SCIENCE : When the scientist plays the Devil

Are writers demonising genetics? Author Maureen Duffy looks at `monster myths', the theme of a public debate hosted by the `Independent' to mark National Science Week
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We humans have always been fascinated by the hybrid, the creature that links us, in one body, with another species: fish, flesh or fowl. Literature and art are peopled with half-human, half-animal gods and supernaturals: merfolk, seal people, satyrs, harpies, centaurs, werewolves; Anubis of the Egyptians, Cernunnos of the Celts, and Caliban. They embody an unconscious apprehension that we, too, are animals; but because we still think of ourselves as "higher" than the others, the beastly part is necessarily lower.

Since the onset of Christianity, when the hybrid supernaturals were banished into the darkness with fiends and fallen angels, any creature that showed an "animal" side has been monstrous, something on to which we can unload our guilt, loathing and terror. If we want to demonise and destroy our fellow humans, we designate them a sub-species, just animals.

When I decided to create my own monster, Gordon, the in-vitro cross between human sperm and gorilla ovum, I refrained from rereading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now that I've re-examined that seminal novel, begun in 1816 by a girl of 18 who had already buried one child and had a six-month-old baby, I find similarities and differences between Frankenstein and Gorsaga which highlight the changes in attitude to science and the scientist in the past two centuries.

I believe that whatever the human imagination can conceive, we shall eventually achieve. I am sure that one day there will be a city on the moon. What's within our grasp now is the kind of genetic manipulation dreamt of in myth and nightmare, and practised in horticulture for thousands of years. Like children without a nightlight, we are afraid to bring forth the kind of dark forces we see in Frankenstein's creation. If we can create life, we are either rivals to God and may be struck down for our pride, or we must give up the idea of God as sole creator. Our belief that non-humans are of a lower order, and our fear of the hubris implicit in daring to create, causes our imaginary creations to take on a monstrous shape and us to heap our fears on the surrogates who perform the acts that we have imagined: scientists.

Mary Shelley's creator, Frankinstein, is an extremely attractive figure, modelled on her young husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In those early days of experimental science, the division between artist and scientist hadn't yet become a yawning chasm of boredom and misunderstanding. The scientists she encountered like Erasmus Darwin and Sir Humphry Davy could also be, or mingle with, poets and artists. Shelley himself dabbled in physics and chemistry.

Scientific and artistic creation were still perceived as related aspects of the imagination: the power to visualise and interpret. Educated people expected to understand something of the workings of the universe. It was only as our knowledge increased that it became divided into distinct systems inaccessible to those without the right key.

Now even the educated lay reader can no longer understand what the scientists are up to, shut away in their laboratories, wearing priestly white coats and sharing the kind of camaraderie we see on our television screens when the Nasa boys and girls congratulate each other on some space achievement. The demonising of the scientist reflects our loss of understanding and power. We feel at the mercy of doctors, drug companies, physicists and biologists, who can manipulate the very genes in a foetus that could grow into a sentient creature that might one day be us.

Artists, once the creators of a virtual reality of the imagination, are dethroned, while the scientist goes on to take over the virtual and make it actual. We are warned that traditional forms of artistic expression - books, paintings, live music - are obsolescent. And the scientists get to play with all the toys: computers, chemistry sets, spacesuits and simulators.

What little we do understand comes to us in sound and text bites from the media when the most sensational bits are clipped from a research project that may have taken years. Of course, we want to enjoy the benefits, the remedies for infertility, the abolition of imperfection in our children, but we are also afraid of our inability to control these developments, and the real monster who lurks always on the edge of our consciousness is Josef Mengele. We know instinctively that we aren't far removed from inquisitive monkeys, that without some kind of moral sanction, we may do something terrible just out of curiosity, to see if we can, or out of ambition to be the first. Young Victor Frankenstein is an enthusiast, a workaholic. There is nothing cold and forbidding about him. Even his creature wants his love and approval. His great mistake is to create a being so hideous that everyone is terrified of it. The creature, at first sensitive and rational, becomes a murderer out of rejection and loneliness; nurture not nature.

When I conceived of my hybrid Gordon, I was determined to reverse the mould and make him warm, handsome, "human". He would be rejected, even by himself, not because he was hideous but because he was other. In contrast, his creator and genetic father is the stereotype of the coldly ambitious scientist. His is the attitude of the vivisector who is indifferent to the creatures he uses, and I placed him in a military institution like Porton Down, in an area of research where experiments on live animals are actually increasing. In Gorsaga, the scientist is the unfeeling monster; for, like all science fiction, this is a fable or fairy story.

Frankenstein itself was conceived in a competition among friends to write a ghost story. Such fables aren't meant to be "real"; they require the reader to suspend disbelief. In conveying a message, the novel of ideas from More's Utopia via Frankenstein to Brave New World and 1984, necessarily has to simplify. With these mythical creations, we try to warn ourselves, through our surrogates - the writers - of the danger of embarking on social or environmental changes without trying to see where they might lead us, as we have so often and monstrously done in the past.