills until exhaustion. The running time these transgenic mice were able to sustain increased by 6 percent compared with normal mice, and the distance they were able to travel by 92 percent (Wang et al. 2004). Compare these results with the breaking of a record in sports. ‘Records are broken on a fraction of a percent, a few percentage points is like a minute or two in a race. This was a big change: 100 percent’, explains Evans to a reporter from Wired (Philipkoski 2004). This work demonstrates that complex physiological properties such as fatigue, endurance, and running capacity can relatively easily be genetically manipulated (Wang et al. 2004). ‘They are like Lance Armstrong without getting on a bike’ Evans told the reporter of The Guardian (Pearson 2005: 28).


We not only want to live longer and feel forever young. We also want to be super-intelligent. People have always been fascinated with the genetic basis of intelligence, and this also goes for biotechnologists. Only two years after the knock-out technique became available, the first gene involved in memory and learning was knocked out in a mouse. This CAM knock-out mouse matured normally but exhibited learning problems when tested in a maze (Rensberger 1992a; Maugh II 1992). In 1999, the reverse effect was achieved by scientists by over-regulating a gene coding for the NMDA receptor b2 in mice. In contrast to the 1992 knock-out, this mouse exhibited superior ability in learning and memory in various behavioural tasks. These transgenic animals were named Doogie by their proud scientists after Doogie Howser, the boy genius on TV show Doogie Howser,MD (Tang et al. 1999). Doogie had its own website[16] with a cute picture of a tiny brown mouse about to perform a difficult physical exercise (see Figure 7). With these experiments, Joe Tsien and his group found ‘a new target for treatment of learning and memory disorders’. The study also revealed ‘a promising strategy of other genetically modified mammals with enhanced intelligence and memory’ (Tang et al. 1999: 68). Joe Tsien himself has high aspirations: ‘That molecule could one day serve as a possible target for drugs to treat brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or even, perhaps, to boost learning and memory capacity in normal people’ (Tsien 2000)[17]. He concludes his popular scientific paper on smart Doogie in the Scientific American with the statement that: ‘The idea that natural selection does not foster optimum learning and memory ability in adult organisms certainly has profound implications. It means that genetically modifying mental and cognitive attributes such as learning and memory can open an entirely new way for the targeted genetic evolution of biology, and perhaps civilization, with unprecedented speed’ (Tsien 2000). The breaking news of these smart mice received massive media attention (Wade 1999a, 1999b; Salkever 1999; Hawkes 1999; Weiss 1999, 2001, Connor 1999; Saltus 1999).

Becoming superhuman?

Supermice like Yoda, He-Man and Doogie help us to imagine the kind of future that the knowledge of human and mouse genetics is likely to bring us. What will we do with this knowledge of our genes? Will we end up becoming 130 years old with super-strong and healthy bodies feeling forever young? The transgenic supermice represent the promise of biotechnology. They are the pioneer species entering the future world of biotech. And, as these mice show, reshaping the living body into something more perfect, healthier, stronger and even more intelligent is no longer science fiction. If it is possible in mice, then why not try it on humans? After supermice, the next frontier will be our own body. The scientists involved in research with these supermice all sincerely believe that biotechnology someday in the future in some form or other will be applied to humans. This is simply because we have the choice and nobody wants to end his life in a wheelchair.

Part Three: Rereading Shelley and the Frankensteinian nature of biotechnology

Remaking Eden

In the two centuries that have passed since the Frankenstein story was first published, the meaning of the monster and the state of the art in the life sciences has changed dramatically. As I pointed out above, in the course of its development into a myth, the Frankenstein story lost much of its ambiguity. Victor Frankenstein was transformed from a student lost in his groundbreaking quest to make man more invulnerable into a mad scientist. As the story evolved into a myth, Frankenstein seems to have lost his good intentions. No positive reading about scientists involved in matters of life and death seems possible. His hideous creation likewise transformed from a sensitive, intelligent, self-educated, potential role model into a plainly evil and revengeful monster. But perhaps the most radical change that has taken place in the process of becoming a myth has been that the creature lost its human character.

