Contents Index

Creation and Responsibility in Science: Some Lessons from the Modern Prometheus

Leonard Isaacs

From Creativity and the Imagination: Case Studies from the Classical Age to the Twentieth Century (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1987), pp. 59-104

{59} Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.

-- Victor Frankenstein, in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
A cliché may be a truth not deeply enough pursued. There can be little doubt that the crudely sutured features of Victor Frankenstein's creation are a twentieth-century commonplace. Since 1931, more than twenty different Frankenstein monsters have emerged from the film studios' conception of a scientific laboratory, and the face is familiar in cartoons, T-shirts, and novelty-store windows. The evocative surname -- somewhat indiscriminately applied to both the scientist and his creation -- has conspicuously graced the news media in the last few years as critics have sought the most effective symbol to persuade the public of the potential hazards of certain kinds of molecular biological research. Mayor Alfred Vellucci could have been auditioning for the role of burgomaster in the classic films as he warned the citizenry of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that "something could crawl out of the laboratory, such as a Frankenstein"1 or that "'those people in white coats' could build a Frankenstein."2 The Washington Star caught the spirit with the headline "Is Harvard the Proper Place for Frankenstein Tinkering?"3 An eminent defender of molecular biological research attempted to co-opt this rhetorical banner by referring to ill- {60} conceived efforts at control as "our regulatory Frankenstein,"4 while observers of the recombinant DNA debate have termed it "the Frankenstein Syndrome"5 or "the Frankenstein Factor."6

The familiar face and the easy, almost reflexive references to the name should not be dismissed as just another pop culture stereotype; their widespread currency is only the most visible manifestation of a deeper and more significant cultural phenomenon. The story of Victor Frankenstein and his fearful creation should be viewed, I believe, as the twentieth century's living myth. The Frankenstein theme embodies and dramatizes many of the most frightening dilemmas that have resulted from the advance of twentieth-century science; as a consequence, its status as popular myth is not only understandable, but appropriate and potentially valuable as well.

Myths are to a culture what dreams are to the individual. It matters little whether we interpret them in the Freudian sense as communal projections of unconscious fears and desires that are normally repressed, or in the Jungian sense of collective visions that put us back in touch with life-furthering psychic powers. Both interpretations see myth as a link between a culture's outward beliefs and activities and its unconscious or unacknowledged desires, fears, and motivations. Myths are a collective way of dealing with the unknown, the problematic, and the paradoxical aspects of human existence. For the culture with its myths, as for individuals with their dreams, recognition, understanding, and acceptance may lead to the fruitful integration of what could otherwise become destructive or life-eroding tensions and conflicts.

The relationship between private dream and public myth could not be more strikingly illustrated than by Mary Shelley's own case. Frankenstein owes its genesis to a fortuitous contest among Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, and Mary Shelley to compose the best ghost story. Students of Mary Shelley's work have seen sources of the Frankenstein novel in the biographical and psychological details of her life, in the intellectual environment in which she was raised, and in the extensive discussions she was privy to between Percy Shelley and Byron on the implications of contemporary scientific developments.7 The direct inspiration, according to Mary Shelley's own recollection, was a "waking dream" in which

I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, sifting the successive {61} images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half vital motion.8
That hideous phantasm was conceived in the imagination of a nineteen-year-old woman in 1816. It emerged into the world in 1818 with the first publication of the novel, but it would not truly come of age for another century and a quarter.

The tale centers on a scientist who, seeing the decay of death "succeed to the blooming cheek of life," and "how the worm inhabitated the wonders of the eye and brain,"9 believes that if he "could bestow animation upon lifeless matter," he might "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (4;48) Though his animation succeeds, Victor Frankenstein is horrified by the result -- "the miserable monster whom I had created" (5;52) -- and he flees the creature's initial attempts at contact. The monster, at first a Rousseauesque noble savage -- an artificial natural man is left to find his own way in the world. He learns to speak and read; and his education comes through books and observations of human behavior. Rejected by his creator and by society, his originally benevolent disposition turns violent.

Confronting his maker at last, the monster eloquently indicts Frankenstein for his failure of responsibility. The creature recounts the details of his unhappy experience in the world and urges Frankenstein to ameliorate his existence by creating a mate for him. Frankenstein agrees but then reneges; and the creature wreaks vengeance upon those Frankenstein most loves. The scientist pursues his creation to the Arctic ice fields; near death, he is picked up by the captain of a polar expedition, Robert Walton, to whom he tells his story. Walton's voyage testifies to his own strivings for knowledge and glory and serves as both frame and foil for Frankenstein's cautionary tale. The novel actually begins with Walton's discovery of the dying Frankenstein and concludes, after Frankenstein's history has been told, with Walton's account of the monster's final moments.

That the "ghost story" revolves around a scientist and his technological creation rather than the spiritual horrors released {62} by trafficking with the occult clearly differentiates this work from all its Gothic literary predecessors. It was written at a time when science and technology seemed to hold limitless promise for the intellectual and material advancement of mankind. Mary Shelley's circle provided her with firsthand experience of the exultations of Promethean men in the possibilities of a revolutionary industrial age. Byron incorporated the latest astronomical and geological conceptions into his poetry10 and confidently predicted a future for man in which "steam-engines will conduct him to the moon."11 Shelley carried on experiments in physics and chemistry and conceived in lyrical drama a world in which Prometheus stands unbound and "beneficent man rules the forces of nature; the lightning is his slave."12 Conversant with many of the most exciting contemporary scientific developments -- in particular the discovery of Galvanic electricity in animals, which gave promise of making the "spark of life" an object of scientific study -- Mary Shelley could well ponder the results of unbounded Promethean effort.

Myths that have provided a shared perspective on the problems of human existence for past cultures can often be reinterpreted to provide an additional dimension through which to explore contemporary concerns. In attempting to do this for her own time with the Prometheus legend, Mary Shelley may in fact have created the first future myth -- one whose structure was to correspond even more closely with the developments of a later century than with the author's own, and thus lay waiting for human activity to catch up with it. For, sympathetically translated into twentieth-century terms, Frankenstein addresses to an astonishing degree many of the most troublesome social and ethical dilemmas raised by the progress of recent science. The centrality of the Frankenstein myth to the twentieth century's experience with science and technology can be most fully appreciated by a consideration of two paradigmatic examples. The first, the development of atomic weapons, is a drama essentially completed; the second, the issue of recombinant DNA and genetic engineering, is still in an early phase. If my analysis is persuasive, an understanding of the historically completed case may help us with, or at least recognize more clearly, the conflicting emotions and opinions raised by the recombinant DNA debate.

I begin with a detailed comparison between Mary Shelley's account of Frankensteinian creation and the historical develop- {63} ment of the atomic bomb. In particular, I will identify a number of critical elements that are present in both the Frankensteinian and the atomic creation. I consider these common elements to be essential components of what I term a "Frankenstein scenario"; and in the latter half of this essay I will attempt to interpret the recombinant DNA controversy, including several of its more unusual aspects, in terms of such a Frankenstein scenario.

For the decade following 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer was probably the most renowned scientist in America. As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he had headed the research and development effort that produced the world's first atomic bombs. On 6 and 9 August 1945, two of these weapons were exploded over Japanese cities, bringing the Second World War to an apocalyptic conclusion. Oppenheimer was widely honored as the "Father of the atomic bomb" and came to represent in the public mind the very image of the scientific/technocratic creator. The careers of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Oppenheimer bear striking similarities. At times the parallels are so resonant that one almost forgets which is the real-world and which the fictional scientist; they seem cut from the same mythic fabric.13

An appropriate place to begin is with the attraction that scientific inquiry held for each of these men. Early in the novel, Frankenstein tells his listeners what drew him to the study of science:

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. (2;28)
Similarly, Oppenheimer seemed as engrossed in metaphysics as in physics itself. A less widely ranging professional colleague believed that
Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in re- {64} ligion, in the Hindu religion in particular. which resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog.14
His formal scientific training took place in the strange new world of quantum mechanics, where physics and philosophy met: questions of causality, determinism, and the statistical nature of reality were as much a part of discourse as the more traditional physical language of "mass," "particle," and "velocity." In Göttingen, as a graduate student, Oppenheimer "was particularly deep in Dante's Inferno and . . . would discuss with colleagues the reason why Dante had located the eternal quest in hell instead of in paradise."15 While in Berkeley, as an associate professor of physics, he was "reading the Bhagavad Gita [in the original with a professor of Sanskrit]. . . . It is very easy and quite marvellous [sic]."16

Both Frankenstein and Oppenheimer, it is clear, pursue science in its original sense of "natural philosophy." In addition to that intrinsic appeal, Frankenstein's researches are motivated by personal creative satisfaction, hopes of glory, and a desire to contribute to the world's welfare:

Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! (2;31)
The reasons for Oppenheimer's undertaking the work that led to the explosive release of atomic energy are complex but analogous: the excitement of an unexplored realm of physics, the desire for the highest level of accomplishment, and concern for the welfare of a world in which the Nazis threatened to become the first possessors of an awesome atomic power.17

The two creators share as well a spiritual passion and a disregard for the ordinary demands of the body. Frankenstein was "engaged, heart and soul" (4;43) and "animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm" (4;44). He "had worked hard for nearly two years" on his creation, and "for this I had deprived myself of rest and health. . . . My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement" (5;51; 4;48). Similarly, Oppenheimer "spoke with a kind of mystical earnestness that captured our imagination,"18 {65} and "he seemed to be aflame with an inward spiritual passion."19 Oppenheimer's own two years of hard work on the mesa at Los Alamos between 1943 and 1945 had also taken their toll; waiting in the desert for the test that would unleash his creation, he was "too emaciated to sweat, he had kept on his familiar sloppy tweed suit, which now fitted him like a tent."20

The first element, then, of a Frankenstein scenario is an area of scientific research that is immensely attractive intellectually and, at the same time, one that gives promise of contributing substantially to the public good; its successful pursuit would garner both professional and public respect. Something like this combination of factors is probably necessary to nurture both the interest and dedication of the brightest and most original minds, without which revolutionary scientific/technological breakthroughs are unlikely.

