Patric M. Verrone: We spent the first ten min­utes of my arrival try­ing to mic me, and now I’ve been de-mic’d. So give me a moment to make sure that quite lit­er­al­ly this thing is on. Let me begin by talk­ing about my per­son­al back­ground with Frankenstein, the three salient facts about me.

The first time I ever went trick-or-treating by myself was in 1965. Ben Cooper Frankenstein mask and one piece tie-it-in-the-back paja­ma cos­tume. And I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber being told by my moth­er that it was Herman Munster, but it was Frankenstein’s mon­ster.

The first movie I ever paid to see in a the­ater with­out my par­ents was in 1974 when I went with friends to see Young Frankenstein.

My first and only pro­fes­sion­al stage per­for­mance [some audi­ence mem­bers laugh] was in— Thank you for laugh­ing at my fail­ure to have ever had an act­ing career. My first and only pro­fes­sion­al stage per­for­mance was in a live read­ing of a 1945 radio play from a show called Weird Circle, based on Frankenstein. I played a con­sta­ble killed by the crea­ture. My big line was [makes extend­ed croak­ing sound]

So now in addi­tion to my direct per­son­al con­nec­tion that I have to Frankenstein, I of course have a schol­ar­ly bona fides, hav­ing read the nov­el for the first time four­teen hours ago on my flight from DC to LA. So I come to the text, and espe­cial­ly to the theme of play­ing God, which is the sub­ject of the first pan­el, from the posi­tion not as a schol­ar but as a writer, as a cre­ator myself. In fact when I tell the sto­ry to peo­ple of how I got into show busi­ness, how I got it to writ­ing, I recall I was a young lawyer in South Florida, and lis­ten­ing to an NPR inter­view some writer was say­ing that when we are cre­ative we are our most god­like. And I thought at the time Oh. I’d like to be God.” And so thir­ty years lat­er I write TV car­toons and I am—that’s god­like.

Now, among the most rel­e­vant work to the sub­ject at hand that I’ve done was Simpsons cre­ator Matt Groening’s oth­er show Futurama. Several times dur­ing the series, main char­ac­ter Professor Hubert Farnsworth dab­bled in Frankenstone-ian…or Frankensteinian (Frankenstone was the char­ac­ter on The Flintstones) Frankensteinian cre­ation.

I have a clip that they asked me to show. This was from the first episode of Futurama that we did after a five-year hia­tus. And we had to begin the series again—reboot it—after hav­ing killed off all the major char­ac­ters in the last episode that had aired. Now that’s god­like. So ignore the cred­its and roll clip, please.

[clip was exclud­ed from record­ing]

So there’s a cou­ple of things I want to empha­size from that scene. So, clear­ly it was designed to invoke Frankenstein (I’m hop­ing that some­body who worked on the show had actu­al­ly read the book, unlike me.) with the light­ning switch. But that’s from the movies, not from the book itself.

The sec­ond thing is that the cre­ation of life going on here is this sort of sub-notion of rebirth or rean­i­ma­tion, not ran­dom cre­ation, which is kind of a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor in the ethos of play­ing God. But fail­ing hav­ing that in, we tried to make it a lit­tle more con­tro­ver­sial by using this new tech­nique, stem cells, and by say­ing that Farnsworth killed peo­ple to get those stem cells, thus under­cut­ting the mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor that it might not have been so con­tro­ver­sial.

So I men­tioned those ele­ments of the clip to high­light the short­hand that’s kind of devel­oped over the past two hun­dred years in invok­ing the themes inher­ent in Frankenstein. My per­son­al belief is that this short­hand has devel­oped because of the sheer num­ber of times Frankenstein has been adapt­ed or pro­duced in oth­er media, and that the themes and metaphors of play­ing God have worked their way into pop­u­lar cul­ture.

So let me do a lit­tle recap. So as Ed said, five years after the 1818 pub­li­ca­tion there was a play pro­duced called Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which real­ly for about sev­en­ty years was the major way that you could see a per­for­mance out­side of read­ing the book itself.

There were a cou­ple of bur­lesque shows based on Frankenstein, but they’re kind of lost to history—probably for the bet­ter.

These first sev­en­ty years, that all changed with the advent of cin­e­ma. There were three silent films made in the teens and twen­ties (19-teens and twen­ties), one of them by Thomas Edison him­self. The dam of course broke in 1931 with the icon­ic adap­ta­tion that we saw the clip from with Boris Karloff as the mon­ster. It had six sequels, pro­duced all by Universal, includ­ing meet­ing his bride, his ghost, Dracula, Wolf Man, and Abbott and Costello.

The British pro­duc­er Hammer Films made sev­en films in the 50s and 60s. I found more than forty films with vari­ants of Frankenstein” in the title, includ­ing teenage, space, young, black, and even one, his great aunt Tilly. There’s a film out there called Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie.