The life sciences, however, and biotechnology in particular, have moved forward in directions that allow scientists to perform experiments that Shelley in her day could only dream of. The most powerful image of the Frankenstein story is that of a human being created in the laboratory by a scientist. Today, two centuries after Shelley’s fantasy, laboratory mice show that it is theoretically possible to create ‘superior’ human beings in the laboratory. If people are willing to donate their own offspring, embryos, to scientific procedures involving human germ line enhancement, and scientists can be found who are willing to assist people in their wish for the genetic enhancement of their embryos, then the genetic enhancement of humans suddenly becomes a very realistic story. Lee Silver, a well-known mouse geneticist and author of the book Remaking Eden, how genetic engineering and cloning will transform the American family, has no doubt that this will happen: ‘I am absolutely convinced that we will have […] expansion of the enhancement of embryos. The reason I’m sure this is going to happen is because we have already perfected this in animals. It is something we do with mice […] everyday.’ According to Silver, people who are denied the technology will say: ‘Why can’t I give this to my child when others get it naturally?’ (PBS date unknown). For most people today, changing man’s genetic code – our blueprint, human nature, our essence – is morally out of the question. The vast majority of experimental scientists who perform research involving genetic engineering of animals also tend to oppose genetic engineering of human beings. But, Silver adds, almost always they state their objections in terms of safety and efficiency rather than ethics (Silver 2006a), thereby suggesting that the genetic engineering of the first human being is simply a matter of time, until the technologies involved have become more reliable. As soon as mouse studies prove that genetic engineering has become safe and efficient enough, what further objections will there be for the scientists to proceed with the genetic enhancement of human embryos? The first candidates will be couples who are both carriers of recessive genes for life-threatening diseases and who nevertheless wish to have a healthy child. And then, in time, the fulfillment of other, more trivial and bizarre gene-based wishes will follow.

Does this imply that the Frankenstein myth is about to become reality and is therefore no longer a myth? As I have argued, the Frankenstein story gained popularity because it appeals to a widespread public fear of monsters coming out of laboratories. I cited Turney who described this fear as a deeply-felt cultural ambivalence about modern science, a conflict in our basic attitudes towards science: (manifest) enthusiasm and (latent) fear. In that respect, the transgenic supermice are good examples of the ambiguities evoked by modern science. The attention they have received from popular media suggests that the public is fascinated by transgenic supermice. The press certainly do like to give the impression that human enhancement is a realistic future scenario. For example, after hearing the news about the smart mouse, TIME magazine did not show Doogie on its front page (13 September issue), but a human baby with a double helix representing its umbilical cord suggesting that the creation of the super-intelligent baby is on its way. However, the mice are indeed awesome examples of progress made in biotechnology. In the popular media, the positive impact that mouse biotechnology research might have on human medicine is often highlighted. At the same time, the possibility that these technologies could also be applied to humans is a genuine issue of concern.

Taking as my point of departure a number of recent mouse stories, I have argued that the genetic enhancement of man is indeed theoretically possible. Does this mean that contemporary biotechnologists are producing (or about to produce) monsters? Are the supermice I presented monsters? Is Doogie a monster? Is Yoda horrible? Is He-Man mouse gruesome? When I take a look at their pictures my answer cannot be affirmative. Although these mice are living artifacts, ‘man-made’[18] laboratory creatures, they seem to have nothing in common with traditional monsters discussed in the beginning of this chapter. They are incredible; they are extraordinary, but above all they are cute and funny. The mice are fascinating and thought provoking because they challenge our ideas about the ‘given nature’ of mice. Even more disturbing, these mice show that capacities such as intelligence, muscular strength, and resistance to the physical process of ageing have a genetic basis that can, in principle, be manipulated. Beyond doubt they are monsters of the type discussed in Chapter 2. They are man-made living beings. But given their beauty and superpowers, in what sense do these products of biotechnology resemble the monster Frankenstein created?

Who or what is the monster?

The question whether these genetically modified mice are monsters of the type Frankenstein created can also be phrased differently: Are the scientists involved in this type of research actually following in the footsteps of Frankenstein? In my view, the analogy between current genetic enhancement research and the Frankenstein story is very problematic; in particular with regard to the way the research is embedded in our society. One of the most important ethical lessons to be drawn from Shelley’s original story is the importance of communication about, and the visibility of, the scientific practice. Well, Sweeney, Tsien, Evans, Miller and Silver, all scientists who work at the frontiers of biotechnology, have a remarkably open attitude towards the public. In that sense, Sweeney, Tsien, Miller and Evans, who not only publicly discuss their work but also openly express their fantasies about the application of genetic technology for the benefit of humans, in no way resemble the neurotic and obscure Victor Frankenstein. They are highly visible geneticists. They write papers for popular science magazines, accessible to the general public, they appear on radio and television and they willingly discuss their scientific work and the implications for society with the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics[19]. They do their very best to ‘educate’ the public about the future of biotechnology.

So, if the mice are not monsters in the literal sense and the scientists who create them do not resemble Victor Frankenstein, then how can the ‘monster phobia’ evoked by contemporary biotechnology be explained? If the mice are not the monsters, who or what is the monster of modern biotechnology? My answer to this question is that the monstrosity of the mice is that they show us what the future possibilities for genetic enhancement could be. They tell us something about the malleability of human nature. And, according to Gregory Stock, ‘the next frontier might be ourselves’ (Garreau 2005). They are not gruesome and horrible, they are animals that transgress a border between what is given by nature and made by man. They show us that what is given by nature can and probably will be perfected by man. This makes them monsters of the type defined by Smits, but not monstrosities of the Frankenstein type. So strictly speaking these mice represent fear. The present ‘Frankenstein thing’ is not that scientists will create monstrosities. On the contrary, we should rather fear (or at least: expect) that scientists will succeed where Victor Frankenstein failed, and that scientists like Lee Silver will actually do a good job in the genetic enhancement of human embryos and will successfully create strong, healthy and good-looking human beings. The supermice do indeed indicate that scientists have a good chance to achieve their goals. What the stories of the supermice also show is that it is very likely that people will make use of new technologies. Stories about Yoda and He-Man mouse were widely covered in sports journals, as well as in magazines with a focus on geriatrics. Overall, the reviews were optimistic and very positive.

Although I do take Silver’s future scenario seriously, I do not believe that the first biotech supermen will be created in Petri dishes. To me, the most likely future scenario based on the supermouse story seems to be one where individuals (most likely weightlifters and top athletes) will start applying biotechnology to their own body, in other words: genetic doping. In this future scenario, human enhancement is achieved by introducing genetically modified materials into our own bodies. Like the IGF 1 mouse, people will be injected with genes – contained in non-germ-line cells – in order to enhance, so they believe, their sportive, intellectual, or seductive (sexual) capabilities. It is only the individual himself or herself that is affected. In contrast to the genetic engineering of the embryo, the genetic changes will not be transmitted to the offspring. So, whatever the consequences, the effect will only be noticeable on the individual level. Gene doping will not really influence human evolution. Genetic engineering of embryos would, of course, do so, but such a scenario seems, for the time being at least, less plausible. Moreover, both in the case of genetic enhancement and in the case of genetic doping I find it hard to imagine how human enhancement will lead to ‘a gruesome parade of horribles’.

On the contrary, I believe what worries people the most is the possibility that these ‘enhanced’ people – either resulting from embryo enhancement or gene doping – will not essentially differ from us. These superpeople will still be human beings, and they will have a human ‘nature’. Silver’s genetically enhanced babies will be born the same way as other human babies. Their parents will not look that different in comparison with their children. These children will look like ‘normal’ ones. A genetically enhanced athlete who uses gene doping to boost his sportive achievements, is no less a human being than he was before the gene treatment. This is why I argue that perhaps ‘the monstrous’ that people fear is not so much ‘the parade of gruesome horribles’ but rather that idea that humans are, by their nature, malleable. Genetic ‘supermen’ and ‘supermice’ challenge our vision of human nature. It is the very fact that biotechnologists have discovered that humans, like mice, have a malleable genetic make-up, which makes these scientists the contemporary equivalents of Frankenstein.

