Apropos of Halloween, our family book club recently read and discussed Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I had never read it before. I have seen the movie versions, the iconic one with Boris Karloff from 1931 and Mel Brooks’ version. For the record, I recommend Young Frankenstein.
Reading the book, I was surprised by how relevant the story is even though Shelley wrote it in 1818 (when she was 18 years old!). I was anticipating a difficult read. I expected the language to be dense and unfamiliar. I was pleasantly surprised to find it accessible. In parts it was quite beautiful and expressive. At other times I found it overwrought, though I suspect the author may have intended it to be. It is quite a melodramatic tale. The members of our book club differed in their judgment of the writing; some ended up skimming because they found the focus on details off-putting, while others reveled in the lush descriptions. I fell somewhere in the middle. I appreciated her ability to convey depth of emotion and paint a picture of the ‘creature’s’ experience as he entered the world, but sometimes I found it overdone and was ready to move on.
Apart from the writing itself, the story led to spirited discussion. It is so rich with themes that transcend time: the nature of man, the balance of progress (scientific discovery) and ethical obligation, the danger of unbridled passion/ambition. It was nearly impossible to contain our conversation to the scheduled one hour (we meet on Zoom). Interesting takes on the story were offered: that it was really a parable of mental illness (perhaps the ‘monster’ wasn’t real at all). Another perspective suggested that it was reflecting on the fears of that age that God had turned his back on man the way Dr. Frankenstein abandoned his creature.
We talked about the role of appearances. The creature’s appearance engendered so much disgust, fear and violence that he became the monster that the people feared. Had the public responded differently, he might never have become destructive.
In terms of the risks of progress, we agreed that the book offers a cautionary tale. We talked a bit about whether Mark Zuckerberg was a ‘Dr. Frankenstein.’ While there are differences in that Zuckerberg has not abandoned his creation (far from it), there are relevant parallels. Progress, without due consideration of the ethics and consequences, is dangerous. Today universities have structures in place to assess the ethical impact of an experiment before it is funded. Private tech companies need to put more emphasis on ethics and consequences before steaming ahead with new applications. How to make that happen remains an open question.
In the story Victor Frankenstein, during his studies at university, becomes obsessed with breathing life into something dead. His research convinces him that he can achieve this, and he becomes single-minded in his pursuit of that goal. He sleeps little, isolates himself and slaves away in his workshop until he succeeds. Most of the story focuses on what happens after that ‘eureka’ moment, but I was interested in exploring that aspect of the narrative.
I wonder whether that level of intensity is necessary for great breakthroughs, for great scientific achievements. My daughter, who is a neuroscientist and has worked in several labs at different universities, offered that she thought meaningful scientific progress can be made by people who have lives outside the lab. She has observed researchers who have families and hobbies and still manage to produce important work. I was heartened to hear that because I am predisposed to think that it requires if not obsession, close to it.
When I raised that question at book club my cousin responded that it is a myth that big discoveries are achieved by single-minded, hardworking geniuses. He pointed out that those accomplishments are the result of collaboration or appropriation of the work of others; though individuals may claim the credit and history may celebrate that person, that isn’t the reality. We didn’t get to examine his point in depth because time had run short. I want to investigate this idea further here.
I have not read the histories of Edison, Ford and others who are credited with huge advances, but it makes sense to me that their work was built on ideas and contributions of others. I think it does us a disservice not to acknowledge that. The mythology of one man, and most often it is a man, forging the path or having the ‘aha’ moment, creates unreasonable expectations and fails to give due credit to those who provide the conditions that permit the discovery. Putting aside the cases where the idea may have been outright stolen or appropriated, wherever you look, in whatever field of endeavor, geniuses need support. These days, even in an individual sport like tennis, the winner of the tournament thanks his/her ‘team.’ Roger Federer, a genius on the tennis court, acknowledges his coach, his physio (I didn’t know what that was until recently), and his family because he recognizes that even if he was alone on the court, others contributed to his victory.
I took my cousin’s important point to heart; it still didn’t exactly answer the question I was posing. Both things can be true. Great accomplishments can require collaboration (acknowledged or not) and an obsessive devotion to the effort. I was pleased to hear Leah’s observation; I still wonder. Though I can’t say I have seen geniuses work up close, I have worked with folks who are at the very top of their field, very respected, sought-after practitioners of medicine, law and public policy. I think it is fair to say they have bordered on obsessive. They certainly put in many, many hours of work and mental energy. They may have families and even a hobby, but it isn’t in balance. I can’t think of anyone in that esteemed position who didn’t prioritize their work (family might share equal billing, but nothing else comes close). I made a choice early in my career to seek out balance, I wasn’t that ambitious. Or maybe I was, but my ambition was to have well-adjusted children. I certainly put time and energy into them. I have come to no conclusion on this. Can a person live a balanced life and still achieve greatness? Of course, it begs the issue of defining greatness, but I’m thinking about major contributions to their field, whatever it might be.
The issue of scientific breakthroughs without due consideration of consequences and whether those engaged in that work need to be obsessed are likely connected. The obsession or unbridled ambition may lead to the inability to consider impacts beyond their own achievement. We need mechanisms in place that balance the drive for innovation with concern for the greater good. The concept of a greater good has proven difficult for folks to agree upon.
In sum, if you have not read Frankenstein, I recommend it – especially for a book club.
Note to my fellow book clubbers: If I have not done justice to the ideas shared, please add your comments. Or, if I have done justice, but you’d like to chime in, please do. If your thoughts rise to the level of a full essay, I’m happy to post it. I extend that invitation to other readers, as well.