What is the nature of such a breakthrough? (An especially apposite word, breakthrough conveys the implication of penetrating some notable barrier between the understood and the unknown.) In both the novel and real life, the thing that has been created and released is of terrifying, overwhelming aspect; the onlookers find it difficult to capture in words the quality of the climactic event:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite plans and care I had attempted to form? . . . I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. (5;51)
The description of an eyewitness to the atomic creation rivals that romantic account:
The whole country was lighted by a searing light with an intensity many times that of the midday sun. . . . Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, men- {66} tal and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.21
What gives the Oppenheimer story its most compelling Frankensteinian quality is suggested in the preceding quotations: humanity has succeeded in a transcendent creation. It is not merely that it has produced something it does not know how to control; rather, it has created a thing that in its very nature embodies forces and potentialities that exceed by several orders of magnitude anything to which it could previously lay claim. In July 1945 human beings had not yet set foot beyond their home planet, but they had brought the million-degree temperatures of the sun to a piece of the New Mexican desert. Within a month, two more miniature suns were lighted over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The human race is marvelously resilient; though virtually all of central Tokyo had been leveled and 80,000 people killed in a series of conventional bombing raids, the citizenry adapted. The destruction was calamitous, but it was a calamity that could be understood as the cumulative result of small, assimilable horrors. But not all the military experience of the deputy chief of the Japanese General Staff, Kawabe, could help him make sense of the report he received on 7 August 1945: "The whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly by a single bomb."22

Mary Shelley, intuiting the dark side of technological accomplishment, believed herself to be recasting the Prometheus legend for a nineteenth-century audience. The classical Prometheus stole fire from the gods and, concealing it in a hollow tube, transmitted it to mortal men. Victor Frankenstein's creation represents Prometheus run riot. Following the monster's initial disappearance, Frankenstein catches sight of him in the midst of a stupendous lightning storm in the high Alps. In the first conversation between creator and creature, Frankenstein reluctantly seats himself "by the fire which my odious companion had lighted" (10;103) and hears the monster's account of his unorthodox education, in which the discovery of fire plays a prominent part. The monster runs "with the swiftness of lightning" (23;212) and images of fire and lightning fitfully illuminate the narrative. Such resonant details speak convincingly to an age in which the hollow tube filled with fire has been fitted with inertial guidance and can be brought to earth on a computer-calculated trajectory.

{67} The transcendent power that the scientist has released, and with which he must deal, is the heart of the Frankenstein myth. This transcendent quality, with its intimations of the godlike or the supernatural, lies behind the mixture of admiration, awe, and fear that such creations inspire. It accounts for those time-honored cliches of virtually every Frankenstein horror film: "Doctor, don't you think you've gone too far?"; "Perhaps there are some things we are not meant to know." On a somewhat more elevated intellectual level, Mary Shelley accomplishes the same emotional effect through her extended use of Promethean allusions, with their inescapable suggestion of retribution for those who display the hubris of appropriating godlike powers, whether for their own aggrandizement or for humanity's putative benefit. As Robert Jungk points out, confrontation with the transcendent power released in the real world through knowledge of nuclear processes engendered musings of a similarly mythic or religious nature:

It is a striking fact that none of those present [at the Alamogordo test] reacted to the phenomenon as professionally as he had supposed he would. They all, even those -- who constituted the majority -- ordinarily without religious faith or even any inclination thereto, recounted their experience in words derived from the linguistic fields of myth and theology.23
The most provocative expression of this feeling may have come from Oppenheimer himself. In the shocked silence immediately following the first atomic explosion, a line from the Bhagavad Gita floated through his mind, the words of Krishna, avatar of a Hindu god: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."24

But godlike powers entail godlike responsibilities. From the first chapter of Frankenstein's narrative, this moral pervades the novel. Frankenstein speaks approvingly of his parents' "deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life" (1;24). As the novel emphasizes, next to the presumptuous animation itself, Frankenstein's greatest transgression is his abdication of responsibility for his creation. He rushes out of the room at the monster's first signs of life and flees the house at the monster's first tentative approach to him. As Prometheus becomes the symbol of Frankenstein's hubris {68} throughout the novel, so Paradise Lost serves to indict Frankenstein for his failure of responsibility. The monster is most eloquent in his Miltonesque references to the duties owed him by Frankenstein. In a particularly memorable passage, he reproaches his creator:

I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. (10;101)
Is it, in fact, legitimate to draw a parallel between Frankenstein's and Oppenheimer's duties of responsibility? Frankenstein assembled his creation alone with his own resources, in an attic chamber. On the other hand, Oppenheimer was the scientific director of a multi-million-dollar research and development effort involving several thousand technical workers. Moreover, administrative authority was exercised by General Leslie Groves, overall head of the Manhattan Project, and through him, by the secretary of war and the president. But it is, ironically, this very organizational diffusion of responsibility that makes the Frankenstein theme so contemporary. The technological breakthroughs capable of producing Frankenstein creations in the twentieth century cannot be one-person projects; scientific knowledge and economic resources must be provided by a large network of collaborators, supporters, and, on occasion, overseers. Watergate and Vietnam serve as recent reminders of the ease with which personal responsibilities can be sacrificed to the demands of the team or to institutional priorities. Oppenheimer is, in this sense, as fitting a representative of the twentieth century's organizational scientist as Frankenstein is of the nineteenth century's scientific individualist.

Thus when confronted with a request to allow a petition against the atom bombing of Japan to be distributed to Los Alamos' scientists, Oppenheimer

knew that the military authorities would take action if he did not, and besides he was dubious about how far scientists {69} ought to go in trying to influence political decisions. He said the petition could not be circulated.25
In a similar discussion, Edward Teller reported that Oppenheimer told him
that he thought it improper for a scientist to use his prestige as a platform for political pronouncements. He conveyed to me in glowing terms the deep concern, thoroughness, and wisdom with which these questions were being handled in Washington.26
At about the same time, Oppenheimer was asked to give his advice to the interim committee that was to counsel Secretary of War Henry Stimson on atomic matters, including the use of bombs. As one of the committee related, Oppenheimer
didn't say drop the bomb or don't drop it. He just tried to do his job, which was to give us technical background. I think he did it well. Certainly he didn't try to influence us in any way. 27
The interpenetration of scientific and political decision-making in the modern world has been such as to allow Oppenheimer (or any other contemporary scientist) to make a prima facie case for an absence of, or at least a widely dispersed, responsibility. For most critics of the atomic denouement, this defense does not fully persuade, and for them the monster's accusation still goes to the heart of the moral issue.

Even in its own time, Mary Shelley's novel symbolized the large-scale societal ramifications of individual technological creations. Technology as a whole was, in many ways, the monster, clearly linked to the new technological, industrial, economic, and social order that issued from the nineteenth century's "dark Satanic mills."28 If one translates this symbolic critique into the equivalent twentieth-century terms, it becomes more than a cautionary account of the dangers attendant on a particular scientific creation; it comes to serve as a warning about the political, economic, and social structure that may then pose a powerful threat to the life and welfare of the ordinary citizen.

Oppenheimer's monster is both the atomic bomb and the atomic establishment that grew up around it and ultimately {70} took it over. This interpretation leads to another of the novel's implicit themes: once the transcendent technological creation has been produced, it becomes independent of the original motivations and subsequent wishes of its creator. The creation comes to have a life and a momentum of its own. Frankenstein's monster, once out of his maker's laboratory, responds with all his superhuman capacities to the currents of the world in which he finds himself and develops his own imperatives. He tells Frankenstein that a solitary monster results in a dangerously unstable situation that must be corrected:

We may not part until you have promised to comply with my requisition. I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create. (16;152)
So the scientist becomes the servant of his creation, subject to its blandishments and threats. The monster attempts to persuade Frankenstein, by the most forceful arguments, to embark upon the production of yet another -- and potentially even more dangerous -- monster. Mutatis mutandis, this was the agonizing situation in which Robert Oppenheimer found himself only a few years after his creation of a functional atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer left the Los Alamos Laboratory shortly after the conclusion of the war. A year later, President Truman appointed him, along with eight other scientists, to the general advisory committee set up to counsel the Atomic Energy Commission on questions of science and technology. His colleagues elected him chairman, and the general advisory committee -- given the extensive experience in atomic affairs of its membership -- rapidly became a major force in shaping atomic policy. In September 1949, barely four years after the successful production of American atomic weapons, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb of its own. Initiated by the urgings of Edward Teller -- a physicist with intensely anti-Communist sentiments who had played a major role in the formulation of theories regarding thermonuclear fusion -- a powerful movement developed within the government to embark upon the {71} production of a new kind of atomic weapon that would maintain U.S. technological superiority over the Soviets. Based on the fusion of hydrogen atoms, this thermonuclear conception (the earliest version of which was referred to as the "Super") promised explosive yields thousands of times greater than the earlier fission devices, if extremely difficult theoretical and technical problems could be solved. Undertaking such a project would require a vast array of resources and a number of far-reaching political, economic, and technical decisions. The question of whether to launch a Super project inevitably became a major issue for the deliberations of the general advisory committee.

