Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just came back from seeing Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, (stage version by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle who had also directed the films Slumdog Millionaire and 128 Hours,) by the London National Theater (simulcast in hundreds of movie theaters throughout the world). What a thought provoking story, what a brilliant performance by the best theater in the world, in my “humble” opinion.

The promise of Science, then and now

The book was published in 1818, and deals with one of the most urgent problems of the 21st century: the overreach of science. Think of it: 1818! Dr. Frankenstein learned how to assemble a new being from parts of deceased humans and infuse it with life. He had a few technical problems because miniaturization was not known at the time and he couldn’t replicate the minute details of internal organs, so he had to create an 8ft Creature. Also, his skin was yellow and translucent so the muscles, blood vessels and organs were visible; not very appealing to the average non-medical observer. Of course, he was shunned not only by the public, but even his creator was horrified, and abandoned him. And here, 100 years before Freud, is a story of abandonment, rejection –and revenge. The Creature (he has no name, although Shelley later referred to him as Adam) learns all the human traits we associate with humanity: language, cognition, feelings of envy and rage, and the need for a social environment and support. Yes, he craves friendships, connectedness, and companionship. In fact, at one point he demands of his creator Dr. Frankenstein, a female companion because he is lonely, having been rejected by humans. He argues that as a living thing he has the right of pursuit of happiness.

When Dr. Frankenstein is confronted with the question of why, why did he create this monster, his only available answer is –because he was curious, and was able to satisfy his curiosity. He never thought of the consequences. He thought he had “all bases covered” (don’t send any emails; I know it is a glaring anachronism), never imagining that the “unknown unknowns” will inevitably happen. How resonant with our own times. The Japanese nuclear engineers planned for an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, because that’s the maximum that had hit Japan in the past. As one Japanese manager said:“A tsunami? never entered my mind”. So they built a 13ft breaker to stop a 40ft wave. Or a lot closer to the story of Frankenstein: some molecular biologists want to clone a Neanderthal. Why? Because we have now the genetic code, so we can. What are they going to do with him, or her? Put it in a zoo? In a lab cage? And what if he invokes his right to the pursuit of happiness?

I can already hear the arguments of civil rights and animal rights advocates…

Arizona, on the other hand, will probably pass anti-Creature laws.

At one point the Creature confronts Dr. Frankenstein and poignantly quotes Milton, his favorite poet:

Did I request thee, Maker from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was subtitled “or, the modern Prometheus”. The Greek legend tells of Prometheus the Titan who created the human race against the wishes of the gods, who were pretty skeptical of such an “experiment”. When he did it anyway, Zeus punished him to be bound to a rock, and every night a bird would come and eat part of his liver, which grew the next day to provide more food for the next nightly avian visit. Amazing Greeks; not only did they know about the liver’s capacity to regenerate thousands of years before our biologists discovered the phenomenon, but they used it to describe eternal damnation, preceding our own present-day myth-makers by millennia.


Humanity’s trouble with Truth

The Creature brags that he learned one trait that no animal has, it is exclusively human: to lie.

I beg to differ. Obviously, Mary Shelley preceded Darwin, so I won’t hold it against her. But animals do lie and cheat. Just observe the behaviors of monkeys and apes or even birds, and you’ll find hundreds of instances where they don’t play it straight, or strictly by the book. Cheating on your mate? It is in their genes! It promotes the survival of the species by maximizing the number and fitness of the offspring. Or so they say…

But we are indeed the masters of the trade. We had to. We had to figure out what the approaching band is up to, and respond accordingly. If they were hostile, we needed a strategy to disarm them with a smile or confront them with a raised stick. If they looked friendly and unsuspecting –we could rob them of their food by feigning friendship. And the band that excelled in dissembling thrived, and multiplied. What a powerful selective force. It even caused the selection of individuals with extra large and abundant “mirror cells”, neurons that mimic the movements and feelings of an individual we are observing, thus essentially allowing us to get into her head. Is she bluffing? Is he hostile? Are the vibes alarming or happy? We experience it in our daily interactions; we are sad when we talk to somebody who is depressed, we are happy when we are greeted with a warm smile. These neurons are the mediators of what is called in psychology empathy.How ironic that this warm amd fuzzy trait grew out of the primal need for being suspicious and on constant guard.

It is said that language influences thought. In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak is the government’s attempt to control how people think by changing the English language. You couldn’t have any thoughts against the Party because there were no words for such thoughts. Today, in 2011, the Chinese censors simply obliterated key words like “freedom”, “protest”, “demonstration” from the search engines. No way to put your rebellious thoughts into words –therefore such thoughts cannot exist. Or so they hope.
Thought and language actually have a symbiotic relationship. Language influences thought, and thought influences language. Just think of it: why should we have so many words for lying? We already mentioned dissembling. But consider prevaricate, obfuscate, myth, perjury, fiction, distortion, exaggeration, tale, fib, cheat, deceive, disinformation. And nowadays, politicians and political propaganda are synonymous with lying, as well. Just consider Colbert’s recent contribution to the lexicon: truthiness, his description of political talk that sounds true but is not quite. If something is truthy it’s good enough; it doesn’t have to be actually true. The reason is that this activity, although not uniquely human as the Creature claimed, occupies a major part of our daily life. It is for the same reason that the ancient Israelites had numerous words for “rain”, depending on the time of the year, its effect on the crops, and the amount coming down. The ancient Canaanites even designated a god (Baal) in charge of rain, thunder and lightning. And the Eskimos are said to have hundreds of words for “snow” (which is probably an urban legend, another word for a lie, albeit a white one).

The production

I thought the production of the play was riveting in itself. The Creature is “born” out of a contraption made of plastic sheathing, and is writhing on the floor for a full three or four minutes, with poor coordination, crawling on all four, using his knuckles, unsteadily standing up, walking and falling, then walking with more assurance and finally acquiring the agility of a young athlete: a fascinating recapitulation of a newborn to infant to toddler to baby to child to young adult. The scene lasted a bit too long for my taste, but it was a masterpiece performance. And so went the rest of the play: a delightful smorgasbord of literary allusions, symbolisms, and thought-provoking scenes. I thought it was superb. The missus, on the other hand, summed it up in her inimitable fashion: pretentious! I unanimously disagree.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.