Until this point in the novel, the creature was simply surviving—carrying out his biological imperative for self-preservation. Once he begins using tools and contributing to the cottagers’ well being, he truly evolves by changing, growing, and adapting to his environment.
Want to learn more about how technologies—from fire to CRISPR—define the human experience? Watch “Tools of Our Own,” featuring commentary by Kate Krueger, a molecular biologist at New Harvest, and Genevieve Dewar, a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist at University of Toronto, Scarborough.
Watch more episodes of our Reanimation! series on our Media page.
Much like the creature, recent machine learning models learn language by observing human language. Furthermore, both come into the world without innate knowledge given by their creators. Their understanding of language is solely the result of their observations of the words they hear and the contexts in which those words are uttered. They don’t choose to exist with these limitations; they simply can’t know anything else.
The incomplete understanding that the creature acquires through observation is actually fairly similar to how errors are commonly made by machine learning algorithms. For instance, the creature hears the young man called “Felix,” “brother,” and “son,” but does not immediately know that one of these words is a name, while the others describe two different relationships. The creature is deprived of the necessary information to make these connections, and because Victor abandons him, he lacks a teacher to help correct these kinds of errors, which makes learning language far more difficult.
Similarly, machine learning algorithms that are given human feedback or annotated data frequently learn much more quickly than those without these kinds of inputs. A supervised learning algorithm can be trained to do a more sophisticated tasks, such as determining implications between sentences, using human-annotated data.
To explore machine learning and language yourself, you can play Lab Assistant, a game we created based on language processing technology, where you teach a slime creature powered by artificial intelligence how to help you solve puzzles. The creature also starts as a blank slate, only learning vocabulary as it observes how you use it. Part of our goal in designing Lab Assistant was to make an intelligence that the player is inclined to nurture, rather than abandon like the creature in Frankenstein. You can download the game here, for free. (Note: Lab Assistant currently only works on Windows machines.)
Here the creature refers to one of the fables by Aesop (620–560 BCE). A farmer’s donkey becomes jealous of the famer’s affection for his pet lap dog. The hard-working donkey tries to get the farmer’s attention by imitating the lap dog’s playful behavior. When the donkey jumps up on the farmer, expecting to be petted, bystanders become fearful and attack the donkey for acting uncharacteristically. One popular interpretation of the moral of the story is not to try to be someone you are not. Mary turns the meaning of the fable on its head by focusing on the injustice that happens when a creature’s efforts to obtain affection are rebuffed and punished. There are many instances throughout the novel where the creature witnesses others expressing love and kindness toward one another, and so he desires to be treated the same. When his bid to be admitted into humanity is rejected, he lashes out. Mary suggests outrage is one possible reaction to rejection and exclusion.
The creature here perceives the human tendency to distinguish between members of the in-group and members of the out-group and to fear and despise the latter: “othering,” as it is sometimes known. He also suggests, plausibly, that othering occurs where the" target is not simply different from the audience but also not understood, and he hopes to overcome this gap in understanding through communication with the cottagers. As his monologue continues, parallels are drawn between his situation and that of various outsiders and outcasts in history who have also been othered: immigrants (Safie and her father), the poor, the lowborn, and the orphaned. Mary Shelley herself is not immune from this tendency: see, for instance, her rather broad generalizations about women in Islam and her apparent approval of European colonization.
We must recognize that other people, especially those different from us, are not just sources of exclusion and anguish. The creature’s monologue is also a story of human development—from securing the most basic means of survival to engaging with language and literature—and it emphasizes, too, the essential role of communing with others unlike us in achieving self-consciousness and fulfillment. Thus, it reveals the creature’s deep desire to interact with humans, a different species, and then with a created romantic partner of a different sex.
For another view on how being perceived by others is both essential to achieving self-consciousness and a potential source of deep despair, given our dependency on them for our sense of worth, one might compare Sartre’s theory in Being and Nothingness ( 2012).
Although compassion—empathy or sympathy with the plight of others—and other positive sentiments and virtues may seem inherent personal characteristics, Frankenstein makes clear that circumstances can inspire virtues, such as compassion, and changed circumstances can eradicate or obscure them. The creature’s observation of the cottagers’ poverty as well as of their compassionate behavior toward their elderly relative instructs him in compassion. He stops stealing their food for himself, as he had previously done, and secretly provides them with firewood. But as the novel progresses, the creature suffers increasingly from feelings of abandonment, which inspire acts of revenge against Victor. He can remember that he was once compassionate, but he knows he is no longer so. “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he explains. “[I]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear” (here). Victor likewise demonstrates compassion when he is happy with himself and the world but intense selfishness and unconcern for others (especially Elizabeth) when he isn’t.
If virtue is even partly circumstantial, then all who act in the world, including scientists, must recognize that judgments about their own worth and the value of their work require close scrutiny. Victor acted alone, without consulting anyone about the value of his invention or its potential unintended consequences. If he had conferred with a community of thinkers and innovators with cooler heads, perhaps he could have rekindled his own compassion and avoided the cascading tragedy that emanates from his solitary creation.
We can think of kindness from two different perspectives: terminating and ongoing. A terminating perspective focuses on an individual act of kindness as not being valuable in itself but mainly valuable in the aim it will achieve. Conversely, an ongoing perspective privileges both the individual act itself and the accumulation of acts over time, which might lead to some particular aim. Both perspectives are rooted in a need to do for others, but the former rejects kindness as a process. The creature seems to understand kindness as a process. Through his many encounters with the family, he develops an ever-deepening recognition and awareness of them as individuals doing for one another. This recognition is significant because spending the time to build awareness of others is part of the mechanism of kindness: thus, when the creature spends this time, he has already begun the process of kindness himself. He progresses from simply recognizing and becoming aware of others to not only refraining from stealing their food but caring for them by chopping wood and leaving it for them at their doorstep. As we can see, he feels tremendous gratification from his actions. Ongoing kindness involves all of the features the creature experiences: recognition, awareness, and care. Scientific endeavors outside of Victor’s might be equally rewarded by using ongoing kindness as an ethical approach to research. By recognizing the possible implications of our scientific endeavors, being aware of not only the benefits but potential detriments, and acting with care, we might experience the “true pleasure” in being in service for others.
The creature experiences fear and terror because his reflection reveals that he looks much different from others whom he has encountered. In this way, his self-knowledge is informed by others—that is, he sees, knows, and understands himself as society sees, knows, and understands him. This scene suggests that individual or personal identity is developed in part via cultural constructions of what it is beautiful, normal, acceptable, moral, and so forth. We come to know ourselves—and even to fear ourselves—through our encounters with others, and what society deems as “normal” often influences our self-perceptions.
The creature is a good if simple empiricist, understanding words for concrete objects but having more difficulty with words that represent abstract concepts. Perhaps at this stage in his development, he—much like Victor—can master objects but not feelings, causes but not concepts.