Unit 5: The Scientific Imagination
This reading unit focuses on the Prometheus myth via Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus and the question of whether scientists today should seek to create and use new technologies to reshape life as we know it. With modern advances in nuclear energy, robotics and artificial intelligence, genome editing, space exploration and more, modern science has the potential to radically change the world for better or worse. This unit asks questions about the role of technology in the culture of science by asking:
- What makes us human?
- Is human a biological or social category?
- What is monstrosity?
- Is knowledge gathering always a positive pursuit?
- Should there be limits for what we can know and do with science and technology?
- How do anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism influence our understanding of the natural world?
- Do you think a doctor should be allowed to use genetic engineering technology to alter a fetus if doing so could prevent a child from inheriting a life-threatening genetic malady or disease?
- Would you let a doctor genetically alter your child to increase its intelligence or alter its physical characteristics such as sex, height, eye color, or skin pigmentation, if that were possible?
This news story reports on the outrage of international scientists in the wake of an announcement that the world’s first gene-edited twin girls have been born in China.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds
Excerpt from the Editors’ Preface: Mary Shelly’s landmark fusion of science, ethics, and literary expression provides an opportunity both to reflect on how science is framed and understood by the public and to contextualize new scientific and technological innovations, especially in an era of synthetic biology, genome editing, robotics, machine learning, and regenerative medicine. Although Frankenstein is infused with the exhilaration of seemingly unbounded human creativity, it also prompts serious reflection about our individual and collective responsibility for nurturing the products of our creativity and imposing constraints on our capacities to change the world around us (xi-xii).
Suggested reading selections for Guston et al.:
Excerpts from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (pp. 28-44, 97-109, 120-125, and 138-146): How does Shelley’s novel relate to the Prometheus myth? What views of science does M. Krempe and M. Waldman represent? How does Victor Frankenstein respond to those views (pages 29-30)? How are we to understand Victor’s scientific progress on pages 37-41? Compared to Shelley’s understanding of monstrosity, how do the editors understand monstrosity (see footnote no. 43 on page 38). How does the creature learn about humanity? How does he react to this knowledge? On pages 107-108, why and how does the creature compare himself to Adam? Why does the creature ask Victor to make him a mate? Are his pleas convincing? As Victor works on the female mate (page 139), what are his fears? How are his thought processes different when creating the second creature? Why does he choose to destroy the female creature he is creating? What is the creature’s response to Victor’s refusal? Is the creature’s response justified? Additional reading discussion questions are included in the ebook’s appendixes.
Heather E. Douglas, “The Bitter Aftertaste of Technical Sweetness” (pp. 247-251): In this essay, science and society professor Heather E. Douglass explores how the pursuit of “technical sweetness” affected both Victor Frankenstein’s work and the work of the atomic scientists in the 1930s and 1940s.
Alfred Nordmann, “Undisturbed by Reality: Victor Frankenstein’s Technoscientific Dream of Reason” (pp. 223-228): In this essay, philosophy professor Alfred Nordmann suggests that “Frankenfoods” and “Frankenmaterials” that have no corollary to nature are not scientific outcomes but a throwback to alchemy and the supernatural, where the end results do not resemble the reality we perceive.