How Frankenstein Bridges the Sciences and the Humanities
By Kelsie Jackson
(Editor's note: Dr. Jackson is sitting in this this month for Marianne Evola on the Responsible Research column.)
"It was a dark and stormy night..."
And for once, it truly was. Literature records that, "on a dreary night of November," one Victor Frankenstein—whose name has lived in infamy ever since—"beheld the completion" of his toils: the reanimation of dead flesh into a living, breathing human being. It is fiction's most notorious scientific experiment and vocabulary's strongest condemnation of real or perceived dangerous research. Despite this reputation, however, Frankenstein is also an excellent starting point for contemporary discussion on a wide range of issues related to research and the roles of the Ivory Tower's various disciplines of study. Mary Shelley's "monstrous progeny" raises questions of a surprisingly modern nature. The novel both celebrates scientific enquiry and cautions against its unintended effects. It forcefully argues that no discipline—including science—exists in a vacuum.
I had the privilege of serving as a reviewer for the CALUE Undergraduate Research Conference in late March and was struck by the intense commitment many of our undergraduate researchers evinced toward such multidisciplinary collaboration and awareness. In one particular case, a young man described a substantial project to recreate the Dachau concentration camp through words and virtual reality modeling. The project integrates scholars and experts from fields as diverse as oral history and graphic design. In some ways, it reminded me of the "ideal" alluded to in Frankenstein: research conducted in a multidimensional way in which each part augments the others. The "hows" of scientific techniques—in this case the meticulous data needed to complete a reconstruction—meets the "whys" of the humanities—the imperative to preserve our rapidly-fading past.
Major institutions long associated with intensive STEM education are also taking note. In 2010, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (now the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai) inaugurated its Humanities and Medicine Program, pledging thirty-five spots in each year's matriculating class for students who held degrees in the humanities or social sciences with a 3.5 or above GPA. Just down the street from Mount Sinai, New York University's Division of Medical Humanities is led by a distinguished U.S. historian, David Oshinsky. The program's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database constitutes an ongoing dialogue between STEM and the humanities, mirroring the division's goal of "widening the scope of current medical education and enhancing the professionalism" of the university's graduates.2
Anyone familiar with the research enterprise understands the value and desirability of focus—of drive and intensity on one's chosen field and topic. Indeed, it might well be argued that deep dedication is a vital component of successful research endeavors. "My mind," Victor Frankenstein recalls, "was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose." He is wholly dedicated to the study of "natural philosophy," the branch of academia that would eventually become today's laboratory-based sciences, and thus his university education completely lacks in anything outside scientific training: "Natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation." It is clear from these and other statements that Victor Frankenstein is working in a vacuum. In modern parlance, his education is "STEM-focused" to the exclusion of all else. At the same time, however, Frankenstein builds a case for the holistic nature of intelligence and the importance interdisciplinary knowledge plays in fostering responsible research and equally responsible researchers.
We live in a moment of Frankenstein-like education: a narrow emphasis on a select few disciplines that is encouraged and even demanded by high-stakes testing from elementary school onward. In such a moment, Frankenstein's tight, almost myopic focus on his principal field of study is understandable and immediately contemporary. With the sciences and humanities alike facing new and threatening political headwinds, we may find ourselves in danger of producing an educational vision that is, truly, "filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose," at the expense of those disciplines that develop skills of equal import to researchers. Though his impressive laboratory education leads Victor Frankenstein to achieve something no one else could, its narrowness robs him of the intellectual and ethical tools to grasp the enormous ramifications of his "achievement." Frankenstein's lack of grounding in the whys of research because of a tight focus on the how leads him to consummate his vain aspirations in literature's greatest act of irresponsible research. Focus and intensity are galvanizing tools (quite literally, in the case of Frankenstein), but they must be balanced—with other disciplines and with the researcher's own responsibilities to themselves, their colleagues, and within the larger community.
Does this mean that a history or English class would have saved Frankenstein or his eponymous creature? Or that a philosophy course will, by extension, save scientists today from such mistakes? Of course not, and it would be naive to think so. However, as universities find themselves under siege from funding difficulties, political pressures, and increasingly aggressive demands to justify their existence, a persuasive argument exists in Frankenstein that the sciences and humanities both need what the other offers: the tools and skills to innovate in meaningful ways on the one hand; the human context of all scientific research and the equally difficult questions that address the ethical, moral, and social responsibility of that research on the other.
Perhaps the best summation of this interconnected relationship was offered a decade and a half ago. Speaking to a session of the President's Council on Bioethics in 2003, English professor Paul A. Cantor called Frankenstein "perhaps the most prophetic book ever," contending that its primary lesson is this: "Science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it. To explore that question, we must step outside the narrow range of science's purely technical questions and look at the full human context and consequences of what we are doing."
Kelsie Jackson is the administrator for the Financial Conflict of Interest and Executive Secretary to the Investigator Financial Disclosure Committee.