We have reached the heart of Frankenstein. This week in “Reading with Scientists,” we paired Shelley’s novel with selections on the genome-editing technology known as CRISPR. Think of it as a tool for DNA customization; CRISPR allows scientists to add or delete certain genetic characteristics, essentially giving us the power to design living organisms to order. For context, we listened to a Radiolab podcast episode (“Update: CRISPR” from February 2017). We then launched into excerpts from a scientific textbook edited by Stephen H. Tsang, Precision Medicine, CRISPR, and Genome Engineering (2017). At stake was the central question, shared across our texts, of the creator’s responsibility for the created.
Since it may seem unfamiliar territory to students to be reading texts from different disciplines, genres, and time periods side by side, I scaffolded our discussion into three parts. We began by comparing our reading styles across scientific and literary texts. Do students approach each with different expectations and strategies? What overlaps might we find? On the first day of the term, when I asked students to map out what they thought of as the current relationship between literature and science, many described ways that literary study could be made scientific (such as through the use of evidence, logic, etc). Such connections are certainly valid and useful, and they are well-grounded in the way our college education system has historically been structured. This week, however, I challenged the class to consider the reverse: how might science writing be literary? Do narrative categories apply? Who are the protagonists in the story of CRISPR, and what kind of narrative progression does a textbook provide? A key insight for the class was that science unfolds in writing, as much as in experiments or data. The CRISPR plot shares many characteristics with the Frankenstein plot: both tell the story of how biological materials can be spliced up and rearranged, with potentially frightening results.
In the second stage of discussion, we moved to a direct dialogue between passages from Frankenstein and passages from our scientific texts. Compare the following two excerpts, for example. The first is Mary Shelley’s description of Victor Frankenstein’s creative epiphany. The second is drawn from the Forward to Precision Medicine, CRISPR, and Genome Engineering, written by Harvard geneticist George M. Church.
Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery [….] from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, […] that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret. [….] Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. (Shelley 34)
All of life is encoded in the four letters of DNA, ATGC. Recent advances in genome engineering now enable us to manipulate, customize, and reprogram our genomes, thus empowering us to rewrite our fate. Transplanting genetically altered cells and organs into humans, helping prevent and cure cancers, and reversing aging would once have been miracles and are suddenly now within our reach. [….] We are at a unique time in history where we have the unprecedented ability to play an active role in our own evolution. This book will equip readers with the knowledge to determine in which direction we should take it. (Tsang v)
By putting passages like these in conversation and comparing elements across them like tone and word choice, we were able to discuss the difficult questions of motive and responsibility for scientific invention. Frankenstein begins his endeavor with good intentions; though mixed with pride and a thirst for glory, his work is first colored by the desire to cheat death and ease suffering.1 Similarly, a main use case for CRISPR is the medical application of treating and preventing illness. If such were the assured outcome, then we might see scientists as morally compelled to continue their research as robustly as possible. But how much risk must we accumulate before we outweigh potential benefits? And when might we reach a tipping point towards the opposite end of the scale: a moral imperative to cease and desist from the pursuit of such technology?
The final puzzle piece of our discussion tackled these questions head on by asking the blunt question: “What should we do?” I invited the class to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine that Victor Frankenstein is standing on one side of the classroom and the being he creates is standing on the other side. We are all scientists in a lab, facing a decision about whether to make a genetically-altered mosquito incapable of carrying malaria (a case study drawn from our podcast and readings). What would Frankenstein tell us to do? And what would the creature tell us to do? Students chose passages from Volumes 1 and 2 of the novel that helped support their points. Answers were not clear cut. On Frankenstein’s side, we ranged from “do it, for the chance of helping someone,” to “maybe, but proceed with (a lot of) caution.” On the creature’s side, we saw conflicting advice in the initial monologue in which he first addresses Frankenstein as his creator. “How dare you sport thus with life?” would seem to suggest a “no,” yet a subsequent sentence, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it,” hints at a possible “yes” (Shelley 80). The question increased in difficulty when we changed the proposed experiment from a mosquito to a human “designer baby.” How does the human-ness of the creation affect how we conceive of responsibility?
A key point for me in broaching these questions is to emphasize that ethics should not solely be a question for scientists. If part of the goal of introducing a work of literature into a science class is to inspire conversations about the responsibility inherent in scientific practice, then the necessary correlate to this premise is that humanists also have such responsibility. In the WhatEvery1Says summer research camp, the question came up of why humanities programs don’t often include ethics classes in the same way that business, law, or medicine programs would. Humanists tend to talk about ethics a lot in the context of what we read, but the question of how such ethics would be translated into our own actions and those of our students is often a bit murkier. What would a humanities ethics class or ethics textbook look like? What role might such a concept play in humanities advocacy? As we continue on with our syllabus, which includes several excerpts from scientific ethics textbooks, we must always maintain an awareness of the responsibility that accompanies a knowledge of the humanities, as well.
- For more on Frankenstein’s intentions, see Shelley 23 and 37-38, especially footnotes 41 and 42 in the MIT edition. Footnote 39 relates the narrative directly to issues of genome editing.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Eds. David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
Tsang, Stephen H, and George M. Church, Eds. Precision Medicine, CRISPR, and Genome Engineering: Moving from Association to Biology and Therapeutics. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.
Webster, Molly and Soren Wheeler. “Update: CRISPR.” Radiolab. WNYC Studios. Feb 24, 2017. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/update-crispr
This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course.
The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!