What “Frankenstein” and the golem tell us about the power and responsibility of science.
January 1 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s remarkable novel about a scientist who cobbles together body parts and brings them to life in a “new species.” Because Victor Frankenstein’s project has terrible unintended consequences — he ditches his monster because it is ugly, and the creature roams the world in a destructive search for a mate — the novel can be read as a warning about messing with nature. Those sad and scary themes rear up when people use a term like “Frankenfoods” to denigrate bioengineered products.
But even if Shelley thought of the book as cautionary tale (and it’s debatablewhether she did), that isn’t a very useful cultural shorthand today, as we wrestle with the implications of gene editing, gene writing, and other technologies that give us more power than ever to manipulate biology. Caution is of course required with these technologies. But an excess of it—too much worry about unleashing Frankenstein’s monster—could be even more dangerous. Ultimately, we’re going to have...