The most recent was 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, which was told from Igor’s point of view. Igor of course, not in the book. And Universal’s set to release a shared uni­verse mon­ster series with Javier Bardem as the crea­ture in the years to come.

TV has also been just as fruit­ful for adap­ta­tion and the­mat­ic inspi­ra­tion. IMDB lists more than 160 appear­ances by the mon­ster, most notably—at least in my worldview—in 1973’s Frankenstein: the True Story, which I believe was ear­ly real­i­ty tele­vi­sion.

There’ve been oth­er plays, nov­els, com­ic books, video games, more than a dozen apps that invoke the name Frankenstein. Most of them rely heav­i­ly on build­ing things or mak­ing your­self look like Boris Karloff. And it all sort of fol­lows Moore’s Law, which is there was one adap­ta­tion in the first sev­en­ty years, a hand­ful over the next decade, dozens in the years that fol­lowed that, and hun­dreds in the recent past. We will now call it Franken-Moore’s law.

Which brings me to anoth­er way that Frankenstein has spawned cre­ation. The name Frankenstein itself has come to mean cre­ation by assem­bling or cob­bling togeth­er parts that weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly meant to be. The pre­fix Franken-, which is even more specif­i­cal­ly attrib­ut­able to oth­er­wise nat­ur­al things that are man­made. Frankenvirus, Frankengun Frankenfood, Frankenberry…which is a Frankenfood.

In the polit­i­cal world, Frankenstein is an edi­to­r­i­al cartoonist’s best friend. Any time some­thing is devel­oped that gets out of hand and turns on its cre­ator, Frankenstein’s monster—typically the Karloff variant—rears his ugly head.

And allow me to throw out the first Trump” of the of the con­fer­ence. In September of 2016, after months of car­toons show­ing then-candidate Donald Trump as the GOP’s Frankenstein mon­ster, Senate minor­i­ty leader Harry Reid actu­al­ly used those very words on the Senate floor.

Now inci­den­tal­ly, when you enter Frankentrump” into Google, you get 10,400 results as opposed to 1,290 for Frankenbama.” (Which I guess peo­ple pre­ferred Barackula.”) And 6,040 for Frankenbush”, which means some­thing else. But, when you enter Trumpenstein,” you get 32,300 entries. And the Urban Dictionary has defined Trumpenstein as some­one who vot­ed for Trump. So in this port­man­teau, he’s the doc­tor not the mon­ster. So it’s a rare occa­sion where he gets to be both sides of the cre­ation.

So, one final thought and then we’ll get to our pan­el. I actu­al­ly believe quite firm­ly that Mary Shelley meant this to be the impact of the book. She titled it a mod­ern Prometheus.” Prometheus, the Greek god who stole light­ning, cre­at­ed humans, and caught hell for it from Zeus. Modern, which we can scoff at the notion that this woman who wrote this book the year that Queen Victoria was born in pre-industrial England would con­sid­er her­self mod­ern. But the fact is we are as far from her as she was from Shakespeare. Which puts it all sort of in a—not a fun­ny con­text but an inter­est­ing con­text.

In Shelley’s vision, Frankenstein was the mod­ern Prometheus. The hip, up to date, learned, vital god who chose to cre­ate human life and paid the dire con­se­quences. To Shelley, gods cre­ate and for humans to do that is bad. Bad for oth­ers but espe­cial­ly bad for one’s cre­ator.

So we’ll now hand the dis­cus­sion back to Ed Finn to intro­duce my co-panelists. Forgive us if we cre­ate a scene. We are only try­ing to be god­like. Thank you.


Ed Finn: Thank you Patric. So let me invite Patric up here; Nancy Kress, sci­ence fic­tion writer, author of the Probability tril­o­gy, Beggars in Spain, and Yesterday’s Kin, among oth­er books; and Josephine Johnston, direc­tor of research and research schol­ar at the Hastings Center.

Let me get things start­ed. Thank you. That was a real­ly nice intro­duc­tion to this, our top­ic for this pan­el, the ques­tion of play­ing God. And you allud­ed to this in your open­ing com­ments, Patric, that there’s a trope around this. There’s a set of ges­tures we can make now to allude to the play­ing God myth, espe­cial­ly in the Frankenstein con­text. That you can do very effi­cient­ly. You can have the big switch, the elec­tric­i­ty or the light­ning, the lab­o­ra­to­ry equip­ment. A lot of it comes from the Whale/Universal pro­duc­tions.

But this is a sto­ry that we’ve been telling for a long time. It’s been a human obses­sion for so long that at times it seems like a kind of cliché. So my ques­tion for all of you is, is this an idea that’s become so famil­iar that it’s lost its moral force?