A different reading

This puts the questions how the Frankenstein myth helps us to deal with our fear of monsters (and how the Frankenstein story can be meaningful in an ethical assessment of biotechnology) in a new perspective. As I have already indicated, there are two different readings of the Frankenstein myth. The ‘popular’ reading of the myth is a rather straight forward anti-science interpretation of the tale. It carries the unambiguous moral lesson that those who transgress Divine will or natural law will be punished. In this reading, the Frankenstein myth offers a good metaphor for science out of control. Like no other story, it shows how tampering with the essence of life (genes) will inevitably lead to catastrophe. The second, more ‘academic’, reading is more optimistic about biotechnology. In this reading, Frankenstein is not a mad scientist who transgresses natural or Divine orders. If one reads the original story about Frankenstein, one will understand that it is about a scientist who acts irresponsibly, both towards society and towards his creation. In this reading, as put forward by, amongst others, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the Frankenstein story is not an anti-science story but rather a story about the importance of communication in science. If only scientists would better inform and educate the public about science and technology, the public would be more likely to accept or even embrace the monsters that scientists create.

Both readings have their attractions and their shortcomings. The first reading is very powerful in the sense that it invokes a strong sense of the potential danger involved in biotechnologies. But it remains unsatisfying since it fails to explain why or how this is so dangerous. For example, the apocalyptic scenario is not shared by the experts involved in genetic engineering, the biotechnologists themselves. However lacking a sound ‘evidence-based’ underpinning, biotechnology leads to a horror scenario which often fails to rise above the level of stereotypical, indeed ‘Pavlovian’ responses. Another objection that can be made is that it is a too simplistic or even ‘reductionist’ reading of the original story. There is no place for the ambiguity that is so characteristic of both Shelley’s novel and the currently evolving practice of biotechnology. Authors like Anker and Nelkin, so it seems, are somewhat too eager to join the chorus, so to speak. They do not really want to consider the original story that lies at the basis of the popular myth, they do not really take it seriously. It is their – no doubt sincere – intention to warn people about the future risks of biotechnology, but in doing so they seem to neglect other dimensions of the original story, other levels of meaning, notably the original ‘good intentions’ of both Victor Frankenstein and contemporary biotechnologists.

In my reading, biotechnologists are not creating monsters. However, they did discover one: namely, the more or less ‘monstrous’ idea that we are potentially malleable entities. This idea is monstrous because it forces us to reconsider our views about ourselves. The monster we fear is the idea that we humans are malleable. The discovery of the malleable genome does not imply that biotechnologists will inevitably create gruesome and horrible creatures, resembling Frankenstein’s monster in their physical appearance. I can find no convincing argument that biotechnologists would have the creation of this type of monsters in mind. This is simply an evocation of the monster image. The monster we are confronted with is rather a symbolic monster, something like a boundary we have crossed. We thought we were in control, but in reality we are becoming the object, the ultimate target of future biotechnology. The popular reading of the myth somehow suggests that contemporary scientists have a hidden agenda: that biotechnologists are ‘mad scientists’ who use their dangerous knowledge only to feed their curiosity or ambition, regardless of the outcome. Therefore, the public needs to be protected against science. Without proper warning the public is defenseless against what science brings. It will be forced to eat the bitter fruits of biotechnology.

As I said, I believe this diagnosis of biotechnology to be one-sided and misleading. I do not think that an informed public will automatically accept biotechnology. On the contrary, this would come down to suggesting that biotechnology is unproblematic and people’s fears about this technology are irrational, emotional or based on ignorance. Both these assumptions are too simplistic. Many people feel deeply that there is something wrong with the manipulation of genes even if or, as I have argued, particularly if scientists prove to be successful with human genetic-enhancement technologies. The monstrous facts that our genetic make-up is malleable, and that some traits can ‘simply’ be improved by means of genetic engineering, are disturbing in themselves. Biotechnology does have a radical impact on our self-understanding. This is both fascinating and frightening. Are we wise enough to use this new knowledge of our genes in a responsible way? What effect will biotechnology have on future society? At what point does benevolence turn into monstrosity? What does it mean for our understanding of human nature? These are serious questions. In answering these questions we have to take the Frankenstein myth seriously because it plays such an important role in the public understanding of biotechnology.