Victor Frankenstein had acceded at first to his monster's demands. But the enormity of what he might be unleashing upon the world and the possibility of an unlimited proliferation of new monsters following upon his creation of a mate engendered second thoughts:

As I sat, a train of reflection occurred to me, which led me to consider the effects of what I was now doing. Three years before I was engaged in the same manner, and had created a fiend whose unparalleled barbarity had desolated my heart, and filled it forever with the bitterest remorse. I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate. (20;176)
As chairman of the general advisory committee, Oppenheimer was faced with framing recommendations regarding the development of a device whose destructive potential was to be measured in megatons of TNT rather than the mere kilotons of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. In short, Oppenheimer was crucially involved in decisions regarding a second creation of whose political and military disposition he was alike ignorant, and which might become literally ten thousand times more malignant than its predecessor.

Like most tragic protagonists Frankenstein has learned from his experience. With a painfully acquired sense of the wider consequences of his actions, he takes on the heavy responsibility of opposing the development of second-generation monsters. Frankenstein's response to the frightening dilemma in which he found himself was simple and direct: he "tore to {72} pieces the thing on which I was engaged" (20;177). In answer to the monster's promptings to recommence the project, Frankenstein tells him not to "poison the air" with his sounds of malice (20;179); his unrestrainable creation replies with the chilling imprecation: "Remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night" (20;179).

Oppenheimer's response to his own dilemma was less dramatic and more ambivalent than Frankenstein's, but the doubts and second thoughts are equally apparent. Oppenheimer no longer believed that his responsibilities ended with the provision of technical expertise. In a letter to another of the general advisory committee members, Oppenheimer describes the mounting pressure to produce a Super and suggests some of his qualms:

What concerns me is really not the technical problem. . . . It seems likely to me even further to worsen the unbalance of our present war plans. What does worry me is that this thing appears to have caught the imagination, both of the congressional and military people, as the answer to the problems posed by the Russian advance. . . . But that we become committed to it as the way to save the country and the peace appears to me full of dangers.29
The general advisory committee deliberated the question of a crash program toward the Super and concluded: "We believe a Super bomb should never be produced."30 Nuel Davis describes what followed upon that recommendation:
To their mournful astonishment, after a few weeks Oppenheimer and his committee saw their conclusions rehashed in the newspapers. Before Hiroshima, no one had decided anything. The scientists had assumed the government would decide, the government had assumed the military would decide, and the military had assumed they were expected to fry Japanese. Against this natural falling motion no one had interposed himself wholly except [Under Secretary of the Navy] Bard, too minor a figure to stop it. Now the falling motion had begun again, but someone had looked into the thermonuclear grave, taken thought, and stopped the motion into it. Someone had decided -- and must pay.31
{73} For both Frankenstein and Oppenheimer, the payment was delayed but inevitable. First, Frankenstein's closest friend is destroyed, and then Frankenstein's bride. Oppenheimer's punishment began in 1953, with a change of presidential administration. Although Oppenheimer had resigned from the general advisory committee more than a year earlier, and although his direct involvement in government policy and research was now minimal, his security clearance was revoked pending further review. According to Davis,
On December 21, Strauss [the new chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a longtime adversary of Oppenheimer] summoned Oppenheimer and told him of the President's order. Oppenheimer had then only a token link with the Commission -- a consultant's contract which would expire in July and of which the commission had made no use since September. This was not the link that Eisenhower meant to break with his order, but rather the link of respect and confidence that bound the scientific community to Oppenheimer. He was their rallying point against the government's sick, unreal reliance on a yet unbuilt H-bomb.32
To have acquiesced in the decision would be to participate in his own repudiation; it "would mean that I accept and concur in the view that I am not fit to serve this government that I have now served for some twelve years. This I cannot do. . . ."33 Oppenheimer challenged the executive order and underwent a formal hearing by the personnel security board set up by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct the investigation. For several weeks every aspect of Oppenheimer's professional and private life was open to scrutiny. And, indeed, the security arm of the atomic energy establishment that Oppenheimer helped create did not stop short of the bridal chamber. Both his wife's past Communist associations and his overnight stay at the home of a former fiancée ten years earlier were entered into the record of the case, which was subsequently published. The revocation order was upheld and Oppenheimer, symbolically destroyed, was removed from the world of public affairs.34

Thus, as a result of what may be considered their most noble action -- the attempt finally to exercise responsibility by limiting {74} the world-endangering proliferation of what they helped bring into being -- both Frankenstein and Oppenheimer end as victims of their creations. That moral lesson provided the epigraph at the beginning of this essay (4;46); in the series of cinematic Frankensteins it has more usually provided the dramatic closing. It accorded well with the conventions of the erstwhile Hollywood film code, which did not allow transgressors to exit unpunished at a movie's conclusion. But the kind of cinematic homiletics that places the entire weight of responsibility and guilt upon one character in a murderous social drama, especially when followed by a collective sigh of relief on the part of the audience, should raise suspicions. As other familiar cinema archetypes -- detective and psychiatrist -- are wont to observe: the absence of something is often as revealing as its presence. With regard to Frankenstein in particular, two elements that are inescapable in Mary Shelley's novel are thrown into even bolder relief by their (almost) consistent absence in the film versions.

The monsters of most cinematic Frankensteins are mute. A few others manage an occasional semiarticulate grunt. Shelley's monster, on the contrary, has many of the most powerful speeches in the novel. Both Frankenstein and Walton, the novel's narrator, are moved to sympathy by the monster's words; and Walton "call[s] to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion" (p. 239). Clearly, the filmmakers believed that their audience would be discomfited by the monster's frequently repeated assertions: "I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity. . . . I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend" (10;101). Indeed, the monster at first used his great strength for humanity's benefit, saving a drowning girl and anonymously performing laborious chores for the overburdened De Lacey family. By silencing the monster, the films have increased his separation from us, making him both more alienated and more alien. He becomes a figure to be pitied and feared, but not one needing to be dealt with wisely and humanely. The fact that the creation is, at least in part, successful -- that an intelligent and malleable, though extremely powerful, being has been produced -- is comfortably forgotten.

Most of the misery, in fact, of which the monster complains derives from the response of human society -- the second, and related, element that the movie versions generally ignore or {75} greatly play down. The monster's reward for the girl's rescue (translated into her murder in many of the movies) is a gunshot wound; for the unselfish labor, the blows of a stick when the monster finally shows himself. The monster's laudable intentions stand in sharp contrast to the iniquities of human society as revealed not only by his own experience, but also through his overhearing the account of injustices to befall the De Lacey family and by his foray into historical scholarship: "I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species" (15;135). The creature's virtues of intelligence, strength, and benevolence are unappreciated or rejected by human society on the basis of instinctive reactions to his outward appearance or mistaken analyses of his motives. As a consequence, the benevolence is perverted to malice, the intelligence to diabolic cunning, and the strength to unrestrained destructive power.

The novel, then, strongly suggests that the scientist's creation has unbounded potentiality for good or evil, and that it is society which turns that creation into something monstrous. Although twentieth-century audiences may repress this implication, it is clear that society shares both an ambivalence toward the creation and considerable responsibility for the direction it takes. The fear and condemnation directed against the act of unnatural biological creation are balanced by the enthusiastic interest and approbation generated by many successful biomedical interventions. We already draw upon the "vaults and charnel-houses" as we remove corneas, kidneys, lungs, and even hearts from the dead to extend the existence of the living.35 And where biological materials are not suitable or available, we devise mechanical substitutes: artificial joints of metal and plastic, artificial blood vessels, artificial hearts, electric pacemakers -- in this last instance literally instilling a "spark of life." Spare-part surgery might be appropriately described as Frankensteinian activity with a good press.

Similarly, one sympathizes with Victor Frankenstein's desire -- to "banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death" (2;31). And the strength and power of the "monster" are attributes that speak to many unconscious desires. In this sense, Frankenstein's error is not so much a matter of flawed intentions as of faulty execution; in other words, his failure is as much technical and aesthetic as moral. As one critic has perceptively remarked,

{76} [the] disaster either wouldn't have happened, or would not have mattered anyway, if Frankenstein had been an esthetically successful maker; a beautiful "monster," or even a passable one, would not have been a monster.36
If one wants to imagine an aesthetically successful Frankensteinian creation -- and appreciate the appeal that such an achievement would have for our society -- one need do no more than recall "The Six Million Dollar Man" or his mate, "The Bionic Woman."

The novel's imputation of responsibility to society for turning the creation into a monster requires little real-world elaboration. Scientific research in most areas of contemporary interest is expensive, and society provides the funding; the scientists' discoveries have not been their own property for several decades. Again, no better illustration could be found of the novel's argument that the scientific creation was a force for good or ill, and that society directed it toward malignity, than the Oppenheimer case. The technological effort to produce an atomic bomb was not a matter of open debate during World War II, but there is little doubt the American public, caught up in total war, would have wanted it produced; and once produced, employed. In General Groves' words:

If the bomb hadn't been used, in the first year after the war was over, the first Congressional investigation would have screamed the government was responsible for the blood of our boys shed uselessly.37
Oppenheimer and his associates were popular heroes, and doubts about the morality of the bomb's development and use did not appear in any significant fashion in American public discussion until several years after Hiroshima.

This comparison between the fictional account of a monster's creation in the laboratory of Victor Frankenstein and the historical account of the creation of the atomic bomb in the laboratory of Dr. Oppenheimer and his coworkers has attempted to identify the significant themes common to the two narratives. These shared elements, I believe, characterize certain especially troubling dilemmas that have resulted from the impact of scientific or technological activity upon society. Such Frankenstein scenarios contain most or all of the following themes: (1) Nature {77} contains secrets that can be uncovered by the exercise of creative scientific activity; (2) the research area in which this kind of revolutionary breakthrough will occur is of such intense fascination -- for its intrinsic interest and its potential for application -- that it attracts the best and brightest minds; (3) the breakthrough involves an aspect of truly transcendent power, in the sense that forces or potentialities that exceed by several orders of magnitude those to which mankind has been accustomed are suddenly made available for human manipulation; (4) the creator does not try, or is not able, to exercise effective responsibility regarding the further development of his creation or the uses to which it is put; (5) the creation develops a momentum and imperative of its own; (6) opposition to that imperative is personally hazardous; (7) the transcendent power of the creation is, in principle, a potential force for good or ill; (8) the complex network of political, economic, and social relationships ("society") into which the creation is introduced determines the end to which that creation is directed; that is, society may transform a relatively undifferentiated creation into a monster.

These elements, drawn from the histories of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Oppenheimer, form the basis for the widespread currency of the Frankenstein myth. In arguing for the authentic status of Frankenstein as contemporary myth, my sense of that term is in close agreement with the formulation of Joseph Campbell. Based on his extensive study of the world's myths, Campbell identified four functions generally characteristic of an operative, living mythology: to waken and maintain a sense of awe in relation to the mystery of the universe; to offer an image of the universe that will be in accord with the knowledge of the time; to reflect the norms of a society's moral order; and to serve as guide for the conduct of life.38 I think the discussion of the two case histories shows how fully the Frankenstein-Oppenheimer theme serves these functions.

I would like now to explore somewhat more deeply the mythic nature of that theme. One must surely be led to wonder how it happens that the twentieth century's most awesome technological creation should mirror so strikingly the terrifying creation of a nineteenth-century novel. The answer may be that Mary Shelley's prescient intuition and Robert Oppenheimer's {78} historic career are apprehensions or reflections of the same underlying structural relationship -- one that interconnects scientist, society, and nature.39

The natural universe was man's original and inescapably immediate environment. No representative of a modern culture can ever fully imagine the direct, all-pervasive, awe-instilling experience of nature that must have conditioned the thoughts and beliefs of the earliest people. In fact, the history of mankind is an account of the development of societies -- artificial environments that insulate people from nature and thus, in some fundamental sense, oppose it. The tension of that opposition may be found in every culture from the most primitive to the most technologically sophisticated; no society has (yet) been able to differentiate itself completely from the natural environment. The progress of that differentiation, the measure of the material and psychological support that the constructed environment of society provides, has most often been assessed in terms of the knowledge -- and through knowledge, the control -- that humans have acquired in respect to the natural world.

Ultimately, human existence rests upon paradox -- or, at least, upon apparently unavoidable contradiction. Human physical subsistence depends upon the bounty of the natural world. When a number of critical parameters of that natural world fall within certain limits, human society can lead a more-or-less satisfactory existence; when one or more of these parameters falls outside the normal limits, greater or lesser disasters are the result. Among the most obvious such parameters are the absolute amount and distribution of sunlight, precipitation, temperature, wind, fish and game, insects, disease organisms, and tectonic activity. The natural world, in which human beings' physical existence is grounded, is simultaneously potential provider and potential destroyer, inescapably beneficent and baneful. Human mental and psychological existence, on the other hand, is equally dependent on the world inside the skull. That inner world functions in such a way that individuals and, perforce, society can operate on the outer world, can understand and control aspects of the external universe so as to increase the possibilities for survival within it, actively and effectively resisting death. At the same time, however, that unique human mind makes us, unlike any other animal, truly aware of death and of its ultimate irresistibility.

Paradoxes such as these lie at the root of functional my- {79} thologies. For primitive man, myth was a symbolic system for relating the beliefs and activities of his society to the awesome, contradictory, and potentially overwhelming realities of the natural world. A system of conceptualization and belief that organizes the unknown, representing its multivariant aspects through symbols and images the mind can grasp, gives form -- and thus, meaning -- to an otherwise chaotic and terrifying assemblage of events. Since these symbols can be manipulated by the individual and by society, they contribute to a comforting sense that the external reality that they reflect can also be controlled, or at least, influenced. Thus myth enables human societies to believe that they have achieved a measure of understanding and rapport with the natural world.

A new tension, however, is generated by this understanding. As a society gains an increased sense of security through its conceptual ordering of the natural world, and as the understanding embraces more phenomena and grows more detailed, a need develops for individuals who can interpret and apply this understanding for society's benefit. These mediators between society and the natural world are greatly respected, but never more so than when natural disaster (such as drought, famine, flood) threatens the society's existence and the most expert intervention available is sought. As both conceptual and social structures have evolved, the role of mediator has been filled by shamans, priests, and scientists.

It is almost inescapable that under these conditions the mediators will develop interests and goals that are not necessarily identical with those of the society at large that they serve. As the extent and complexity of knowledge about the workings of the natural world grow, the role of mediator becomes more specialized. Individuals must be found who possess the appropriate interests, temperaments, and talents for the work. It should not be at all surprising that in many cases interest in the enterprise of further understanding the natural world, of uncovering its secrets, takes precedence over, or even eclipses, the concern for judicious application of such knowledge for society's unmitigated benefit. It should also not be surprising that society comes to respond with some ambivalence towards those who mediate its interactions with the natural world -- with gratitude for the essential services provided but with awe and fear of those who have special knowledge and contact with the mysterious workings of the universe.

The grander the achievements of these mediators, the greater {80} will be the intensity of this mixture of gratitude, awe, and fear. Mythic thinking, through its symbolic conceptualizations, helped bring into existence these powerful figures who intervene in the natural world. In doing so it engendered another paradox of the very sort that myth is meant to express: society creates powerful figures who, in serving society, may not always serve society. In other words, myth itself has created a new element that must be incorporated in some fashion into mythic consciousness. In earlier times this process produced the accounts of Prometheus and Faust. As the revolutionary impact of scientific knowledge and technological innovation began to make itself felt in the nineteenth century, the figures of Frankenstein and his unrestrainable creation took mythic form. By the late twentieth century they have become virtually emblematic.

The dramatic and highly charged controversy that erupted over certain kinds of molecular biological research puzzled many observers. A number of the scientists engaged in recombinant DNA work have expressed surprise at the fact that this experimentation strongly aroused the public, while other areas of potentially hazardous biological investigation (such as infectious disease organisms, tumor viruses, or even the presently banned bacteriological warfare research) elicited much less concern. I believe that this troubling issue, along with the conflicting emotions and opinions that it engendered, can be more fully understood if it is considered in the light of a Frankenstein scenario. My analysis of the recombinant DNA controversy will not focus upon parallels between the careers of Victor Frankenstein and some premier molecular biologist, as was possible in the case of Robert Oppenheimer. Rather, I examine the activities and opinions of a diverse array of scientists in terms of the common elements that have already been derived from the Frankenstein-Oppenheimer comparison. I will analyze the recombinant DNA controversy by examining the extent to which these critical elements are present; that is, by assessing how closely this area of scientific research fits a Frankenstein scenario as previously defined.

The first of these elements -- a belief that nature contains secrets of intense interest that can be revealed by the exercise of creative scientific activity -- was fundamental to the develop- {81} ment of the arcane new field of molecular biology. The individual who most influentially articulated this belief and who therefore comes closest to being the spiritual founder of molecular biology was Erwin Schrödinger -- not a biologist at all, but a physicist at the forefront of quantum theory. In What Is Life? first published in 1944, Schrödinger asked: "How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?"40 His preliminary answer was that "the obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by these sciences."41 Schrödinger's ideas drew the attention of a number of young physical scientists to a relatively unexplored area of biology; his book, in the words of one such recruit, "became a kind of Uncle Tom's Cabin of the revolution in biology that, when the dust had cleared, left molecular genetics as its legacy."42

A common background in quantum physics is not the only similarity between Erwin Schrödinger and Robert Oppenheimer; there is also a shared appreciation of the metaphysical and aesthetic dimensions of scientific activity. Schrödinger's ability to combine romantic sensibility with scientific insight is suggested by his use of epigraphs from Goethe to introduce many sections of What is Life? One quotation immediately follows the heading "Mutations" and clearly implies that a firm physical explanation will be found for the "jump-like" changes in hereditary information that form "the working-ground for natural selection."

Und was in schwankender Erscheinung schwebt,
Befestiget mir dauernden Gedanken.43

[And what in fluctuating appearance hovers,
You will fix by lasting thoughts.]

The quotation comes from Faust, Goethe's romantic reworking of the medieval legend in which the elements of beneficent Promethean activity far outweigh the unsavory aspects of necromancy.

Schrödinger's adumbration of a physical basis for the transfer of genetic information caught the imagination of bright and {82} often unorthodox scientists. Preeminent among these were Francis Crick and James Watson, who transformed this intuition into a revolutionary explanation of the mechanism of heredity -- an explanation whose empirical solidity and theoretical elegance have given it the status of a central dogma of molecular biology. Crick and Watson made a complementary pair. Crick possessed an irrepressible intelligence and enthusiasm, while Watson had an uncanny instinct for the scientific long-shot and a single-minded, if not opportunistic, drive to pursue the quest at whatever cost. Watson and Crick reinforced each other in the belief that the actual physical and chemical details of the structure of the DNA molecule would be the key to revealing how the genes really functioned.

Intellectual fascination and professional ambition combined to make the structure of DNA an irresistible challenge. In phrases reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein, Watson relates that "sometimes I daydreamed about discovering the secret of the gene"44 or that an x-ray photograph of DNA, "a potential key to the secret of life was impossible to push out of my mind" (30). Crick's enthusiasm for the tentative solution to the structure of the molecule quickly took the form of a tendency "to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of life" (126). Thoughts of professional success and acclaim, however, did not lag far behind the visionary musings. With the conclusion of the work in sight, Watson reflected that "it seemed almost unbelievable that the DNA structure was solved, that the answer was incredibly exciting, and that our names would be associated with the double helix as Pauling's was with the alpha helix" (127). Watson proceeded to tell his sister that "Francis and I had probably beaten Pauling to the gate and that the answer would revolutionize biology" (127); and he persuaded her to spend an afternoon typing up the final draft of the scientific report to Nature by telling her that "she was participating in perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin's book" (140).

