Science Corner: The Making of a Monster

Sketch of galvanism demonstration

Actual galvanism demonstration; that bull’s legs may twitch but it won’t be terrorizing any villagers. (Image from Wellcome Images [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

This year is the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a landmark of science fiction and Gothic literature. I’ve already touched on the book earlier this summer while discussing Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom (a follow-up to my coverage of Jurassic World. But after reading Mike Stell’s great review last week, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for one last look at the book, especially on Halloween.

This time, I want to highlight the science of the book a little more. Mike rightly points out that Shelley is not overly concerned with how Dr. Frankenstein brought his creation to life, but she does describe the relevant contemporary science of galvanism. (And in fairness, plenty of sci-fi stories since Shelley’s have been content with a wave in the general direction of known science as they sail blithely on towards speculation.) Making dead frogs twitch with a battery may seem quaint now, the sort of science we teach school children if at all, but it was a remarkable discovery. Benjamin Franklin had only just demonstrated in 1752 that lightning was the same electricity as stored in batteries; then in 1786 Luigi Galvani showed how that same electricity also animated animals. One would not be entirely misguided to imagine little bolts of lightning stimulating every movement of your body; pretty exciting in those terms, no? Folks were still marveling at the idea in 1818, as the idea spread via demonstrations and possibly even Shelley’s book.

Of course, there is more to movement than just electricity. The electrical signals conducted by nerves activate muscle fibers which generate force mechanically in a macro sense and chemically at a microscopic level. Although really, all of the chemical dynamics are mediated by the electromagnetic force, so maybe it is electricity all the way down. At the other end, those electrical signals come from the brain (excepting reflexive responses) and ultimately the mind, however the two relate. A battery can supply individual signals, but cannot replace all of the sensory processing of the brain, not to mention the other physiological processes needed for life. This was presumably just as clear in Shelley’s day; none of the real world frogs stimulated by Galvani came back to life. So we don’t have a complete account of how Frankenstein made his creature. What we do have, however, is a fairly complete picture of how the creature was made a monster.

Here Shelley was arguably ahead of the science by showing how reacting to the creature as if he was a monster increased his social distance and exacerbated his situation. This reminds me of labeling theory from sociology. The exact extent to which the way we label behaviors impacts subsequent choices can be difficult, but there is evidence of some effect. For example, the stigmas associated with mental illness and mental health treatment can be internalized by patients, resulting in negative self-image and social isolation that can exacerbate the conditions that required treatment in the first place. Or consider how we are reevaluating the criminalization of substance use in the present context of widespread opioid addiction relative to prior experience with crack addiction. We clearly have a sense that labels matter, because identity matters.

And so at the very least, Frankenstein failed his creation by failing to foster a positive identity. He didn’t even give him a name. A name in and of itself may not have changed anything, but names are never given in isolation. They are given in the context of a relationship, and that relationship is what informs the identity of both people. The creature is left to find his identity in how others relate to him when his creator won’t, and as we know that doesn’t go well. And in a sense, we continue to do the same to him, putting him with vampires and werewolves and mummies as classic movie monsters. Yet not exclusively; Young Frankenstein has a humanizing element to its depiction, and DC Comics has made him something of a superhero. In light of all that, I am grateful to my Creator for pursuing a relationship with me that fosters a positive identity, and I hope I can do the same for my neighbor.

The conversation on Faith across the Multiverse continues at the Peaceful Science forum. This week we’re talking about Chapter 4: The Kamala Khan Conundrum. You can check out an excerpt at the forum and share your questions and comments.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Michael J Stell commented on October 31, 2018 Reply

    Andy – great stuff! I agree with the discussion about identity. In many ways it is one of the biggest weaknesses of the book. When I teach the book, it one area students always gravitate to. We do frame that in a discussion of the distinction between a creator and a parent, but I think that it is still an area where Frankenstein whiffed.

      Andy Walsh commented on October 31, 2018 Reply

      Thanks, Mike. I agree there is some room to distinguish between Frankenstein and a typical parent, and also between God’s relationship to us and our parents’ relationship to us. Also complicating this situation is the fact that the creature presents as an adult, albeit one going through some child-like development.

      I’m glad I was able to find a way to complement your insightful reflections.

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