Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley had a nightmare in which she conceived her gothic novel Frankenstein, while staying in Lord Byron’s villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Her horror story would never loosen its hold on the public imagination, especially in relation with the Life Sciences. Why?
The label Frankenstein is even nowadays broadly used to warn for what may happen when you tamper with life itself! Like Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to bestow life on inanimate matter and create an artificial human being, who or which became a monster. However, Frankenstein’s shortcoming was not so much that he tried to “play God” but that he failed to take proper care for the poor creature that he himself had created. His creature was not a rampaging monster from the start, as most film versions suggest, but only became so after repeatedly being confronted with hatred and rejection among people. The novel is actually about the social responsibility of researchers in the modern life sciences. As a member of the romantic generation first exposed to the wonders of research, Mary Shelley had to discover both the beauty and terror of science. Dr. H. van den Belt tells about the conceiving of the story and what lessons we still can learn from this narration.
Dr. H. van den Belt is assistant professor at the Philosophy group of our University. He teaches Philosophy of Science and Ethics. And published extensively about patents in the life sciences. In 2009 he wrote ‘Playing God in Frankenstein's Footsteps: Synthetic Biology and the Meaning of Life’. In June 2016 he took part in the workshop “Frankenstein’s Shadow”, organized by the American bioethicist Robert Cook-Degan.
See also a BBC-documentary about the conception of the novel: