According to literary historian Martin Garrett, Mary read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which Mary refers to as “the Sorrows of Werter” in this passage) in 1815, just months before she conceived of the story that became Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Werther is an epistolary novel, narrated through a series of letters, and it may have inspired Mary’s structural choices in writing Frankenstein, where she uses letters in a number of different ways to tell the story.
Like the creature, Mary was exposed to Paradise Lost early in life—and judging by its prominence in Frankenstein, the epic poem had as profound an impact on her developing mind as it does the creature’s. In 1810, Mary’s father William Godwin published The Poetical Class-Book, which he coedited with William Frederick Mylius. The book included poems by many of the era’s literary luminaries, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Helen Maria Williams, and Lord Byron, as well as extracts from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (which was much older than the other entries, having been first published in 1667). In his A Mary Shelley Chronology, literary historian Martin Garrett speculates that The Poetical Class-Book may have been the first time that Mary read Paradise Lost, at around age 13. Later, in January 1812, when she was 14, Mary attended a series of three public lectures given by Coleridge on Milton’s work.
In this passage, the creature acknowledges that the stimuli he encountered early in his conscious life was essential in shaping his identity and beliefs. Machines learn in much the same way, socialized by ingesting vast sets of “training data,” which can be imperfect and potentially damaging. In simple terms, the quality of the output is determined by the quality of the input, hence the computer science acronym GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out.
Want to learn more about artificial intelligence and machine learning? Watch “Monsters in the Machine,” with commentary by Daniel Bear, a neuroscientist and AI researcher at Stanford University; Margaret Wertheim, a science writer and curator; and Braden Allenby, an engineer, technology ethicist, and environmental attorney at Arizona State University.
Watch more episodes of our Reanimation! series on our Media page.
Want to learn more about philosophy and science of cognition? Watch “A Spark of Consciousness,” featuring commentary by David Chalmers, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at New York University, and Danbee Kim, a PhD candidate at the International Neuroscience Doctoral Programme, headquartered at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisboa, Portugal.
Watch more episodes of our Reanimation! series on our Media page.
Animal behavior has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. As animals, humans have some behaviors that are conserved and shared with many other species. Fear, for example, is common in the animal kingdom, and it serves a useful purpose by making sure we stay out of dangerous situations. Similarly, selfishness, or the focus on getting the resources we need to survive, is something life has practiced since it began. But what about love? And compassion? What about altruism? Are humans the only creatures to do things that benefit others but don’t directly benefit themselves? No. It turns out that altruistic behavior is observed across life—from the prairie dog that will alert its neighbors to a nearby predator (but in doing so puts itself at risk) to slime molds that live most of their lives as single cells but must decide to cooperate if they are to reproduce (and in making that decision become part of the 20 percent that sacrifice themselves). Like many other life forms, humans may be selfish at times but have a tremendous capacity to put the needs of others before themselves. The question is, under what circumstances?
Victor’s creature has learned about humanity by observing humans and by reading poetry, classical philosophy, and a highly sentimental novel. He believes himself to be worthy of or at least not disqualified from receiving the kindly treatment that he has seen humans accord one another. He has evaluated himself and found himself human.
Self-esteem, the assessment of value that people give themselves and their own behavior, is a relatively recent psychological concept, dating from the late nineteenth century, and this passage can be interpreted as an example of the increased focus on the individual that is associated with the advent of romanticism. However, the process of evaluating one’s behavior and ranking it relative to that of other people has been a human concern since the dawn of history. Self-esteem presupposes awareness of self; it may be related to survival-enhancing, neurologically based behaviors common to the many nonhuman social animals in whom self-awareness has been identified. Research has recently been directed at identifying self-esteem-like behavior in primates and other animals.
