Frankenstein Today: The Postgenomic Prometheus
As the power of gene technology reaches human DNA, we fear that the subjects of genetic engineering might somehow become monstrous, something other than human. The fear of creating a monster received perhaps its most famous expression in Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. The questions Shelley raises return with greater urgency now that the Human Genome Project and our growing pharmacological toolkit give scientists unprecedented powers. Yet the questions may also lead us to expand our view of what is human.
Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (1818)
For historical background, see the National Library of Medicines online exhibition Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/frankenstein/index.html.
2. What makes Frankensteins creation monstrous? Some modern critics argue that the monsters evil was not inherent but was the product of Frankensteins rejection of him. Do you agree? How do Frankensteins reasons for rejecting his creation compare with objections raised to genetic research and gene therapy?
3. Could modern gene technology create monsters or monstrous situations? For example, if we genetically engineer animals to donate replacement organs for people, would we create a partly human monstrosity?
The X-Files: Post-Modern Prometheus (1997)
This episode is available on a DVD collection of the X-Files fifth season.
2. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who digs up body parts from a cemetery, Dr. Pollidori digs up genes from the fruit fly. Considering what we know of genomes, why would the fruit fly be a likely place for scientists to look for molecular clues to improve human health?
3. Throughout the episode, the camera draws visual comparisons between humans and animals. What questions does the camera raise about the nature of humans and animals? What parallel questions are raised by our emerging view of human and animal genomes?
4. Like Frankensteins monster, the Mutato desires a mateand gets in trouble for the way he pursues one. In the end, how does the X-Files episode suggest society should treat people who have genetic traits that are considered undesirable?
Mirabile, by Janet Kagan (1991)
In this book, which consists of a series of short stories that can be read individually, Kagan presents a cheerful, family-oriented embrace of Frankenstein-like genetic engineering. Families of colonists have seeded a distant planet, Mirabile, with plants and animals that were extensively engineered for the purpose of colonization. Some of the organisms were designed to sequester the genomes of other species within their own noncoding DNA. The hidden species were expected to be useful in later stages of colonization (for example, a strain of wheat hides the genomes of honeybees and red deer.) But what happens when the carrier organisms mutate and seed the hidden species, leading to unpredicted variations?
For a copy of this book, contact Joan Slonczewski at email@example.com (limited quantity available).
2. Considering our latest view of genomes, would it be possible to hide the entire genome of one organism inside the extra DNA of another? How much of the human genome appears to be extraneous? How did this extraneous DNA get there?
3. The story Loch Moose Monster opens with daffodils seeding predatory cockroachesan example of the genetic mistakes called Dragons Teeth. But the developmental plan of plants differs fundamentally from that of animals. How might we suppose that a plant could developmentally seed animals? Do the genomes and development programs of plants and animals share common features?
4. How does the Mirabilan colonist Mama Jason respond to the appearance of the unexpected monsters? Do the creatures provide unexpected benefits? What conflicting values does she attempt to reconcile? How do these values resonate with our own debates on genetics and the environment?
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