The Frankenstein Moment

So tonight Bear and I happened to find ourselves watching “How To Build A Bionic Man”. It was fascinating to see the medical advancements humanity has made, from teaching a woman to see again to saving a man’s life by replacing his heart with an artificial one. It is incredible to see how those men and women and children who have lost limbs may in the future be able to act just like everyone else, and possibly be advantaged by having them. Brushing away the ethical dilemmas of extending all life and increasing brain and physical ability far past nature, it was amazing to see the difference it could make to life as we know it.

However, by far the most interesting snippet of the program was Bertolt Meyer’s reaction to the fully formed bionic man when his face was added onto the form. He freaked, he got emotionally passionate and ended up walking out of the room, door slamming behind him. It reminded me strongly of Frankenstein when, standing before his creation and seeing life within it, he suddenly realised his mistake and scared, angry and ashamed ran away. (For those of you feeling a little confused, Frankenstein was the doctor not the monster/creation… well unless you see the doctor as the monster but that’s a whole new debate!)

“I think it’s awkward, I really don’t like it. It has this Frankenstein creepiness to it. I don’t (want to touch it). I think I need a break. Will you stop laughing. I need a break” *he walks out.
“It feels revolting… I thought this was going to be great and beautiful, but it’s not. It’s this patchwork assembly of parts.”
“I don’t know why I’m getting this emotional reaction to it, but it just looks horrifying to me.”

Could that emotional attachment be just because it had his own face? Or could it be something deeper. Mary Shelley may have simply realised that when we create life, particularly in such an awkward way as “patchwork assembly”, we feel simply wrong. In such a relativistic world saying “wrong” with ethical or moral ideas behind it is dangerous and gets some people a little annoyed. But there was something deep within both Frankenstein and Meyer, that meant despite the sacrifice of money and time, what they saw at the end was far from the ideal, so very far from true miraculous life. Perhaps because life is perceptible even when we don’t understand how. Looking at a moving object we know almost instinctively if it is alive, or whether it is just programmed or forced. Perhaps this will change, but in 200 years our immediate reaction has not changed.

Frankenstein was seen as a horror not only due to the murders and death within it, but also for those terrifying moments of looking into a bloodshot eyes of something that was not meant to be alive, but is. I think we may still have trouble avoiding this deep-seated emotion when creating artificial life, however fascinating.

Any comments? Is there a limit we need to be careful with? Do you think we’re at risk of ignoring the lessons Mary Shelley hinted at?

By Theodore Von Holst (1831)
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