That assessment has proved completely accurate. Watson and Crick's paper, published in 1953, contained an especially memorable (and deliberately understated) sentence: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material" (139). With their model of DNA structure Watson and Crick had provided an extraordinarily persuasive {83} explanation for one of the most fundamental processes in living organisms -- the almost-perfect reproduction of the genetic information that will be passed on to future generations, along with the one-in-a-million chance for error that provides the new material for future evolution. The development of molecular biology as a major field of research derives directly from this conceptual breakthrough.

The thirty-year period following Watson and Crick's discovery became a golden age of biology. Between 1958 and 1975, in fact, fully half the forty-five Nobel prizes given in the fields of physiology or medicine were awarded for work in the highly specialized realm of molecular biology. During this time molecular biologists developed theories that outlined, at least in principle, how DNA was able to control the functioning of living cells, and by extension, the organization and development of living organisms. With astonishing rapidity, details of that outline began to be filled in: how the hereditary messages encoded in the genes -- now understood simply as segments of the DNA molecule -- were translated into enzymes that controlled all the cell's (and the organism's) biochemical activity; how alterations in the DNA segments produced alterations in enzymes, causing the known hereditary diseases; and even how the genes were "turned on" or "turned off."

The discovery of procedures that make it possible to join, at will, pieces of DNA of particular interest thus provides a dramatic culmination to three decades of research activity. The use of such recombinant DNA techniques makes it conceivable for the first time to investigate the precise chemical makeup of the individual genes of living organisms. In addition, it allows detailed study of those portions of the DNA that are involved in the turning on or turning off of genes in normal development or in disease. In essence, a method now exists that promises scientists a comprehensive understanding of the gene, both in its structure and in its expression. Once a sufficient body of knowledge and experience is gained in this area, the vistas become limitless. Genes governing the abilities to carry out certain functions might be transferable between species; synthetic genes for new traits might be insertable; genes with defective informational content might be repaired or improved upon; and the expression of the genes might be subject to deliberate regulation. With this heady potential for exciting scientific developments, recombinant DNA research can hardly {84} avoid being both a source of intellectual fascination for molecular biologists and a focus for their professional ambitions -- the second element of a Frankenstein scenario. It is most likely, therefore, to attract many of the brightest and most highly motivated investigators, as the opportunity of an earlier breakthrough attracted Crick and Watson.

Recombinant DNA technology has not suddenly introduced the possibility of human intervention in the evolutionary process. Human beings have consciously or unconsciously affected evolution on this planet since well before the beginnings of recorded history, as, for example, in the domestication of plants and animals, in the breeding of animals or vegetable hybrids leading to new varieties, and in the probable extermination of whole species of mammals by post-ice-age hunters. In historic times humanity has spread viral and bacterial disease organisms to continents previously free of them, has attempted to mitigate their effects through vaccines and antibiotics, and has adopted increasingly sophisticated techniques of selective breeding for both plants and animals. Manipulation of vegetative or animal nature has been among the most characteristic of human behaviors.

Yet the unparalleled developments in molecular biology, capped by techniques for recombining DNA, have created a feeling that we are approaching momentous new choices:

The methods of DNA synthesis . . . have come to fruition just in time to reinforce, and be reinforced by, the ability to juggle DNA sequences around and generate them in unlimited amounts that recombinant DNA technology provides. Together, the two techniques provide mankind for the first time with almost absolute control over the material of our genes.45
Robert Sinsheimer, then chairman of the biology division at Cal Tech, may have summed up this sentiment most succinctly when he observed, "For the first time in all time, a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its own future."46

Sinsheimer has identified the key factor that makes these new possibilities for intervening in evolution so different from the old: the element of conscious design through construction rather than just selection. The potential now exists for altering {85} organisms in a highly sophisticated fashion -- for its own sake, for useful application, or for the information it would reveal about gene structure -- by introducing new genetic elements ad libitum. One can now combine, in the same organism, genes whose natural occurrence is separated by many hundred millions of years of evolutionary divergence and isolation.

The transcendent nature of such potentialities is fully comparable with the animation of Frankenstein's creation or the release of atomic energy. This critical element of a Frankenstein scenario has not been missed by many participants or observers of the recombinant DNA controversy. Not surprisingly, though, the transcendent aspect of recombinant DNA research has been more emphasized by its critics than its proponents. Robert Sinsheimer raised this aspect when he asked,

Do we want to assume the basic responsibility for life on this planet -- to develop new living forms for our own purpose? Shall we take into our own hands our own future evolution?47
In a widely quoted letter to Science, biochemist Erwin Chargaff posed similar questions:
Is there anything more far-reaching than the creation of new forms of life? . . . Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and the curiosity of a few scientists?48
The Frankenstein parallels are obvious. And just as Victor Frankenstein feared that "future ages might curse me as their pest" (20;177), so Chargaff feels that his generation has engaged "in a destructive colonial warfare against nature" and that "the future will curse us for it."49 Chargaff's letter, in fact, explicitly invokes the Frankenstein scenario:
If Dr. Frankenstein must go on producing his little biological monsters -- and I deny the urgency and even the compulsion -- why pick E. coli as the womb? . . . The hybridization of Prometheus with Herostratus is bound to give evil results.50
The transcendent qualities of the research show up as well in the frequent suggestions of humanity's being able to engage in {86} godlike acts of creation. An article entitled "The Future of Genetic Engineering" speaks of "the God-like power that such facilities endows [sic] on us,"51 and two full-length books on the topic appropriate that intimation directly into their titles -- Playing God by June Goodfield52 and Who Should Play God? by Ted Howard and Jeremy Rifkin.53

In their first efforts at transcendant creation Victor Frankenstein and Robert Oppenheimer spent little time worrying about their responsibilities to control the products of their Promethean activity. In contrast to this indifference -- and, perhaps, motivated by the lessons of atomic energy -- a significant number of the most prominent DNA researchers were sensitive to the potential hazards of their work. Quite early they attempted to assess the possible dangers and to prevent their occurrence through communal action.

The problem of responsibility for outcomes of the new research received a formal airing among the leading molecular biologists at the Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids in 1973. Maxine Singer, the conference's cochair, described the issue clearly:

We all share the excitement and enthusiasm of yesterday morning's speaker, who pointed out that the scientific developments reported then would permit interesting experiments involving the linking together of a variety of DNA molecules. . . . Nevertheless, we are all aware that such experiments raise moral and ethical issues because of the potential hazards such molecules may engender. . . . Because we are doing these experiments, and because we recognize the potential difficulties, we have a responsibility to concern ourselves with the safety of our co-workers and laboratory personnel, as well as with the safety of the public. We are asked this morning to consider this responsibility.54
As a result of that discussion, an open letter was sent to the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine suggesting that the potential hazards of gene splicing to laboratory workers and the public should be seriously considered and that the National Academy should appoint a committee for this purpose. The letter was also published in Science, which afforded it wide visibility among professional scientists.55

{87} The academy formed a committee on recombinant nucleic acids that included many of the leading investigators. Their report called for an international conference to explore the issue further, since the potential hazards would not respect national boundaries. Most significantly, however, the committee recommended that until such a conference could be held, a moratorium be observed on two types of experiments that seemed to pose the greatest potential threat. Moreover, the group emphasized that other experiments be "carefully weighed" and "not be undertaken lightly."56

These steps led to the well-known Asilomar Conference, which concluded that certain experiments should not be performed under any circumstances and that others might be carried out under conditions of containment appropriate to the estimated risks. Responding to the Asilomar recommendations, the National Institutes of Health -- working through committees composed largely (though not exclusively) of research scientists -- drew up a comprehensive set of "Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules."57 These regulations established procedures for physical and biological containment that are binding upon federally supported investigators.

The NIH guidelines were attacked by a number of individuals and by such groups as Science for the People, the People's Business Commission, and Friends of the Earth. In addition to their doubts about whether the guidelines assured public safety, these critics objected to the exclusive character of the discussions that led to the guidelines' formulation. Other observers responded more favorably to the scientists' role in regulation. Daniel Callahart, a philosopher and director of the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, called the decision of scientists at the Gordon Conference to disseminate a letter recommending formal studies of the potential hazards "a striking act of moral initiative and courage" (Forum, 31). Daniel Singer, a lawyer and one of the nonscientific participants at Asilomar, said he "was uplifted by the way the community of scientists had organized for social responsibility."58

While disagreement exists about whether the molecular biologists exerted a disproportionate influence on the formulation of procedures for the regulation of their research, their very involvement indicates that they took their collective respon- {88} sibility seriously. At the least, the time and effort spent by a significant number of leading investigators -- in raising the question of public safety, in debating the technical issues, and in proposing detailed procedures for regulation -- clearly contrast with the abdication of responsibility by Victor Frankenstein, as well as by Robert Oppenheimer and most of his coworkers.

The Frankensteinian element that has probably loomed largest in the public's perception of the controversy is the threat of the creation's developing a momentum, a "life" on its own. While this expression could easily be interpreted as a social and political metaphor in the case of atomic energy, the most immediate and dramatic concern raised by recombinant DNA research was that it might literally become true. Critics of the research argued that the insertion of genes from other species into the host bacterium E. coli might have unexpected and catastrophic consequences. Genes conferring resistance to a variety of antibiotics, the ability to synthesize new toxins, or the ability to induce carcinogenic development of human cells might be introduced, perhaps unknowingly, into laboratory strains of bacteria. If these strains were released from the research area through infection of laboratory workers or by accidental discharge, these bacteria might -- in the worst case -- be able to infect the general population, possibly causing epidemics of unimaginable severity because of the lack of any kind of natural resistance to the new causative agents. Similar scenarios could be imagined for other bacteria designed to consume oil spills or plants genetically engineered to fix nitrogen. The guidelines, of course, were constructed to address just such concerns; and most researchers in this area believe that the protocols for physical containment, the use of specially enfeebled strains of bacteria, and the prohibition of certain experiments constitute an extremely effective safety procedure.

