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Modifying the meme

A fictional perspective on science

Julie Darbyshire 25 November 2007

Transformation: is Frankenstein's monster passé?

The twenty-first century seems willing to challenge previously accepted views of science and scientists

With its apparent capabilities to uncover all knowledge and eliminate the mysteries of the natural world, science has long been perceived as the pursuit of pure knowledge, a discipline somehow free from social interpretation (1). It does however, have its critics. On the one hand science has been heralded as the answer to all human uncertainty; on the other it has overturned accepted understanding and has been deeply criticised when it has failed to deliver assurances (2). The singular view that was behind the Bodmer Report, a Royal Society document from 1985 which effectively launched the Public Understanding of Science movement in the United Kingdom, implies empirical superiority and is today challenged. Suggestions that science is merely another belief system with no intrinsic claim to authority, and the widening acceptance of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (3) are beginning to address the “visceral fear of science” ascribed to the latter half of the twentieth century (4).

With the authority of science challenged, the public is to some extent bewildered by the apparent confusion and lack of consensus in what has previously been presented as verifiable fact and it is proving difficult to re-condition Western society accustomed to science as an elitist discipline. This entrenched opinion has at its roots a deep social fear of the dangers of scientific knowledge that has permeated cultural thinking for several hundred years. In the mid-twentieth century, H.P. Lovecraft wrote “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (5). Limited understanding between scientists and the public (and I use all terms loosely) creates a cultural divide that has been exploited and emphasised through the ages, thus continually separating the scientist from society. This cyclical exclusionism has been in evidence since the beginnings of science, and Roslynn Haynes identifies this with the enforced alienation of early alchemists whose language and symbolism was interpreted as “designed to confuse and disempower outsiders” (6), evoking medieval roots of wizards and sorcerers who live on in modern scientists (4).

Literature of the nineteenth century exploited contemporary anxieties arising from rapid social and technological change, exploring the liminal spaces of new uncertainty. Widely held faith in the Genesis account of human origins was shaken when Darwinian theories of evolution in the late eighteen hundreds changed perceptions of human existence forever. Using the veil of science, reflections of a social order in chaos can be seen throughout Victorian literature, particularly the gothic genre where humanity is presented in all its horror, unbearably at odds with its surroundings. Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), James Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner), Sheridan Le Fanu (In A Glass Darkly) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) all offered visions of men who were at once gentlemen of society and yet simultaneously barely human.

It has been claimed that: “images, clichés and metaphors […in fiction…] are a reflection of the popular culture” (7). At the same time, continued emphasis on these images and clichés reinforces cultural thinking and can eventually re-present to society a distorted view. Audiences and readers therefore shape opinion and manipulate cultural acceptance, defining social values based upon preconceived expectations (8). Writing in 1970, Lois and Stephen Rose stated: “Theology is inevitably a child of its is tied to the world view of the time, the issues which are uppermost in the minds of people and the historical events which confront us” (9). Inevitably literature reflects the concerns of its time but also literature written in an earlier age continues to resonate in modern society.

A particular view of science has therefore been created, imitated and perpetuated to nurture into existence a powerful scientific myth. Ultimately, this myth is the Frankenstein tale. It is one of human identity, the search for truth and the corruption of power gained through unauthorised knowledge. Written in 1818, Frankenstein places at its heart the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and the monster. Male, working alone on secret projects that transcend accepted laws of nature and base human limits of decency, the fictional image of Dr. Frankenstein ultimately losing control of his creation has permeated social and cultural understanding to its core as the epitome of the archetypal mad scientist.

It seems that more than any other profession, the scientist in fiction is reduced to a two-dimensional stereotype (5). In contrast to earlier periods, however, the twenty-first century seems willing to challenge previously accepted views of science and scientists with the emergence of ‘ficta’ (10) and ‘lab lit’ (11), both deliberate attempts to present a more realistic vision. As science becomes more socially inclusive, the public is expected to engage with and direct scientific policy. As a result the distance between the scientist and the public is gradually being eroded. It seems only fitting therefore that the long-standing myth of Dr. Frankenstein and his tortured monster finally be allowed to bid us farewell (12).

