The 2015 movie “Victor Frankenstein” starts with the words: “You know this story.” This is certainly true, judging by the number of times Mary Shelley’s 1818 romantic horror novel “Frankenstein” has been republished. The novel, written on a bet by an 18 year-old woman, is considered a work of classic fiction and the first true sci-fi novel.
The difference with this year’s iteration is that we’re finally having to confront many of the religious, scientific, philosophical and humanistic issues portrayed in the original story. And the implications aren’t as clean-cut as the narrative portrays. Monster lore is misleading in an age where politics and finances complicate matters of morality.
These are the days of miracles and wonders, but how far is medical science from making real the fiction of Mary Shelley: Is it possible to construct a human body out of spare parts, and breathe life into that body?
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Certainly, medical science is making possible astounding developments 200 years later — face transplants, artificial limbs, 3-D printing of organs, ears grown on the backs of laboratory mice, bionic eyes, brain defibrillators for epileptics, micro-robot surgeons, and stem-cell research.
In the 1790s, Luigi Galvani used electrical impulses to cause twitches in the muscles of dead frogs. Galvani and many others believed that electricity was the “stuff of life.” Galvani’s own name was used in the term “galvanize,” a medical term that means “to stimulate or treat (muscles or nerves) with induced direct current.”
Shelley hinted that Frankenstein’s monster was galvanized into life using electricity. But galvanize also means “to shock or excite someone into taking action,” and Shelley wasn’t shy to galvanize her critics in this sense as well. She created the character of Frankenstein as a scientist who would challenge the moral and religious sensibilities of his time.
Frankenstein pieced together his experimental monster with body parts scavenged from charnel houses (a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored) and then used electrical current to reanimate the body to life. In 1818 — 66 years after Benjamin Franklin flew his kite, and 20 years after Galvani’s tinkering — electricity was still a phenomenon and a mystery to most people, including a young author like Shelley.
That Frankenstein used electric current to bring his creation to life was a novel idea in and of itself.
Today’s electroshock machines in CPR are based on a similar notion, but that electricity is designed to simply jump-starting nerves in undamaged organs.
Death occurs at the cellular level, according to Eli MacKinnon on the website LiveScience.com:
“Every cell has a tight outer membrane that serves to separate its own contents from its surroundings and filter out the molecules that are nonessential to its function or survival. As a cell nears the end of its life, this protective barrier will begin to weaken and, depending on the circumstances of a cell’s death, one of three things will happen: It will send an ‘eat me’ signal to a specialized maintenance cell that will then devour and recycle the ailing cell’s contents; it will quarantine and consume itself in a kind of programmed altruistic suicide; or it will rupture abruptly and spill its contents into the surrounding tissue, causing severe inflammation and further tissue damage.”
When the integrity of the outer membrane of a cell is compromised, that cell is dead, and most likely the organism that is home to that cell is dying or dead, too. Nothing can restore the integrity of the breached cell, and death is imminent.
The trouble is, there are trillions of cells in the human body, according to a publication called the Annals of Human Biology.
That’s a lot of cells — damaged or undamaged — to reanimate, and it is at the cellular level that the greatest barrier to Shelley’s fiction lies.
Yet, medical science is also working on the thin cellular line between life and death. The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Resuscitation Science is an affiliation of doctors, scientists and engineers who are hoping to revolutionize the treatment of cardiac arrest.
In doing so, they are also moving us closer to the Promethean argument of man playing God and the million-dollar question: Who has the power to determine life and death?
The CRS is finding that although death is cold, cold might also be the key to prolonging and even restoring life. They use the example of a Swedish medical student who crashed through the ice of a stream while skiing. Her friends tried for three hours to rescue her, but when she was finally brought to the surface, she had been clinically dead for hours.
Nevertheless, she lived to tell the tale — by virtue of her frozen temperature.
Scientists have found that lowering the temperature of a dying body from 98.6 degrees to 91 degrees will preserve cells and allow for modern miracles. Perhaps not quite on par with reanimating a collection of dead body parts, but temperature as a factor certainly blurs the line between life and death.
At a day and age where science is producing miracles formerly reserved for divine intervention, barriers that were seen as impossible for most of human history are being crossed at an alarming rate. Scientific advancement is also posing ethical questions at such a rapid rate that, in many cases, it’s too late by the time we’ve confronted them.
In particular, the implications for generating revenue to extend life are mind-boggling — who wouldn’t want to live longer? — but this also presents a moral quandary: If humans find a way to extend life, then it is safe to assume they will also find a way to charge for it.
Access to lifesaving or life-extending solutions could be the next civil right. The only question: Who pays for it?
Shelley’s story may be misleading in that the monster turns out to be an 8-foot tall, ghoulish figure, and a highly intelligent, emotional, and philosophical being who is appalled at the sight of itself. He ends up destroying the world his creator, Frankenstein, holds dear, and begs the question: Should humans be mucking about in the domain of the Gods?
It’s probably too late to ask to answer now.
The danger today doesn’t necessarily have the face of a monster. It has the face of Ben Franklin on hundred-dollar bills, and those who have enough will eventually call the shots.