The introduction of genetic sequences from one species into another, however, does result in unprecedentedly modified organisms. Only one or a very few genes can be inserted into recipient organisms by recombinant DNA techniques, so E. coli will remain E. coli and a wheat plant will not become a bean stalk. In the strict sense, no new forms of life are created by {89} recombinant DNA research. Yet in another sense, the resultant modified organisms may display gene combinations that have not previously existed in nature, so that they are in some degree novel, and they are living, reproducing creatures.

The leading scientific critics of recombinant DNA research placed great emphasis upon this consideration. Erwin Chargaff pointed

to the awesome irreversibility of what is being contemplated. You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosols; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. Once you have constructed a viable E. coli cell carrying a plasmid DNA into which a piece of eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, it will survive you and your children and your children's children.59
Robert Sinsheimer underscores the same point in distinctly Frankensteinian language:
We are becoming creators, makers of new forms of life, creations that we cannot undo, that will live on long after us, that will evolve according to their own destiny. What are the responsibilities of creators for our creations and for all the living world into which we bring our inventions? (Forum, 79)
Once again the parallel to Mary Shelley's fictional account of Promethean creation is striking. Pondering the potential results of continuing his work (and creating a mate for the monster), Victor Frankenstein is horrified by the thought of the monster's uncontrolled reproduction, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (20;177). Mayor Vellucci was thus sensitive both to the fears of his constituency and to a prime element of the Frankenstein scenario when he chose to express his opposition to recombinant DNA in Cambridge in the evocative phrase, "something could crawl out of the laboratory, such as a Frankenstein [monster]."60

Apart from the literal sense in which recombinant DNA techniques may produce results with a life and momentum of {90} their own, there is a sociological sense in which this Frankensteinian element is present as well. When a novel and powerful technology promises results faster and more easily than more conservative alternative approaches -- and in the case of recombinant DNA research, results that may be quite unattainable by other means -- that technology often exerts a compelling influence. A University of Michigan professor reflected this tendency when he testified at a public hearing:

At the moment, the university has a favorable position with respect to research on recombinant DNA. It is perfectly clear that other universities will proceed with . . . research on this subject. Should Michigan choose not to, we will lose our position.61
Moreover, opposition to such imperatives may be costly:
Suppose there are two contestants for a grant who wanted to perform a particular project. . . . It can be approached by DNA technology; it can be approached by more subtle, perhaps more difficult, more time-consuming methods of traditional molecular biology. Which one of those approaches is going to get the grant? (Forum, 249)
And it may be not only costly, but personally hazardous as well. George Wald described such concerns among the less-established faculty at Harvard:
There came a crucial time after many meetings of our Biology Department . . . when the junior faculty was really carrying the ball in opposition to the recombinant DNA . . . when finally it came to a meeting with the dean. And when the dean sat down at that meeting he looked around and said, "Where is the Biology Department?" And indeed, we had heard the last of any talk in this direction from our junior faculty. (Forum, 136)
Though much of the preceding discussion has focused on the highly dramatic potential hazards that might arise in the very near future as a consequence of experimentation with recombi- {91} nant DNA, the implications of this research over the longer term are at least as significant a social concern; and they are tied just as directly to the basic Frankenstein Scenario. Indeed, there are indications that some of the criticism that was leveled against recombinant DNA research on the issue of public health and safety may actually have gained much of its force from a less clearly articulated concern with the broader social aspects of the work.

An awesome potential for good or ill is represented by gene splicing and associated techniques for conscious manipulation of the genetic material. The theoretical knowledge gained from a comprehensive understanding of gene structure, organization, and regulation is fundamentally related not just to genetic disease, but also to cellular differentiation, embryonic development, and cancer. Theoretical understanding and practical control over such processes could well lead in the future to the ability to treat genetic disease at the cellular level, to the regeneration of limbs, to the in vitro culturing of whole organs for transplantation back into the donor without rejection, to the control of immunological response and autoimmune diseases, and to the ability to turn off the continuous proliferation of tumor cells. Thinking of the biomedical future in these utopian terms, an enthusiastic molecular biologist might well be forgiven for imagining, along with Victor Frankenstein, "What glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (2;31).

While these prospects might seem visionary, there are a host of potential benefits that leading researchers have suggested as being closer to practical accomplishment. David Baltimore, professor of microbiology at MIT and a Nobel laureate, notes:

There are still many people who do not believe that genetic engineering is feasible, so let me offer to you a possible scheme to indicate how close we could be to attempts at genetic engineering. There exist numerous inherited diseases that result in abnormal hemoglobin formation. . . . One could remove a sample of bone marrow . . . add to the cells the genes of normal globin synthesis, or even regulatory genes . . . attached to some appropriate vector that would help to insert the genes permanently into the cells. The bone marrow would now be easily taken back into the individual {92} because there would be no immunological barrier. . . . I have little doubt that within five to ten years just such an experiment will be attempted. (Forum 238)
Still nearer to achievement is the prospect of engineering E. coli to produce medically important substances by inserting the relevant gene sequences. Research has progressed with amazing rapidity in this area, much of it carried out in the laboratories of new companies founded or staffed by leading molecular biologists. It is highly probable that insulin, human growth hormones, and the antiviral agent interferon will be produced in quantity for clinical purposes by recombinant DNA techniques in the immediate future.62

Similarly, a number of human genetic deficiency diseases might be ameliorated by the provision of sizeable amounts of the missing proteins. Nor are potentially beneficent applications of recombinant DNA technology limited to the biomedical domain. Considerable thought has been given to its use in agriculture for more sophisticated plant breeding, for biological pest control, and for increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide fixation, and nitrogen fixation (Forum, 225-26).

For many of the critics of recombinant DNA research, however, the very prospects of potential benefit become the sources of concern about potential ills. When one is dealing with transcendent powers, one scientist's dream may be another's nightmare. Thus, hopes of E. coli producing insulin generated fears of such bacteria carrying on their newly programmed function as unwelcome colonizers of the human gut. Similarly, images of wheat fields producing their own nitrogen through gene-engineered nitrogen fixation -- and in the process lifting the burden of expensive oil-based fertilizers from the economies of underdeveloped nations -- come up against visions of farmland choked by self-nitrifying weeds.

Earlier in this essay I argued that the avoidance of a significant element (like the monster's ability to speak) by one of the parties involved in a Frankensteinian dilemma was often as revealing as its presence. Virtually all the scientists supporting recombinant DNA research have conscientiously refrained from expositions of the possible benefits derived from modifying the human gene pool or genetically engineering human behavior. Some DNA researchers see the use of genetic engi- {93} neering as a plausible future therapy in treating diseases caused by defects in single genes. Such genetic manipulation would affect the individual, but not the gene pool of the species. Most researchers, however, dismiss any near-term prospect for the kind of genetic engineering that could specifically direct the development of human mental abilities -- or of any other complex characteristic that depends on very large numbers of genes -- and that could transfer any such changes to future generations.

This latter kind of genetic engineering is, of course, the most energizing symbol of Promethean creation in the public consciousness. Although the sorts of genetically remade men and women that have graced the pages of the science fiction pulps seem far beyond the capacity (and, to be fair, the interest) of present-day molecular biologists, the very discovery of the powerful, and previously unsuspected, techniques for recombining DNA contributes to a certain disquiet. The unprecedented series of breakthroughs so far achieved by the ingenuity of molecular biologists must make us pause before disclaiming the possibility of even more spectacular accomplishments. Part of the intrinsic fascination of DNA is that its structure and the way its information is coded are so similar in all living organisms. There is a very large difference between being able to engineer genetically an E. coli cell and a human zygote, but those two manipulations have more in common with each other than either has with the erstwhile breeding of prize Guernseys. Although there are at present no scientific claimants for the task, and although the prospect is indeed a distant one, it is hard to dismiss summarily a possible future in which some revenant Frankenstein imagines that "a new species would bless me as it creator and source," and that "many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me" (4;47).

For many of the most articulate critics of recombinant DNA research, however, the malign potential of these techniques comes to a focus in just this prospect -- that they will be used for deliberate engineering of the human gene pool. To Jeremy Rifkin of the People's Business Commission,

the real issue here is the most important one that mankind has ever had to grapple with. . . . With the discovery of recombinant DNA scientists have unlocked the mystery of life itself. It is now only a matter of time . . . until the {94} biologists will be able, literally through recombinant DNA research, to create new plants, new strains of animals, and even genetically alter the human being on the earth. (Forum, 19)
Erwin Chargaff warns that the "genetic inheritance of mankind is its greatest and most indispensable treasure, which must be protected under all circumstances from defilement" (Forum, 48). Ethan Signer, professor of biology at MIT, cautions that
recombinant DNA research is going to bring us one more step closer to genetic engineering of people. That's when they figure out how to have us produce children with ideal characteristics. Last time the ideal children had blond hair, blue eyes, and Aryan genes. . . . We're going to tinker with the human gene pool. (Forum, 235)
As Signer's remarks suggest, a major element motivating opposition to recombinant DNA research is the belief that it will be put to fundamentally inhumane and antisocial uses. Jonathan Beckwith of the Harvard Medical School fears that "we may move from the present technological fix to the genetic fix, once recombinant DNA techniques have provided the tools" (Forum, 244). He anticipates misguided attempts to control aggression and social protest by the introduction of genes that would break down testosterone, as well as the genetic engineering of workers so that they could be employed in factories with high vinyl chloride levels (Forum, 244-45).

