Frankenstein: Science’s own f-word

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. Photograph: Flickr/Alfonso Aguado

Boris Karloff’s depiction of Frankenstein first lurched onto the sliver screen 80 years ago – but why is it still so relevant to us as science communicators today?

Karloff, who gave a performance in the film that many regard as a tour de force, never quite managed to shake the role that came to define him. In much the same way, science has never quite been able to rid itself of its own f-word: ‘Frankenstein’. Recently, the furores over GM crops and cloning have given the media ample opportunity to over-use references to the monster created by a scientist, but in reality these references have been part of science’s representation in the media since time immemorial.

With the first great film version of Frankenstein to mark its 80th birthday this November – film magazine Empire calls it ‘the most important horror movie ever made’ – now may be a good time to look at why it is so synonymous with the portrayal of science to the wider world. That is not to downplay the role of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, but the film, in my view, makes for a more visceral comparison.

Dr Henry Frankenstein – as distinct from Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s book – tells us that ‘Now I know what it feels like to be God!’ as his creature awakens.

Here we have the first connection with science and how it is portrayed: the idea of the scientist playing God. When Colin Clive uttered the above words in perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, he can hardly have imagined it would continue to provoke so much debate.

Everything from IV fertilisation to euthanasia – which would cover what Edward Van Sloan calls at the beginning of the film ‘the two great mysteries of creation’, life and death – has been tarred with the Frankenstein brush.

This leads us onto another oft-discussed theme, the empirical nature of science versus the faith-based belief systems of religion. Van Sloan again: ‘We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.’

Science could have put it better itself. Of late, science has not just sought to distance itself from the concept of a deity, it has, through the work of people such as Richard Dawkins, aggressively attacked organised religion.

The ‘nature vs nurture’ debate is also given significant prominence in the film. In it, Frankenstein is evil because he has a criminal’s brain, not because he is conditioned to be evil.

Steel engraving for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1831. Photograph: Wikimedia/CreativeCommons

Experiments, such as those conducted by Pavlov on his dogs, show that animals can be conditioned to behave a certain way, but the role that nature plays in a person’s make-up is still discussed. Ever since Watson and Crick discovered DNA in 1953, questions about the role DNA plays in determing our actions remain prevalent.

How much of what we do is down to our DNA? When we ask this question, we are in effect asking about ‘nature’. Frankenstein asks similar questions by revealing the provenance of the monster’s brain, but does not take the issue any further. For the purposes of the film, it does not need to. But there’s no denying the argument over nature vs nurture is still raging.

Then there’s the question of scientific capability against ethical desirability. In the film, Frankenstein says of one of his corpses: ‘He’s just waiting. Waiting for new life to come.’ Science as the giver and taker-away of life – is is fair or ethical? Again, this issue still vexes us today. It is part of the reason why concepts such as euthanasia and the death penalty polarise opinion so starkly. Does science have the right to take away a person’s life? Does it have the right to give life?

These are all critical issues that science communicators of every stripe are sure to be tasked with in the future, but perhaps the most pressing concern is the public perception of science and scientists.

The film pulls no punches on this score. Frankenstein himself is presented as an errant pupil – his old professor, Dr Waldman, says ‘Dr Frankenstein is a brilliant young man, yet so erratic he troubles me’- who is assisted by a hunchback, working at the top of a tower in a dark laboratory. He is resistant to anybody seeing his work, and views the monster as his own creation.

Science is still fighting to counter this perception. It may continue to do so for some time yet. The monster is given no dialogue in the film, and even has his name replaced by a question mark in the opening credits. I would say this is a metaphor for the way science is often presented to the public: as a faceless, clandestine occupation; something to be feared rather than embraced.

All these are hurdles that science communicators can help overcome. It is to be hoped that they will be up for the challenge.

Ben Jones is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.

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