Science Notes; The myth of Frankenstein

OUR CHILDREN learn that professors are mad around the time they start reading the Beano, imbibing a tradition that goes back to the alchemists. But the 19th century gave us the most memorable mad scientist of all, Victor Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley's laboratory-bound obsessive, first introduced to agreeably scandalised readers in 1818, had one thing in common with his successors. He was a primitive biologist. And though the 20th century has spawned enough power-crazed physicists to keep Dr Strangelove company, our favourite scary scientists still tend to be test-tube baby makers, genetic engineers and closet cloners.

Biology evokes our deepest ambivalence about the scientific project. We would love to control life, and finally break the bounds of the clumsily designed bodies and minds which evolution built, yet the stronger our desire to overcome our imperfections, the greater our dread of real choices about our future make-up.

This double-bind at the heart of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein has spawned endless retellings, which make it one of our most resonant modern myths.

It is a myth that modern biologists hate. Those who splice genes and fertilise eggs in petri dishes believe that the endurance of Frankenstein is due to second-rate writers pandering to public fears and perpetuating cheap stereotypes. They are wrong. The myth is not a straightforward anti- science story. Our sympathies are often drawn to the good doctor's creation, originally dubbed the "creature", but, since Boris Karloff's stunning screen portrayal in the Thirties, seen as Frankenstein's "monster". Yet we are engaged by the creator, too. There is something admirable about Victor Frankenstein in the novel, about "Henry" Frankenstein in James Whale's classic Thirties films - even to Peter Cushing's ruthless Baron Frankenstein in Hammer's Fifties and Sixties films. The myth expresses an ambivalence about science that colours our view of flesh-and-blood biologists. But it grips us, to the extent that we share their motives.

This is one reason why the myth has so often been useful when people have struggled to make sense of real biology. Frankenstein loomed large in Britain when Victorian physiologists took up vivisection, and in the US when the embryologist Jacques Loeb claimed, at the turn of this century, that artificial fertilisation of sea-urchin eggs meant that laboratory- created life was imminent. The story was often used by commentators on the "biological revolution" of the Sixties, in the days of the Pill, heart transplants, mind-bending drugs, the cracking of the genetic code. It is now invoked to express our concerns about cloned sheep and designer babies.

However, as such concerns become real rather than fictional, a 200-year- old myth, however artfully reworked, is a poor grounding for debate. It can too easily be used to suggest that we must accept all science, or none. Recently, scientists have been quick to use it in this way, to raise the rhetorical stakes in defence, for example, of experiments with embryos.

This won't do. Neither will reference to Frankenstein as an awful warning by opponents of some project or other. Control of life has moved from being a novelist's notion to the objective of a whole set of real-world technologies. We did ask for them. Our desire, it appears, outweighs our dread. But we will still strive to curb some applications of the life science while encouraging others. For that effort, perhaps, we need new stories, posing more subtle choices.

Jon Turney is author of `Frankenstein's Footsteps: science, genetics and popular culture' (Yale University Press, pounds 19.99)