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At the heart of mankind, there are certain rules by which society runs. These timeless laws or ethics cross cultural bounds in order to preserve life’s order and maintain a righteous standard. For example, almost all societies agree that it is immoral to kill another human being outside of self-defense. Christine Menefree of the School Library Journal defines ethics as the “… moral principles by which a person is guided” (1). Many people develop their moral beliefs from their religious premises, but when applied to other influential aspects of life, these rules can become problematic.
In the pursuit of knowledge in today’s scientific world, there are many encounters of moral dilemmas and ethical debates. Although this seems like common knowledge, there was a time when scientific ethics were undefined. Certainly the philosophers of Galileo’s time did not concern themselves with the way that moral principles affected their research of the stars and cosmos. But, during the early nineteenth century, as scientists began making discoveries in chemistry, physics, and biology, many people began to wonder just where the ethical line should be drawn.
Mary Shelley wrote during this time of social and scientific upheaval. Scientists like Erasmus Darwin and Humphrey Davy were making constant improvements in the field. Davy’s comment on the surge of this new discipline and the controversial development of Galvanism reveals that the surge of science has made way for the possible recreation of life: “The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of the gases have been ascertained; the phenomena of electricity have been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs” (218). This leading scientist recognized the power that electricity had in creating and sustaining life. His findings, along with many other contributors, lead to the trend of electrifying matter to reanimate it, also known as Galvanism. These discoveries are obvious influences in Shelley’s novel through her main character, Victor Frankenstein, and his questionable work to build a being and risk bringing it to life via Galvanism.
When scientists first studied Galvanism with frogs and other animals, they were thought of as relatively benign. But, as they extended their range from frogs to humans, scientists began to be perceived as evil. Society sensed that there was something wrong with this experimentation. This disturbance marked the beginning of the ethics conflict in science. It is from this conflict that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein originates and becomes a catalyst for her warning about the tremendous power of science in the feeble hands of mankind.
Beyond the obvious inquiries into the ethics of Galvanism, question arose from a religious standpoint. As mentioned earlier, religion has always been a source for morals and ethics, but before the nineteenth century, science and faith were of the same realm. The clergy performed most of the experimentation and all theories supposedly “…led one’s thoughts to the Great First Cause (Cannon 3).” But slowly, science grew further apart from religion and the church. As new theories rose and were proven, the line grew darker still and made the two branches enemies of one another, competing for the beliefs of the people. This is evident in Shelley’s novel when Frankenstein inherently knows that creating life is a questionable effort, yet because he is so driven by curiosity and his discoveries in Galvanism, he ignores the religious norms and continues to play God.
Frankenstein’s use of Galvanism was an excellent example of how the two areas diverged. While science wished to push on and discover how electricity and muscles worked together, morality struggled with the use of body parts of animals and humans. It seemed inhumane to use parts of a dead animal, let alone a living one, to toy with. It wasn’t natural and didn’t seem to contribute to the greater good. In fact, it appeared to be sacrilegious in that it disturbed the order in which
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Frankenstein, Romanticism, English-language films, Organ transplantation in fiction, Mary Shelley, Galvanism, Frankenstein in popular culture, Bride of Frankenstein
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