Frankenstein and the Scientific Revolution
In Frankenstein, the reckless pursuit of scientific discovery leads to chaos, tragedy, and despair for all of the novel’s characters. Because so many characters suffer as a result of scientific advances, many critics read the book as a critical response to the Scientific Revolution. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century with Copernicus’s argument for the sun being located at the center of the universe, the Scientific Revolution ushered in an era where assumptions about the natural world were challenged and revised. Other significant scientific discoveries, such as Galileo’s contributions to astronomy and physics and Isaac Newton’s discoveries about gravity and the laws of motion, meant that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw huge changes to the level of knowledge available about the world and how it worked. These scientific discoveries also led to shifts in how people related to knowledge: rather than relying on accepted wisdom from authoritative sources, people favored tests, observation, and evidence to support what was considered to be “true.”
Advances in our understanding of the laws of science led to many positive changes. However, some critics saw the progress of science as limitless, raising fears about how far was too far. Christian theology explains creation as an act of God; therefore, to tamper with this process, as Victor Frankenstein does in creating his monster, was to position oneself as on the same level as God. The idea of mutilating and dissecting corpses for the sake of experimentation became an increasingly real fear as medical study required better knowledge of anatomy and the possibility of experimental procedures. Shelley’s novel is not necessarily opposed to scientific progress or discovery, but focuses on what happens when science is not paired with individual moral responsibility. Victor Frankenstein is fixated on the glory of achievement, without considering what it will mean to have a new species be dependent on him.
Since the publication of Frankenstein, many other writers have grappled with questions of what might happen when people ignore the potential consequences of scientific discovery. In 1896, H.G Wells published The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a Victor Frankenstein-like scientist creates human-animal hybrids. The novel was a direct response to contemporary debates about vivisection (experimental procedures performed on living animals). More recent developments in science and technology have also provoked reflection about a need for caution when testing the limits of innovation. Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake explores similar themes of bioengineering and the creation of a new type of humanoid, responding to scientific progress around genetic engineering and assisted reproduction, as well as environmental destruction. As technology, artificial intelligence, and the digital realm come to the forefront of scientific and ethical debates, television series like Black Mirror have also tackled the way in which carelessness and a lack of foresight can lead to unintended consequences.