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In New Frankenstein Edition, Hastings Scholar Asks, What Do We Owe Our Creations?

What do scientists and engineers owe to their creations? What responsibility do they bear for harms that their creations cause? How does being responsible for our creations change us? These are the central questions in an essay by Josephine Johnston, The Hastings Center’s director of research, in  Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, published last month by The MIT Press. Mary Shelley’s classic novel, which will be 200 years old next year, is often interpreted as a cautionary tale of scientific hubris. Johnston draws parallels between Victor Frankenstein and scientists today.

Johnston examines the moral responsibility of Victor Frankenstein, who created a monster who commits murders but who also has a highly-developed intellect and deep emotions.  “Victor’s error is failing to think harder about the potential repercussions of his work,” she writes. “We might compare Victor to some modern scientists who have stopped their work to consider its potential for harm, such as those who gathered at Asilomar in the mid-1970s to consider the implications of research on recombinant DNA or those who recently called for a moratorium on germline gene editing.”

“The reader is left to wonder whether the story could have unfolded differently if Victor had behaved more responsibly,” Johnston concludes. “Mary does not tell us what Victor should have done differently—that is the reflective work that we readers must do as we consider our own responsibility to and for our modern-day creations.”