Frankenstein’s Lesson: Progress Is Not Evil

I read Frankenstein for the second time this week (technically, it’s more like first-and-a-half, because the first time I read it was in college in a single night), and I was struck by some of the lessons it has for us in regards to morality and the progress of science.

Mary Shelley is considered one of the first writers of science fiction novels, and Frankenstein combines the Gothic, Romantic, and science fiction genres together, with a focus more on the human side of the equation. Critics have pointed out many interpretations about Frankenstein, but I’m struck by one:

At the time of writing Frankenstein, Shelley was pregnant. She was also in a time of tumultuous progress.
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Shelley was, of course, influenced by her own life events, but I think that there were even other events shaping her perception. At the time of Frankenstein‘s writing, England had recently been at war with the United States, Napoleon had waged war across Europe, invisible radiation was discovered, Lewis and Clark had made their journey of discovery, slavery had been outlawed in England, canning was invented, and Napoleon had been defeated in his ambitions.

So much had changed in a very small amount of time that it is impossible for us to think of Shelley as belonging to a quiet or stable time. Her personal life was filled with drama on account of her relationships with other Romantic-era writers, who were generally not approved of by her more conservative family.

It was, however, a time of seemingly endless opportunity. Victor Frankenstein is a man first of superstition and alchemy, but as he matures he discovers that science can be a path to supreme power.

This attitude, not entirely unsurprisingly, is prevalent in our modern society. We can see ourselves conquering space, death, and famine in just the next century, and there’s no reason to expect that we won’t, despite the consequences.

But Frankenstein‘s message is usually conveyed as one of loss and sorrow, a cautionary tale against Icarian flight. The tragic nature and romantic persona of Victor paint his activities in a purely negative light based on his account.

But there is also the voice of the Creature that must be considered.

We’re reaching a day and age where we are close to achieving Frankenstein’s  accomplishment: the spark of life.
Frankenstein and his Creature, engraving by T.C. Wageman

We’re approaching a time in our society where we will begin to be able to create advanced artificial intelligence and synthetic genomes. We are going to be reaching the point where there is a very real chance that we create beings that are, at least in practical terms of intelligence, endurance, and strength, superior to ourselves.

As we do this, we have to ask ourselves what our moral and ethical obligations are.

Victor’s great sorrow is brought on by his own lack of moral action toward his offspring. Creating the Creature, but as a thing to be despised by mankind, he fails in his duty as a creator: where God created man and woman, he creates the creature as a solitary being, doomed to lonely wanderings and rejection by even his very originator.

The Creature is left vulnerable, unprepared (much as a child without parents or guardians is vulnerable and unprepared) as it is forced to wander the world.

Shelley’s point is in part that people have a moral obligation to care for their creations: the modern culture of using research and development to create products that are tools to an end works only when those products don’t have ends of their own to consider.

There is a lot of backlash against these future developments. People like Elon Musk predict that AI will be the end of humanity, and to a certain extent they are inherently correct. It seems unlikely that we will be able to continue to exist in our current societies and our current lifestyles.

But this has been true since the dawn of time. Every major event since the discovery of farming has been matched by an equivalent shift in the way that humans have lived their lives.

Now, with genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, nothing and everything has changed. We are looking at a world that seems dangerous and uncertain, forgetting that our world is and has always been dangerous and uncertain.

The path forward doesn’t lie in proscriptions and bans. It lies in developing morality and ethics that allow us to have a response to what the future holds.

I don’t even think we need to change our morality or our ethics from what they were. We’re not living up to them—the Golden Rule is covered in dust, and we’ve made our vices into pathology. We have excused ourselves from virtue.

Rediscovering that, we could approach a better future. One where we are free to create and explore, free to touch the stars and hold them in our grasp.

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