Frankenstein's Footsteps

Science, Genetics and Popular Culture
Turney, Jon
Date published: 
April 1998

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a tale crafted two centuries ago 'to awaken thrilling horror', is a story that speaks to deep fears and desires that lie at the heart of our responses to biological science. Tracing the history of the development of biological science and how it has been received and understood by the public over two centuries, Turney's intriguing book argues that the Frankenstein story governs much of today's debate about the onrushing new age of biotechnology. Popular images of biological science have been influenced by Mary Shelley and such literary descendants as H.G. Wells, Jack London, Karel Capek and Aldous Huxley, as well as by pulp writers, journalists, essayists, filmmakers and other commentators. This book examines how these images have developed as the growth of experimental methods has created a biology with real power to control and manipulate life. Frankenstein's shadow is long, Turney finds. It has affected the debates over vivisection in Victorian Britain, early twentieth-century responses to the widely advertised possibility of laboratory creation of life and current controversies about test-tube babies, genetic engineering and cloning. While Frankenstein remains a compelling vehicle for expressing our collective ambivalence about some of the defining technologies of our age, the story may have outlived its usefulness as a frame for interpreting the significance of real, as opposed to fictional, science. Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science communication in the department of science and technology studies at University College London.