“Human beings have always yearned to better themselves—to rise beyond nature’s lottery. We are so immersed in our modern enhancements that we are often oblivious to them. LASIK surgeries (or glasses, for that matter!), cochlear implants, plastic surgeries, and birth-control pills are all examples of things we do to overcome what we perceive as our natural limitations. But what gets people really wound up is the idea of genetic enhancement—improving traits by changing the genes inside of us.
“We can define genetic enhancement as the manipulation of one’s genome to modify a non-pathological feature. So if I take a gene or a set of genes known to make Usain Bolt the fastest man alive and add them to myself, I am genetically enhancing myself. However, in reality, enhancements are much more complicated than just replacing a few genes.”
Want to learn more about human enhancement and unintended consequences? Read the complete essay by Alireza Edraki, PhD candidate at the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The creature understands his physical superiority to Victor as an artificial and designed being, but he defers to the social norms established and shared by humans, like the relationship between lord and vassal, each with their own duties. Biomedical devices, including eyewear, synthetic joints, and advanced prosthetics, have improved and enhanced human life for decades. But as these technologies begin delivering extended lifespans and vastly improved physical performance, societies will be challenged to evolve to accommodate changing notions of humanity.
Want to learn more about philosophical and ethical debates around human enhancement? Watch “Better Humans,” featuring commentary from Braden Allenby, an engineer, technology ethicist, and environmental attorney at Arizona State University, and Conor Walsh, a biomedical engineer at Harvard University.
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The concept of murder functions like a central litmus test here and throughout the novel. On the one hand, if you see Victor’s creation as a person, then Victor is countenancing murder as he seeks to destroy his creation. Indeed, it would become very difficult to make a moral distinction between Victor and the creature if this were the case. On the other hand, if the creature is a beast, a piece of property, or a daemon (as Victor often calls him), then it is not possible to murder him because he is not a person. During slavery, this question arose on a number of occasions. Could an owner be prosecuted for murdering a piece of property? The question was highly politicized because to charge an owner with murdering a slave would be to acknowledge the slave’s humanity and thus to call into question the entire institution of slavery. Even if the creature in Mary’s tale is not human, however, his destruction may still have moral implications for other reasons, but Victor would not be guilty of murder, and the creature would have committed a crime Victor was himself not guilty of. Mary appears to have anticipated by two centuries one of the central ethical concerns of robotics and artificial intelligence. How sophisticated would an artificial intelligence have to be before it could be murdered? If it can be murdered, do we then have to face the issue of its enslavement?
Though this work well predates such existential writers as Albert Camus (1913–1960) and John Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Mary’s narrative grapples with many of the same issues, including feelings of anguish and meaninglessness, especially in the face of suffering and human finitude. Much like the existentialists, who acknowledged the absurdity of making sense of life in a godless world, Victor’s creation lives a life full of anguish and isolation, and he has no creator to whom he can turn for answers or consolation. And yet the creation still sees life as “dear” and chooses to “defend it” in spite of this endless misery, a point echoed by the existentialists nearly a century later, who emphasized both the absurdity and the beauty in choosing to continue to live in the face of suffering. Mere existence, in this sense, becomes a form of resistance or rebellion against meaninglessness and our unyielding trajectory toward death. For more on existentialism, see Aho 2014.
Elizabeth attempts to console Victor with the thought of returning to live together in Geneva, unchanging and undisturbed in their peace and bliss. Mary borrows a verse from her husband, Percy, to remind us that this is a fool’s errand. Nostalgia for a past both perfect and peaceful is a product of willful forgetting. First, we must forget all those elements of the past that were not peaceful and perfect. Our memory of the past is edited to make it seem preferable to the uncertainties of the present and future. Second, we must make ourselves forget that we are part of a system governed by change in net linear direction. The long arc of history bends toward change, and it is not possible to remove from the world the science and technology we have already introduced and thus return the world to a peaceful but primeval state. It is, therefore, incumbent upon scientists and engineers to think about how their work is embodied in the world and how the world is changed as a result.
The idea that exposure to nature (or “scenery”) produces unique psychological and spiritual benefits was a common sentiment in romantic literary and artistic circles in the nineteenth century. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), both part of the tradition of American romanticism known as transcendentalism, celebrated in their writings the value of a life lived close to nature, especially its salutary effect on the poetic and moral imagination. This romantic notion of nature as “balm” would also influence the rise of the urban parks movement, most notably via the work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) in the mid–nineteenth century. Olmsted’s plan for Manhattan’s Central Park, for example, was premised on the idea that contemplation of natural scenery had a therapeutic effect on city dwellers. (This view endures today in the concept of “biophilia,” the idea that humans are genetically predisposed to love nature and need regular contact with it to thrive.) The romantic understanding of the value of natural scenery was bound up with a pair of distinct aesthetic categories: the “sublime,” which referred to feelings of awe and even fear in the face of nature’s power and wildness, and the “picturesque,” which described the contemplative reaction to a more orderly and human-scaled natural landscape (e.g., the garden motif shaping Olmsted’s Central Park design). The notion of the sublime would play a major role in American wilderness appreciation (and eventually protection) throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, animating the work of a diverse community of artists, writers, and advocates, including Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), John Muir (1838–1914), Ansel Adams (1902–1984), and David Brower (1912–2000).