Contemporary Concerns in Old Science Fiction | Frankenstein | Biological Engineering

West, 1 of 5 A.

Tariq West English 176, Winter 2010 Ursula Heise Paper #1

Contemporary Concerns in Old Science Fiction

In contemporary society we are engaged with two major techno-scientific movements – bioengineering and computing – each with enormous potential to act upon the human body and mind. In bioengineering we have developed the capacity to identify and manipulate the building blocks of life; we are able to isolate and repurpose elements from nature as it exists, as well as to create some of these elements from “scratch”. We are well on the path to exercising more precise control over our own biological make-ups and the feasibility of creating artificial humans biologically seems eminent. In computing, and its corollary in robotics, we are creating complex and intelligent machines, which mimic human faculties with increasing fealty. Also, we are bonding computing machines to our bodies and minds in ways that augment and modify our faculties and promise to grant new ones. Through advances in computing we are broaching the possibility of creating non-biological “human” entities even as we engineer non-biological elements into ourselves in potentially transformative ways. The ability to modify humans, perhaps in ways that differentiate them radically from other members of the species, as well as the potential of create artificial humans, raises existential and practical concerns around what it means to be a human being. An emerging diversity of sentient beings of various constitutions, origins and faculties, presents a significant cultural issue which goes beyond whom is functionally or biologically human, to whom society grants the status of personhood and associated rights, privileges and responsibilities. The duties of creators to the beings they engineer will likely feature prominently in contemplations in this space as existing ideas about parenthood and ownership are adapted to new technological realities. In Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells respectively engage these difficult cultural concerns,

West, 2 of 5 each putting forth a poignant vision of some sort of artificial human, the personhood accorded it and its creator’s relationship with it. In The Island of Dr. Moreau the characters accord the artificial humans varying degrees of personhood, reflected in their actions and rhetoric towards them. In the beginning of the novel aboard the Ipecacuanha, Montgomery and Prendick are established a human persons in the society of the ship, while Montgomery’s assistant is not. The assistant is knocked down to be attacked by dogs to the laughter of the ship’s crew while Prendick and Montgomery seem to enjoy some rights to not be assaulted, even when they confront the captain. Montgomery asserts this same right on behalf of his assistant but from a weak position as he tacitly admits that his assistant deserves some lesser regard than other persons by responding to the captain’s assertion that, “None of us can stand him, nor you either!” with, “You leave that man alone anyhow!”(Wells, 81). In this early scene we are introduced to the ambiguity that Montgomery feels with regards to Moreau’s creations – clearly he accords them greater moral status than the ship’s captain does and is pained to see his assistant abused. Moreau later observes of Montgomery, “He’s ashamed of it, but I believe he half like some of those beasts.” (Wells, 131) Following the death of Moreau, Montgomery seems to retreat from the position held by his now deceased colleague (that the creations were “mockeries” of men) and abandons the unspoken conventions they’d had around fraternizing with them. He declares that M’ling (notably the only one of Moreau’s creatures who has a name) a friend who “takes his liquor like a Christian” and sets about to have a drink with him (Wells, 154). Prendick’s regard for the creatures’ humanity and personhood varies over the course of the novel. As the story develops there is an increasing divergence between the human form and personhood as his worldview comes to accommodate creatures which blurry the lines between man and beast. Pendick clearly regards the creatures he encounters on skiff en route to the island as “men” as he recounts, “They had lank black hair, almost like horse hair, and seemed as they sat to exceed in stature any race of men I have seen.” (Wells, 88) It is not clear, however, exactly what constitutes a “man” (although later in the narrative we come to understand that it has something to do with standing erect as he says of a creature he encounters in the woods, “It was not an animal, for it stood erect.” (103)) in his eyes and

