This is part one of a two-part reflection on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Transhumanism. I presented this paper at a conference in Atlanta last week. This is the abridged first half. Enjoy!
In the middle of my fourth grade year, my father received a job offer in a new city, forcing my family to leave the quiet farm-town neighborhoods of Bakersfield, California, and venture south to cosmopolitan Orange County. My new school was an overwhelming tide of unfamiliar faces, dress codes, and unwritten rules. Being a natural athlete, my only hope to win some measure of peer acceptance was to prove myself on the basketball courts and football field. Every male classmate had their eyes on me, scrutinizing my every step, all for the singular purpose of determining if I could help recreate the 1984 Los Angeles Lakers between 10:30 and 10:45 every morning at recess. Personally, I wanted to be James Worthy.
As human creatures, we are naturally suited to be in community – arranging the boundaries of interpersonal associations across a variety of criteria: race, gender, creed, class, economics, or the ability to catch a football. Such divisions create the perhaps-necessary designations of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ with the former appropriately holding the crucial markers fit for inclusion and the latter attempting to earn or prove those same characteristics.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a terrifying examination of the oft-fuzzy borders of human community, where the creator and the creature both experience a dizzying degree of alienation. Many interpretations on this classic text suggest that Shelley was essentially warning against unrestrained scientific discovery; young Victor serves as the paradigmatic manifestation of youthful ambition and hubris. The obsessive desire for knowledge, in Dr. Frankenstein’s case, leads him to commit heinous acts beyond the boundaries of acceptable scientific inquiry and thus Shelley cautions the reader about the perils of assuming the mantle of ‘creator.’
This paper does not seek to refute these interpretations, but rather to examine the nature of Frankenstein’s Monster’s misery in relation to the broader community and draw this tale’s lessons into a brief conversation with contemporary voices in Transhumanism. This relatively young branch of philosophy appears to be endorsing the creation of an everlasting man-machine cyborg where the finite limitations of human embodiment are cast aside for super-natural intelligence, health, and well-being. I want to simply ask the question, ‘How will our future man-made monsters, the creations of our own ambition, shape community as we move deeper into a technologically-mediated world?
The vast majority of Frankenstein centers on the affairs of the young doctor as he doggedly pursues a singular achievement: To impart life on the lifeless. Following the ‘successful’ experiment and the traumatic epiphanies that follow, the Monster of his design finally emerges from the shadows and reveals himself to the creator who abandoned him. In one particularly devastating scene, the two are forced to confront one another, and the Monster tells the tale of his brief and miserable life. It is here we find a remarkable account of the Fiend’s attempt to enter into normalized relationships with other human beings as well as the attempt’s disastrous results.
The Monster’s tale seems to indicate that the ongoing generator of its agony is not simple his profane existence but also his disposition to the broader community, one that is doomed from its very inception. He experiences rejection in his first breath of life, as the horrified doctor instantaneously realizes his profound error and flees the laboratory. The Creature reflects on this moment by exclaiming, ‘Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.’ Later, the Monster is single-minded in both pursuing and tormenting the young doctor, only briefly entering into contact with the broader community when it is intent on exacting a calculating murder on one of Dr. Frankenstein’s acquaintances. The Monster’s ultimate demand in the confrontation is for a new being to share in his misery—a companion—another beast of the doctor’s creating to alleviate his isolation from society. After Dr. Frankenstein abandons his efforts to appease his creation, the Monster prophetically reminds the doctor of the latter’s precarious situation, to be played out over the duration of the narrative, saying: ‘Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master—obey!’
Master creates slave who ultimately becomes master.
‘We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.’ Though mistakenly assigned to Marshall McLuhan, this quote nevertheless illustrates McLuhan’s, and perhaps strangely, Shelley’s, understanding of technology: Human communities are in a dynamic relationship with their creations. Perhaps there is no finer contemporary example than that of Transhumanism.
“Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”
Transhumanism, simply put, is the belief that the human condition is not unchanging. Through the use of applied reason, humanity has a moral obligation to use technologies in an effort to advance far beyond the current human situation. This advancement extends beyond personal modification, but rather, it includes a general societal evolution whereby Homo sapiens evolve into Homo technologicus, a post-human reality made possible by the application of technological advances. Practically speaking, such a philosophy opens the door for body augmentation (e.g., robotics), enhancement (e.g., certain gene therapies), and, in its more extreme forms, Ray Kurzweil’s vision of uploading human consciousness onto some digital, silicon-based substrate.
Allow me to offer a brief analysis of this controversial philosophy and then put it into conversation with Shelley’s tale. First, contra traditional sources for understanding humanity, transhumanism fundamentally conceives of human nature as malleable. Nothing is fixed. Traditional Christianity, by contrast, holds not only that all man is bound by a common condition (sin), but also that their bodies—even its limitations—are fixed because of the human’s fundamental creatureliness. They were made to be a certain way by God, and this informs how humans are to interact with one another, as people under a common authority. Human nature’s possible malleability has a more logical home in evolutionary theory, since all life proceeds through chance and mutation from one form of being to another, albeit over exceptionally long periods of time. Here there is no established boundary of humanity’s limits, either physically (since all physical features are subject to change in order to better pass on one’s genes) or socially (since theological sin is a concept that has no analog in scientific inquiry).
The second feature of transhumanist philosophy is a moral imperative: Humans have the responsibility to push through humanity’s current limitations in order to create a society with dramatically increased lifespans, contentedness, and general well-being. This includes the drive to eliminate death itself. Surely this rings with the notes of Enlightenment optimism, a hearty endorsement of the Myth of Progress which has clear symmetry with Shelley’s tale.
Every myth has explanatory power, yet some myths are more true than others.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.