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Facing the Pariah of Science: The Frankenstein Myth as a Social and Ethical Reference for Scientists

Abstract

Since its first publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has transcended genres and cultures to become a foundational myth about science and technology across a multitude of media forms and adaptations. Following in the footsteps of the brilliant yet troubled Victor Frankenstein, professionals and practitioners have been debating the scientific ethics of creating life for decades, never before have powerful tools for doing so been so widely available. This paper investigates how engaging with the Frankenstein myth may help scientists gain a more accurate understanding of their own beliefs and opinions about the social and ethical aspects of their profession and their work. The paper presents findings from phenomenological interviews with twelve scientists working on biotechnology, robotics, or artificial intelligence projects. The results suggest that the Frankenstein myth, and the figure of Victor Frankenstein in particular, establishes norms for scientists about what is considered unethical and dangerous in scientific work. The Frankenstein myth both serves as a social and ethical reference for scientists and a mediator between scientists and the society. Grappling with the cultural ubiquity of the Frankenstein myth prepares scientists to face their ethical dilemmas and create a more transparent research agenda. Meanwhile, by focusing on the differences between real scientists and the imaginary figure of Victor Frankenstein, scientists may avoid being labeled as dangerous individuals, and could better conceptualize the potential societal and ethical perceptions and implications of their research.

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Notes

  1. The authors would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing this important argument to their attention.

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Acknowledgements

This research was conducted as part of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University. We would like to thank Ira Bennett and Michael Burnam-Fink and the anonymous reviewers for their guidance and thoughtful comments regarding our work.

Funding

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1516684.

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Correspondence to Peter Nagy.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 1.

Table 1 Interviewees’ pseudonyms, general research interest and scientific focus

Appendix 2

See Table 2.

Table 2 Main interview questions

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Nagy, P., Wylie, R., Eschrich, J. et al. Facing the Pariah of Science: The Frankenstein Myth as a Social and Ethical Reference for Scientists. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 737–759 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-019-00121-3

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Keywords

  • Responsibility
  • Science ethics
  • Scientist identity
  • Frankenstein myth
  • Science communication