In his exploration of film, Peter Weingart (8) states that fictionalised science is habitually presented as a solitary “quest for new knowledge in secrecy” where discoveries are frequently accidental, usually made outside of regulation, detrimental to human kind and often with uncontrollable consequences. Over one third of all science films are concerned with unnatural “prolongation, improvement, manipulation, expansion, and termination of life”. Parallels with Frankenstein are clear. Søren Brier too highlights the typical science fiction plot as a dystopian existence with “unexpected implications” of some misapplication of science (11), and Haynes has written extensively on the negative stereotypes of scientist (13). In the late 1980s, George Gerbner wrote that “the popular market for science…is a mixture of great expectations, fears, utilitarian interests, curiosities, and prejudices, and superstitions” (14). Today, this juxtaposition remains true and it is difficult for scientists to escape the stereotype (10).

In reality of course, science is mostly collaborative and all research is strictly controlled, both through ethical and peer review. These, along with other conventions known in academic circles as ‘Mertonian norms’ (15), are at the heart of science and are intended to maintain its credibility through consistency, lack of bias and the “forwarding of its own characteristic ideal” (1). Science reported to the public, however, rarely retains multiple authorship and frequently focuses on the controversial ( ). It is unsurprising therefore that when science is characterised in fiction it adheres to the view of science most often presented to the public (7,17).

Dr Frankenstein’s monster stands alone. Made from human remains and yet emphatically not human, he is denied a name and an identity. Unnaturally created, he bears a popular hereditary association with the origins of cloning, hybrid embryos and genetically modified foods. His existence outside of nature alienates him from society, leading to a path of destruction and death. Much of science in fiction is centred on the nature of humanity and what it means to be human. The hybrid ‘manimals’ of The Island of Dr Moreau are initially controlled (“I have seen the devil in my microscope and I have chained him” [18]) but eventually the doctor is murdered by his own creations. Similarities to Frankenstein are unmistakable and Jörg’s analysis and comparison of the three films with the original book show clearly how prevailing culture can shape a text to mirror contemporary concerns (19). By the end of the century, Darwinian fears have given way to explorations of the advances in biotechnology (19). As Weingart et al. write: “The deep-seated fears and expectations connected to our own lives are thus projected” (7).

At the outset, this review stated that Dr. Frankenstein was the epitome of the fictional scientist. Male, middle-aged, working alone on research designed to subvert current accepted limits of humanity, this megalomaniac perseveres into our psyche almost two hundred years after he was created. So ingrained is this fictional image (20) that a recent study by Christopher Frayling found that 80-90% of primary school children will draw what Jennifer Rohn calls the “persistent and perfidious avatar: the mad scientist” (11).

This then is the established public identity of the scientist and, according to Rohn, he (and importantly it is always ‘he’ [21]) plays a crucial role in their public credibility. Rohn believes science is “feared and mistrusted” as a direct result of scientists’ alienation from mainstream society. She warns against a tide of negativity unless reality is allowed a voice. Her suggestion is ‘lab lit’, a genre with strong associations to the realities of the scientific profession. With evidence to show that ‘lab lit’ has a market, her appeal to “forget the hackneyed clichés and get gritty” is being heeded (22). Jörg too, implies that public perceptions of science and scientists are fundamentally flawed and that popular media have a responsibility to rectify that image.

In 2006 Lewis Wolpert (23) wrote that “If literature is meant to reflect our culture then as far as science is concerned it is a miserable failure”. Finding little in the traditional canon of literature offering a scientist as a “believable central character”, he identifies just Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Victorian literature is awash with Frankensteinesque scientists but Wolpert ignores those who adhere to the populist view such as Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Hesselius (In A Glass Darkly) & H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man. Like Rohn, Wolpert believes there is economic viability in a literature that better represents the scientist and champions the widening acceptance of science in society stating “it is no longer fashionable to boast of one’s ignorance or indifference”.

Brier’s paper goes some way to explain how some authors have begun to redress the scientist in a more realistic approach. In contrast to traditional science fiction that invariably presents the same “social problems” associated with “new technology”, ‘ficta’ “focuses more on the philosophy of science, worldview and existential aspects and problems than on the technological-social”. Michael Crichton is singled out for his “profound knowledge of his subject areas” and suggestions that readers are unaware they are being lectured.

The science of ‘ficta’ remains fundamentally sound. Concentrating less on wild claims of science in favour of presenting the nature of science, ‘ficta’ does not seek truths promised by some other forms of popular science (24). Instead the reader of ‘ficta’ develops an understanding of what science is and how it works. In this way the reader also becomes aware of what science is not. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought takes seven and a half million years to answer “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”. The answer is a meaningless 42. In ‘ficta’, science only provides data that must then be interpreted.