The response to such charges is itself instructive. Stanley Cohen, professor of medicine at Stanford University and one of the leading recombinant DNA researchers, believes that "knowledge itself is not immoral, but what society chooses to do with that knowledge may sometimes be immoral" (Forum, 249). Replying to the particular issues raised by Beckwith, Cohen provides a counterargument:

Clearly society currently has the knowledge to eliminate testosterone production in aggressive individuals without resorting to recombinant DNA techniques, but castration of such individuals is not a socially acceptable practice. Similarly, methods to accomplish the eugenic goals that Dr. Beckwith finds abhorrent and that I find equally abhorrent also {95} exist at present, but society has not applied these methods because society finds them similarly abhorrent. . . . [T]he real issue . . . is what is done with knowledge by society, not the knowledge itself. (Forum, 249)
Bernard Davis argues similarly in response to the invocations of deliberate and repressive engineering of the human gene pool:
Even if we could use genetic technology in this way, I would question whether the technological imperative would necessarily (or even likely) lead us to do so. For the simple but effective techniques of selective breeding and artificial insemination are already available and yet they are not being used to influence the human gene pool. (Forum, 135)
Although these exchanges between supporters and opponents of the research reflect widely differing perspectives on many issues, they indicate clear agreement on the two final elements of a Frankenstein scenario: that the transcendent power made available by recombinant DNA technology is a potential force for good or ill (though they disagree, of course, as to which of these polar directions the research is leading); and that it is the political, economic, and moral arrangements of society that determine whether the long-term results of such two-edged scientific creativity will be monstrous.

The collective behavior of the molecular biologists in the exercise of responsibility regarding their creative activity appears as an important exception to the Frankenstein scenario. Victor Frankenstein and Robert Oppenheimer developed an expanded concept of scientific responsibility as a result of painful experience in dealing with the forces they had brought into being. The community of scientists has also undergone a raising of consciousness with respect to their responsibilities -- first among physicists after Hiroshima, and now among molecular biologists. The heightened awareness among the latter may be traced directly back to the experience of that earlier group of scientists. The biologists could not escape the knowledge of what it means, politically, socially, and morally, to manipulate transcendent power; nor could they ignore the example of the atomic physicists in finally exercising communal professional {96} responsibility by laboring, in the years following 1945, for effective civilian regulation of their creation.63

If the physicists, in Oppenheimer's plangent phrase, "have known sin," their fall from innocence has at least been a persuasive object lesson. While prominent scientists have taken opposite sides on most issues raised by the recombinant DNA controversy, there seems to be a consensus on one significant point: both scientists and the public must be involved in, and share responsibility for, the regulation of scientific research when the consequences of that research affect the public's fundamental interests. Within that consensus there are, unsurprisingly, strong differences of opinion as to the nature and degree of hazard and the proper balance between competing concerns (such as freedom of scientific inquiry vs. public safety, effective regulation vs. creativity, and professional vs. democratic decision making in science policy). It would, however, be difficult at present to find very many scientists who deny the principle of shared involvement. The idea of a value-free science, unfettered by social concerns and unconnected to social consequences, has as much plausibility -- even among scientists -- as the divine right of kings.

A case may still be made that the degree of responsibility exercised by the biologists is not adequate. John Lear, for example, in Recombinant DNA: The Untold Story charges the scientists with something like Frankensteinian hubris for their very effective attempts to dissuade Congress from passing regulatory legislation significantly more restrictive than the National Institutes of Health guidelines. He thinks that congressional leaders such as Edward Kennedy "grossly miscalculated the lengths to which the scientists would go to maintain their freedom to experiment as they saw fit without regard to the wishes of the people."64 Lear also criticizes proposals for relaxing some of the original restrictions in the NIH guidelines.65

If one grants that the scientists have reasonably fulfilled their collective obligations, there remains the question of individual responsibility. Reports of less than complete compliance with the NIH guidelines in some laboratories suggested that the temptations and pressures of DNA research were capable of leading at least a small ministry of experimenters into disturbing, if low-level, Frankensteinian practices.66 Nevertheless, I believe that the recognition and exercise of responsibility by a {97} majority of the leading molecular biologists represents a notable departure from the example set by Victor Frankenstein.

The exercise of responsibility is the only element of recombinant DNA research that does not closely match the Frankenstein scenario I have outlined; all the other elements of that scenario are clearly in evidence. The myth of Frankenstein is, therefore, a highly appropriate symbol of the dilemmas posed by this research frontier. The power of this contemporary myth helps explain why work on recombinant DNA elicited widespread anxiety while other areas of potentially hazardous investigation did not. In responding to this anxiety at the Academy Forum on Research and Recombinant DNA, Stanley Cohen argued that "what can be said of recombinant DNA research can be said of virtually all knowledge." Cohen noted, however, that "some participants of this Forum seem to have a special fear of genetic knowledge" (Forum, 249). The reason for that special fear, I suggest -- and for much of the passion engendered -- is that it is not true that what can be said of recombinant DNA research can be said of virtually all knowledge, or even of all scientific knowledge. Recombinant DNA research fulfills almost all the requirements of a Frankenstein scenario and is -- for precisely this reason -- special. We can identify other areas of science -- like research with more traditional infectious disease organisms -- that contain one or two elements of this scenario; very few areas of science, though, embody the constellation of elements that characterizes a full-fledged Frankenstein scenario. Thus, most scientific activity is not Frankensteinian, as I have employed the term; but the production of nuclear energy and the potential production of genetically engineered organisms have enough of transcendent creation about them to trouble the public deeply.

The quality of that public response was nicely captured in an observation by Kurt Mislow of Princeton University. He referred to

the broad sense of opposition that one feels on the part of many people here for all kinds of different reasons. The opposition is, in fact, necessarily emotional, necessarily irrational because it is not by the rules of the game that these {98} objections are made. We are not providing a data base, drawing conclusions, and providing inferences and so forth. We are operating from a gut feeling. . . . To ignore the reality of that gut feeling, I think, is to be, in the last analysis, unscientific. It is there. . . . It goes back to the fairy tales that we heard when we were little kids. It is something very fundamental and I think we are making a tremendous mistake if we ignore it. (Forum, 278)
People were searching for a symbolic framework to make sense of events that had overtaken them. The fairy tales of childhood play a large role in shaping our interactions with the world; and in western culture, at least, Frankenstein and his monster are as visible as Snow White and her dwarfs. The extraordinary developments spun out by twentieth-century science have caused us to seize upon what might otherwise have remained a minor fantastic tale, transforming it into a myth of wide currency and powerful effect.

Functioning myths help sustain human life and institutions in the face of a world that people do not control and that threatens to overwhelm them. These myths present -- generally in powerfully dramatic form -- the facts of life to which humanity must adjust. These facts may be not only harsh, but also paradoxical and contradictory, and cannot help but be the source of profound psychic tensions. The notably imagistic character of a society's myths -- as of an individual's dreams -- may be the mode in which the human mind can most easily deal with such paradox and contradiction. These primary process images and relationships, as opposed to the more single-valued conceptualizations of the rational consciousness, are amenable to multiple levels of interpretation. By virtue of this characteristic they may enable human beings to take in and assimilate the contradictory aspects of human existence, yet at the same time not incapacitate human action by too direct a confrontation with paradox. This is the sense in which I claim the Frankenstein theme is -- appropriately -- the twentieth century's living myth. It is a response to the same kind of stimulus that engendered the myths of earlier societies, and its sustaining function is the same as well.

While many of the myths that embody fundamental conflicts in human relationships still profoundly affect us, other myths dealing with our interaction with the natural world have not {99} fared as well. Much of the mysterium tremendum of the universe, before which humanity was both ignorant and powerless, has become the province of grade-school teachers. The results of twentieth-century science are, in some instances, more worthy of wonder than the traditional sources of awe in earlier myths.

That, of course, is precisely the problem. The science that demystified the old terrors, that explained the awesome forces of nature and brought them under increasing human control, has resulted in the creation of new facts of life that, in our frame of reference, are just as harsh, overwhelming, and paradoxical as those that transfixed our predecessors. It is not comfortable to live in a world in which the power of the atom is as much a force to be propitiated as the spirits of sun, wind, and rain ever were,67 and where the possible appearance of an inadvertently engineered biological scourge carries some of the flavor that must have infused populations speculating upon the next outbreak of plague. In this world four or five nations have stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons, and several more have, or could quickly have, atomic bombs. Given a particular sequence of social and political events, it is conceivable that several hundred million human beings could be destroyed in the space of two hours, with several hundred million more following over the course of a few days or weeks with no further action. In this world a balance of terror keeps the peace -- as nasty a paradox as ever troubled earlier people. To this angst there has now been added the more conjectural, but no less terrifying, danger of uncontrollable outbreaks of disease threatening the lives of millions -- a new Black Death, perhaps, set loose on the planet by the advanced science that has brought the smallpox virus to the edge of extinction. These are the kind of transcendent powers that many earlier societies did not even imagine their gods and demons to possess.

In the face of this paradox of scientific progress, the transformation into myth of a nineteenth-century romantic narrative becomes comprehensible. The problems of understanding and responding to the world of atomic energy and genetic manipulation are, however, multivalent; they include irreducible social, political, metaphysical, ethical, and psychological dimensions. Any particular analysis of an issue of such complexity can be little other than a single slice through a knot of Einsteinian space-time, reducing a multidimensional reality to a three-dimensional projection that, it is hoped, can be more {100} easily grasped by our conceptual faculties. The mythic interpretation presented here is only one such three-dimensional perspective. The complexity of the interaction between science and society in the twentieth century invites, indeed demands, a variety of explorations along different axes. Thus the social transformation of knowledge, the public character both of that knowledge and of its application, the industrialization of scientific practice, the internal and external influences upon the production and diffusion of scientific knowledge, and the responsibility for the social, economic, political, and psychological results of technological progress constitute only a partial list of necessary areas of study. No single approach will prove satisfactory; only when a significant number of these complementary perspectives are provided will the complex reality of the original problem be engaged.