West, 3 of 5 what moral status is accorded men generally, and different “races” of men specifically. Prendick seems to be comfortable with the idea of many different kinds of “men” who vary widely in physical appearance and so, early in the novel, before he is acquainted with the existence of “Beat Men”, he seems content to accept the creatures he encounters as humans at least, and perhaps as persons. When Prendick becomes privy to the existence of an entire other category of creatures he first sees them as beastly others, certainly not persons or humans in the sense that he, Montgomery and Moreau are. But as time goes on he becomes “a little habituated to the idea of them” which suggests (Wells, 135). Moreau’s conception of the “Beast People” is more fixed as he seems to regard his creations as non-humans and non-persons throughout. In fact, he considers them abominable failures in an attempt to create humans; they are “indisputably” human to him upon creation but soon revert back to beast (Wells, 135). Unlike Montgomery, he does not associate with them or feel at all sympathetic towards them; in fact, his only interactions with them seem to be in the capacity of enforcer of non-beastliness. This “enforcer” role is central to the relationship between Moreau and his creations and is the only hint of responsibility that he acts out towards them. With the exception of his Ape Man creation, Moreau does not provide any education, guidance or sustenance to his creatures and claims to “take no interest in them” (Wells, 131); his duties towards them begin and end at enforcing the “Law”, a capacity that seems largely self-serving (so that they don’t overpower him and Montgomery). Still, it might be said that enforcing the “Law” among the carnivorous creatures is a form of responsible benevolence towards the less aggressive ones. As a creator, Moreau’s believes that he has endowed his creatures with something extraordinary and good if under realized, as he alludes to saying, “There is a sort of upward striving in them, part vanity, part waste sexual emotion, part waste curiosity. It only mocks me.” Moreau seems in this sentiment, at least somewhat parental, albeit disappointedly. Ultimately, the will he exerts over them seems to resemble more ownership over animals than guiding parenthood. In Frankenstein, with few exceptions, humanity and personhood appear to be bound up largely in a narrow vision of the human form. Although Frankenstein’s creature stands erect and has the appendages and features of the human form (although rendered in larger scale),

West, 4 of 5 he is not recognized as a human being but rather, immediately and decisively identified as an abhorrent other, a monster. In his first encounters with society he inspires fearful flight, in the case of an old shepherd, and mis-guided preemptive violence, in the case of the first village he comes to (Shelley, 132). Despite the overwhelming tendency of the people he encounters to judge his humanness and personhood by the apparent aberrations of his appearance, there are three instances in which individuals, in relating to him, seem to accord him some form of personhood. In the first case, the blind patriarch among the creature’s “beloved cottagers” invites the creature into his home and makes hospitable gestures towards him saying, “Enter and I will try in what manner I can to relieve your wants.” (Shelley, 158) In the proceeding scene the blind patriarch engages the creature with the civility and sympathy with which we might imagine he engages other persons in his society. Blind to his appearance, the creature’s eloquence and emotion cause the patriarch to place him squarely into the category of “human creatures” and personhood (Shelley, 159). In the second case, in the final scenes of the novel, Walton makes an effort to ignore the creature’s appearance as he recounts, “His voice seemed suffocated; and my first impulses, which suggested to me the duty of obeying the dying request of my friend, in destroying his enemy were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion.” (Shelley, 240) In Walton’s compassion for the creature appears for a second time a separation in a beholder between the creature’s inhuman (in its monstrosity if not in its basic form) appearance and the consciousness beneath it. Even in his reproach of the creature he affords him some personhood saying, “If you had listened to the voice of conscience and headed the stings of remorse, before you had urged your diabolical vengeance to this extremity, Frankenstein would yet have lived.” (Shelley, 241) In saying this, Walton takes the creature out of the realm of monsters and into the sphere of men, where the responsibilities of conscience and remorse abound. By placing these expectations on him, he accords him some measure of personhood. In the final case, Frankenstein acknowledges in his creation, some degree of deserving, “I was moved. I shuddered when I thought of the possible consequences of my consent; but I felt there was some justice in his argument. His tale, and the feelings he now expressed,

West, 5 of 5 proved him to be a creature of fine sensations…” (Shelley, 170) In noting the “justice” in the creature’s argument, Frankenstein admits that this being is worthy of justice, of moral status in keeping with other creatures “of fine sensations”. As Frankenstein contemplates the idea of “justice” for his creature, his relationship to it evolves. From the horror with which he first beheld his creation, and the understanding that he had “turned loose in the world a depraved wretch who’s delight was in carnage and in misery” (Shelley, 103) he transitions into a more nuanced understanding of his creature and his duties towards it. He comments on this transition saying, “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.” (Shelley, 128) This feeling of responsibility is crystallized later when he says, “…and did I not, as his maker him, owe him all the portion of happiness that it was in my power to bestow?” Frankenstein’s conception of what he owes his creation, however, is counterbalanced by his duties to society, as he relates saying, “Had I a right, for the purpose of my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” Certainly he feels an obligation to his creature, enough to overcome his own disgust with it, but not enough to introduce the possibility of it impacting future society. In The Island of Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein we find a spectrum of conceptions of the humanity and personhood of artificial humans as well as diverging visions of the duties of creators to conscious creations. Personhood in both cases is bound to some subset of human form, faculties of reason, speech, sensation and emotion. The creators of these artificial humans have a similarly varied understanding of their responsibilities towards them. As we approach the promise and the perils of creating and radically altering human life, a reading of these texts demands that we develop a rigorous theory, not just of corporeal humanness, but also of personhood, suited to a diverse world of sentient beings.

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