Victor’s creature seems to have, in addition to the desire to evaluate his own behavior, the ability to judge the fairness of that behavior and the behavior of others: that is, he has a sense of justice. There is evidence that an understanding of fairness or equity is a trait shared by many animals, but research remains to be done to understand the mechanism by which various kinds of animals assess whether another’s behavior is equitable or not. Even human concepts of justice can be vague and contradictory and may differ from one culture to another, just as individual humans’ evaluation of their own behavior is not necessarily accurate and their opinion of themselves is not necessarily shared by others (see Blanchard and Blanchard 2003; Blanchard, Blanchard, and McKittrick 2001; Brosnan 2012; Christen and Glock 2012; and Heatherton and Vohs 2000).
Communion represents connection, a sharing or holding of things in common that is central to achieving our full humanity. Social scientists today refer to communion in terms of intimacy or perhaps love or even social support. Research has recently discovered what Mary intuited two centuries ago—positive relationships are what keep us healthy and happy. We experience the irony of watching Victor pursue his goal of creating life while isolating himself from what he later learns is most life-giving—communion with family, friends, and lovers. And though he gives biological life to his creation, he fails to give him what is most meaningful—communion. Many of us seem driven to try alternative means of happiness (creation of our own monsters, perhaps) before we realize that relationships are not superfluous but are instead essential in our lives. Victor’s disdain for and rejection of his own creation (his dehumanization of the creation) become not only his own undoing but also the causal agent for the transfiguration of his creation’s natural state of benevolence to one of violence (the creation’s ill-guided attempts at discharging existential loneliness and pain). Had Victor considered communion an essential part of “life,” he would have changed the plight of his creation (who notes that communion, with even one person, would change his course) and his own plight. Mary artfully presents the human experience as a process of seeking communion and discharging the pain of disconnection. One is left to wonder if every person must endure loss before understanding the value of communion and whether today’s inventors and innovators keep communion more central in their imaginations than Victor does.
Who are we really? What are we made of? What is the self? What makes the creation a monster? Of course, answers to the latter question depend on how we define the term monster. Victor makes his creation by sewing together the body parts of many individuals, leaving the creation unaware of his own identity. The creature’s composite nature, his lack of a singular physical and mental identity, is an important aspect of his monstrosity.
Our current scientific understanding of what we are made of can help us in understanding this idea of monstrosity. Humans and most other forms of life have a genetic conflict within them. This conflict arises from being composed of genetically distinct entities. For example, in “microchimerism,” there are genetically distinct cells in a human body that come from a mother or an elder sibling (from the child’s perspective) or from a child (from the mother’s perspective). There are also genetically distinct gut microbiota, which can influence behavior, as can viral infections such as rabies. In these cases, our physiology and behavior can be influenced by genetically distinct entities that have fitness interests different from our own.
Taking Mary’s idea of a monster and joining it with current knowledge about our genetically heterogeneous nature, we arrive at a potentially useful conception of a monster as an individual whose physiology and behavior are (fully or partially) under the control of a genetically distinct individual or population of individuals. Understanding ourselves as biologically heterogeneous, we can more easily and perhaps more sympathetically explore the idea of the monster’s composite nature and Victor’s struggle with his creation. Unlike Victor, we must face the fact that we are all monsters.
These three texts were on Mary’s reading list the summer before she began writing Frankenstein. They represent a kind of literary education for the creature. From Plutarch, he would learn about the great leaders of the Greco-Roman world and the nature of politics and public affairs. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), he would read about domestic life and social relationships, particularly as they apply to the difficult business of adolescence and growing up. Finally, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) the creature would learn about faith and the complexities of good and evil. In Milton’s story, Satan, the fallen angel, is a charismatic antihero who challenges his creator.
A significant part of who we are as individuals is created in response to what we observe in others. The creature, abandoned by his creator, has the good fortune to find a loving and admirable family to watch and attempt to mimic. It is unclear how many of the De Laceys’ admirable qualities are genuine and how many are a product of the creature’s desire to find in others the qualities he wishes he had found in his creator. What is clear, however, is that the act of creation is only one small component of the creature’s tale, and the same is true for any scientific or technological endeavor. The wider social context in which the act of creation takes place will have an impact on the final place and shape of the knowledge or technologies created by the scientist or engineer.