Concluding remarks

I do not believe that the genetic engineering of mice is a practice that can or should be put on hold. Nor do I believe that human beings will never become subject to genetic engineering because it is in itself an ‘unethical’ thing to do. One important implication of the discovery of the malleable human genome is that this awareness, once gained, is not something that can simply be reversed. We simply have to face the monster. Neurosis, a paralysed state of not being able to cope with the consequences of recently discovered knowledge, is not a very responsive way of facing the monster. Therefore, I propose a different reading of the story, one that asks for a different use of our imagination. In contrast to the popular myth – predicting that hubris inevitably leads to nemesis – the original story leaves open other possibilities than catastrophe and punishment. What would have happened if Victor had openly discussed his experiments with colleagues, and the people would have been better prepared and ‘educated’ to accept his creature? Would it have meant that his experiment would not have turned into a catastrophe? Imagine that Victor had truly succeeded in his ambitions, and that the creature would have been perfect and beautiful. In other words, what would happen if biotechnologists were to truly succeed in relieving us from the burden of ageing? That we would really live to become 130 years old in bodies that look like 35? Would that be gruesome, would that be horrible? This is an important and intriguing – and no doubt even troubling – question, but not one that can be answered by referring to ‘the Frankenstein myth becoming true’ or by simply reducing it to a story of communication and education.

‘Metaphors’, as Nelkin explains in her Nature article in 2001, ‘are a prevalent and important form of public communication, and they are especially important in conveying scientific information. […] By connecting different orders of reality, metaphors enable the translation of very complex scientific information in culturally meaningful ways. But metaphors are more than an aid to explanation: repeated metaphors affect the way we perceive, think and act, for they shape our understanding of events’ (Nelkin 2001: 556). I believe this is exactly what the Frankenstein myth does. It keeps the cultural neurosis alive. And this is worrisome, because I do believe that scientific progress is inevitable and the public ought to be educated about the futures of biotechnology. Not in the sense that we should be lured towards a more science-positive attitude, but rather because we really need to face the monster. We have to develop the conceptual and ethical tools to do so. And this cannot be done by telling horror stories. We need to re-consider and redefine who and what we are, and can become. But this is only possible when biotechnology, as well as the society in which it is embedded, has – finally! – come to terms with the Frankenstein myth.


[1] Mary Midgley (1992) Science as salvation. A modern myth and its meaning, London and New York: Routledge, p. 13.

[2] Graham (2002). On the true origin of the term there is no agreement. The Oxford English Dictionary takes monere to be the origin [OFr. monstre f. L monstrum, orig. a divine portent or warning, f. monere warn.]

[3] e.g. Greenpeace’s anti-biotech slogan: ‘Say no to Frankenfood’.

[4] Personal communication.

[5] In the early 19th century, anatomical studies like those conducted by Victor Frankenstein also generated public hostility. Before the revised version of the novel in 1831, the only bodies legally available to physicians and surgeons for study were those of executed criminals (Lederer 2002).

[6] H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau was first published in 1896.

[7] An exception to this is the 1994 movie Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh, starring Robert de Niro as the monster.

[8] Zwart is referring to Gould (1996).

[9] Usually not as individuals, but as a strain.

[10] These mice are not transgenic. The genetic mutations occurred spontaneously. The mice are inbred by researchers.

[11] News about Yoda, his 4th birthday (and peaceful death) can be found at:

[12] Complementary to Miller’s research is the work of Makoto Kuro-o. This scientist from Dallas has found that mice engineered with overactive Klotho genes live, on average, 20 to 30 percent longer than normal mice (Kuro-o et al. 1997; Stein 2004).

[13] Miller on the ABC radio Science Show broadcast on May 2004.

[14] They are also referred to as Schwarzenegger mice (see Brownlee 2004).

[15] I have accessed the Scientific American via the Internet; therefore, a page number is not available.

[16] In 2004, Joe Tsien moved to Boston University and, as a result, Doogie’s website at Princeton was reduced to one page: <>.

[17] I have accessed the Scientific American via the Internet; therefore, a page number is not available.


[18] With the exception of Yoda who is a naturally-occurring mutant mouse.

[19] Miller was represented by his colleague Steve Austad, and Sweeney addressed the committee in person. See: <> and <>.