Brier’s analysis of Jurassic Park includes several passages where Crichton addresses the modern world-view of science. Clearly critical of the status arbitrarily awarded to science (“Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live” [25]), Crichton’s scientist presents the reader with a history of science philosophy concluding with a polemic consistent with current academic thought: “Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually. But now we see that isn’t true. It is an idle boast [...] We are witnessing the end of the scientific era” (26).

The combination of sensationalist headlines with anti-authoritarian scepticism and a fear of scientific politicisation fosters a degree of distrust of governmental statements leading the public to view science in a negative light. However, faced with a public wanting more science information (27), and a government that believes the public has the right to contribute to scientific policy (28), scientists today have the ideal environment in which to publicise their work and bolster public interest and knowledge. The gap between scientists and the public can be bridged, but only if both sides acknowledge the limitations. “It is not being right or wrong that makes a scientist. It is respect for proof and freedom from prejudice” (29).

Fiction is an experience removed from the immediate, so fears can be explored safely (30-31). The gothic genre of the nineteenth century has given way to science fiction in the modern age where contemporary social commentary is played out on the page, allowing the reader to experience an alternate existence simultaneously juxtaposing this against their own reality. Far from being merely a “reflection of popular culture” (7), fiction is well placed to question the consequences of what lies beyond the limits of understanding. The matter of human identity is no more restricted to the unnatural creation of a man of mythic proportions than it is to the issues surrounding human cloning.

Science in the nineteenth century allowed authors to examine deeply rooted fears of the fragility of human identity and control by illustrating the alienation of the socially deviant, emphasising the destructive and divisive nature of science. By the end of the century, in the wake of evolutionary Darwinsim, humanity was in real danger of degenerating into bestial uncertainty. During the twentieth century, the inevitable reductionist nature of translating literature to film ensured the “succession of ciphers who play perfunctory roles” (4), creating an increasingly amoral image of the scientist resulting in a profession viewed with fear and suspicion.

Today, with the emergence of ‘ficta’ and ‘lab lit’ offering more realistic portrayals of science in literature, and the film industry perhaps beginning to present the discipline in a more positive light, science is gradually losing its exclusivity. It is hoped that the public no longer believes science to be alienated from society, a specialty to be feared. If the meme of the mad scientist can be modified, the public view of science may well simultaneously develop. There is then a real chance that scientists can finally come close to achieving true populist communication of science and, perhaps more importantly, scientific principles, as science becomes truly integrated into society (28).


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  17. Dr. Moreau to Douglas in the 1996 film version.
  18. Cited in Jörg, D., ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Dr. Moreau Goes to Hollywood’, Public Understanding of Science, Vol 12, No 3, July 2003, p. 30118.
  19. Jörg, D., ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Dr. Moreau Goes to Hollywood’, Public Understanding of Science, Vol 12, No 3, July 2003, pp 297 - 30519.
  20. Weingart, P., & Pansegrau, P., ‘Introduction: perception and representation of science in literature and fiction film’, Public Understanding of Science, Vol 12, No. 3, July 2003, p. 22720.
  21. Steinke, J., Knight Lapinski, M., Crockler, N., Zietsman-Thomas, A., et al., ‘Assessing Media Influences on Middle School Aged Children’s Perceptions of Women in science Using the Draw-A-Scientist-Test (DAST), Science Communication, Vol 29, No. 1, 2007, pp 35 - 6421.
  22. ‘The subtle side of science’, 13 July 2007, [27 September 2007]
  23. Wolpert, L., ‘An unkind literature: Why has the novel shortchanged science?’, 18 January 2006, [27 July 2007]
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  25. Crichton, M., Jurassic Park, (Arrow Books: London, 1991), p. 312 in Brier
  26. Crichton, M., Jurassic Park, (Arrow Books: London, 1991), p. 313 in Brier
  27. Worcester, R., ‘Public Attitudes to Science: What do we know?’, in Walport, M. (ed.), Engaging Science: Thoughts, Deeds, Analysis and Action, Wellcome Trust, 2006, pp 14 - 1927.
  28. The Department of Trade and Industry Website, Science & Society, [28 September 2007]
  29. Browne, T., Religio Medici, referenced in Carey, J., What Good Are The Arts?, (Faber & Faber: London, 2005), p. 184

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