What is common to many of these analytic perspectives, though, is their focus upon rational or mechanistic modes of social interaction. It is not at all clear that the dilemmas discussed in this essay -- engendered by science, that most rational of human activities -- can be truly understood and dealt with on the basis of purely rational analysis, even from a variety of perspectives.68 Emotional and nonrational reactions may be -- in addition to reason -- fully appropriate responses to the intrusion of transcendent power into our daily existence.

Understood in this context, the Frankenstein myth provides, or can be interpreted to provide, twentieth-century society with two incontestable benefits: it offers, as do most living myths, warning and catharsis. In terms of its cautionary function, the myth can serve in much the same way as contingency planners are helped by presentation of worst-case scenarios. By pursuing, in image and imagination, the most deeply troubling elements of our present situation to the bottom of the night we may find a greater urgency and inspiration for enlightening the days. The complementary function of the myth -- complementary in as twentieth-century a sense as particle and wave -- also helps us endure in the face of a newly harsh and potentially tragic reality by offering psychic release. The myth of Frankenstein provides a classic catharsis for its audience. We see in the horrifying account of transcendent creation the analogy or imitation of our present and profoundly troubling situation. We identify with the sufferer and feel pity; we apprehend the causes and feel terror. For a while, at least, we are thus purged {101} of feelings of pity and terror through an appreciation of the protagonist's (Frankenstein's or Oppenheimer's) increased perception and sensitivity, gained through his tragic experience. We, as well, may learn from that tragic experience in a personal, emotional, nonrational way that complements the more abstract lessons we derive from our imagistic contingency planning.

Having, perhaps, learned from Frankenstein -- as he so forcefully admonished us at the very beginning of this essay -- we should surely grant him the final injunction:

Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed (p. 236).69


1. As quoted in Time, 18 April 1977, 45.

2. As quoted in Science 193 (1976):300.

3. As quoted in Michael Rogers, Biohazard (New York: Knopf, 1977), 196.

4. James D. Watson, "In Defense of DNA," New Republic, 25 June 1977, 14.

5. Rogers, Biohazard, 191-205.

6. Willard Gaylin, "The Frankenstein Factor," New England Journal of Medicine 297 (1977):665-67.

7. See, for example, Eileen Bigland, Mary Shelley (London: Cassell, 1959), 84-88; Richard Church, Mary Shelley (New York: Viking, 1928), 83-106; Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 90-99; Marc A. Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976):165-94; Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London: Gollancz, 1972); William Wailing, Mary Shelley (New York: Twayne, 1972), 23-50.

8. Mary Shelley, "Introduction," Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 9.

9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Everyman-Dutton, 1963), chap. 4, p. 45. Subsequent references to Frankenstein included in this text will be to this edition, which reproduces Shelley's original 1818 version. Citations will be identified in parentheses by chapter, with page numbers from the Dutton edition.

10. Douglas Bush, Science and English Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 100.

11. Don Juan, canto 10, st. 2.

12. Bush, Science and English Poetry, 103-4.

13. I am not attempting here a deliberate inversion of the naturalist interpretation of literature as mirroring objective or scientific reality; I am not implying that Oppenheimer's life was shaped by the requirements of a narrative tradition. Nor am I quite making Ezra Pound's claim that the function of literature is that it incites humanity to continue living. I am, rather, suggesting that both the real world and the fictional narratives exemplify in striking fashion a mythic structure that reflects a fundamental problem of human existence: the paradoxical nature of the relationship between knowledge and power, between creation and responsibility. Later in this essay, I pursue a more detailed investigation of how the narratives of Frankenstein and Oppenheimer are apprehensions of the same underlying structural relationship -- one that connects scientist, society, and the natural universe. To rephrase Pound, it is the function of myths (such as Frankenstein) to incite humanity to continue living.

14. I. I. Rabi et al., Oppenheimer (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), 7.

15. Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958), 21.

16. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Frank Oppenheimer, 7 October 1933, in Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, ed. Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 165.

17. See, for example, Oppenheimer to William A. Fowler, 28 January 1939, in Robert Oppenheimer: Letters, 207; Oppenheimer to I. I. Rabi, 26 February 1943, in ibid., 250.

18. Nuel Pharr Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 161.

19. Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, 132.

20. Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 233.

21. General Thomas F. Farrell, as quoted in General Leslie R. Groves, "Report on Alamogordo Atomic Bomb Test," 18 July 1945, reprinted as Appendix P in Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed (New York: Knopf, 1975), 308-14.

22. Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, 211.

23. Ibid., 201.

24. Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 240.

25. Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 55.

26. Ibid., 56.

27. Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 246.

28. Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, 245-54.

29. Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 307-8.

30. Ibid., 318.

31. Ibid., 322.

32. Ibid., 343.

33. Ibid.

34. In this discussion I imply that Oppenheimer's opposition to the crash development of the Super was the reason for his subsequent demise as a politically important figure. This account necessarily omits an extended treatment of many other significant factors such as very influential opponents who became personal enemies, Oppenheimer's recommendations against several pet Air Force projects, and his support of a balanced-force concept of air defense rather than a near-total reliance on an atomic bomb-carrying Strategic Air Command. Also much of Oppenheimer's opposition to the Super was based on his assessment that it would be a waste of money until certain crucial theoretical problems were solved first. When this conceptual breakthrough later occurred, he supported the pursuit of this new research direction, perhaps fearing that some other nation might also have the idea and develop it first. Nevertheless, the hesitation and caution that Oppenheimer urged with regard to the Super was a major element in his political humiliation. The personnel security board that judged him "found that, following the President's decision, Dr. Oppenheimer did not show the enthusiastic support [italics added] for the Super program which might have been expected of the chief adviser to the Government under the circumstances; that, had he given his enthusiastic support to the program, a concerted effort would have been initiated at an earlier date, and that, whatever the motivation, the security interests of the United States were affected" (Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 305).

For a comprehensive treatment of Oppenheimer's career as an influential political adviser during the Cold War period, see Philip Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 111-213. I have more generally relied upon Davis's Lawrence and Oppenheimer as a source of quotations because of its stylistic consonance with the tone of this essay, but Davis's treatment is consistent with Stern's more detailed account.

35. Gaylin, "The Frankenstein Factor," 666.

36. Harold Bloom, "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus," Partisan Review 32 (1965): 614.

37. Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 244.

38. Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (New York: Viking, 1972), 214-15.

39. I am indebted to Jeffrey Johnson, Department of Sociology, San Francisco State University, for valuable discussions on this theme.

40. Erwin Schr&oduml;inger, What is Life? (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1956), 2.

41. Ibid.

42. Gunther Stent, The Coming of the Golden Age (Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1969), 21.

43. Schrödinger, What Is Life? 33.

44. James D. Watson, The Double Helix (New York: Mentor-New American Library, 1969), 27. Subsequent page references to this edition will be included in the text.

45. Graham Chedd, "The Making of a Gene," New Scientist, 30 September 1976, 682.

46. As quoted in Time, 19 April 1971, 33.

47. Robert Sinsheimer, "Troubled Dawn for Genetic Engineering," New Scientist, 16 October 1975, 150.

48. Erwin Chargaff, Science 192 (1976): 938-40.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. New Scientist, 17 October 1974, 166.

52. June Goodfield, Playing God (New York: Random House, 1977).

53. Ted Howard and Jeremy Rifkin, Who Should Play God? (New York: Delacorte 1977).

54. Research with Recombinant DNA: An Academy Forum (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1977), 24. Hereafter cited as Forum with subsequent references included in the text.

55. Maxine Singer and Dieter Soil, Science 181 (1973): 1114.

56. Paul Berg et al., Science 185 (1974): 303.

57. U.S. National Institutes of Health, Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1976).

58. Rogers, Biohazard, 100.

59. Chargaff, in Science, 938-40.

60. As quoted in Time, 18 April 1977, 45.

61. As quoted in Atlantic, February 1977, 59.

62. See, for example, Matt Clark et al., "The Miracles of Spliced Genes," Newsweek, 17 March 1980, 62-71; Jeffrey L. Fox, "Genetic engineering industry emerges," Chemical & Engineering News, 17 March 1980, 15-23; Walter Gilbert and Lydia Villa-Komaroff, "Useful Proteins from Recombinant Bacteria," Scientific American, April 1980, 74-94.

63. See, for example, Smith, A Peril and a Hope.

64. John Lear, Recombinant DNA: The Untold Story (New York: Crown, 1978), 167.

65. Ibid., 207-8.

66. See Janet L. Hopson, "Recombinant Lab for DNA and My 95 Days in It," Smithsonian, June 1977, 55-62; and Science 200 (1978): 516-17.

67. Throughout this analysis, whenever I have discussed the release of atomic energy, I have used nuclear weaponry to provide examples of transcendent power applied to potentially destructive ends. For many years, most of the American public would have agreed that a potentially beneficient use of atomic energy was the generation of electricity by nuclear reactors. As the real-world events at Three Mile Island and the cinematic events of The China Syndrome graphically suggest, even the putative benefits of this technology possess a disquieting potential for getting out of control. There is now serious public questioning of whether this particular scientific creation can, in fact, be domesticated under any circumstances.

68. For an articulate presentation of the case for an exclusively rational analysis, see Carl Cohen, "On the Dangers of Inquiry and the Burden of Proof" in The Recombinant DNA Debate, ed. David A. Jackson and Stephen P. Stich (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 303-34.

69. This essay was developed thanks to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.