Nancy Kress: No. …is the short answer. The idea that we still have the option of play­ing God, if any­thing, is more rel­e­vant now in terms of what can be done with genet­ic engi­neer­ing and with sci­ence than it was for Mary Shelley. Her sci­ence of course was ridicu­lous, but we for­give her that because giv­en the con­text of the day—what Galvani and Volta were doing—that was the best that she had avail­able.

What we have avail­able today are in many ways gen­uine god­like pow­ers. And I know Josephine is prob­a­bly going to want to com­ment on this a lot, too. I write about genet­ic engi­neer­ing all the time. And there is an enor­mous poten­tial here, as well as of course enor­mous dan­gers. And nei­ther one is par­tic­u­lar­ly well-understood. Which was also true of Mary Shelley’s mon­ster.

Finn: Josephine?

Josephine Johnston: Yeah. It’s inter­est­ing because— So, I work in a field called bioethics, which not every­body has heard of. But it’s real­ly look­ing at eth­i­cal, in my case some­times legal, pol­i­cy and social issues in sci­ence and med­i­cine. And you’ll have to for­give the accent. I’m not going to do an American accent for you. And in my field, to talk about argu­ments as play­ing God argu­ments is actu­al­ly often dis­missed as mean­ing­less. Is said to be irra­tional. Is said to hinge on par­tic­u­lar reli­gious ideas that do not and can­not be used in a sec­u­lar soci­ety.

So it’s real­ly inter­est­ing and some­what dis­ori­en­tat­ing to be here and feel this idea hav­ing some sort of seri­ous weight. Now, it’s dis­ori­en­tat­ing in a good way—for me—because I’ve actu­al­ly come kind of full cir­cle in my own think­ing about what this argu­ment can do. You know, just like every­body else I was a util­i­tar­i­an for a long time. But then I grew up, and I thought well you know, maybe it’s not all just about harms and ben­e­fits. And so I’ve start­ed to think that play­ing God is actu­al­ly a real­ly use­ful metaphor or idea that needs some mod­ern trans­la­tion some­times. And I’m sure becom­ing a par­ent is one of those moments where you real­ize that you’re sort of in this posi­tion of being a cre­ator or of hav­ing made some­body? And so it’s real­ly kind of caused me to reflect dif­fer­ent­ly on it.

But like I said, in bioethics if you raise con­cerns about things like human dig­ni­ty and play­ing God and hubris, you can be laughed out of the room because those ideas are not sort of offi­cial­ly seen to have any weight in a kind of ratio­nal,” lib­er­al” aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty.

Kress: Apparently this is a ques­tion of def­i­n­i­tion. What do we mean we say play­ing God?” One way to look at it is remak­ing nature from what it would be ordi­nar­i­ly. And if you want to take that on the very sim­plest lev­el, antibi­otics are play­ing God. We’re remak­ing nature. Many many peo­ple have died with­out antibi­otics being avail­able.

But if you want to go deep­er and say well yes, but they were there. Penicillin was there until Fleming just hap­pened to dis­cov­er it on a bunch of moldy bread while his peanut but­ter sand­wich was over­due.

But if you talk about actu­al­ly remak­ing it at a genet­ic lev­el, then you are play­ing God. And there’s been tremen­dous ben­e­fits from this. E coli, mod­i­fied, now pro­duces insulin in enough quan­ti­ties that peo­ple with dia­betes have it avail­able at a rea­son­able cost, which they did not before this hap­pened. That’s only one very sim­ple exam­ple. There are many many oth­ers. And it has pro­duced tremen­dous ben­e­fits and can go on pro­duc­ing tremen­dous ben­e­fits. For me, the Frankenstein novel’s value—because I don’t actu­al­ly like it is as fic­tion. [To Ed Finn:] You want me to leave?

I’ll explain lat­er why I don’t like it as fic­tion. But the val­ue [in it for] me is that it shows both sides of tech­nol­o­gy. This can be good, this can cre­ate good things, this can be mis­used. But that’s true of all tech­nol­o­gy. The day man dis­cov­ered fire, the crime of arson became a pos­si­bil­i­ty. It’s a two-edged sword, and it isn’t do we use it, it’s how we use it.

Verrone: It also seems to me, and this alludes to the clip from Futurama, that there are sev­er­al sub­texts of play­ing God that are not just mak­ing some­thing out of whole cloth, that include bring­ing things back to life. And then also isn’t there an ele­ment of play­ing God in keep­ing some­thing alive? Or alter­na­tive­ly, is it play­ing God to kill some­thing pre­ma­ture­ly? The same way that the Wizard of Oz is used to be a metaphor for every­thing start­ing with William Jennings Bryan’s inter­na­tion­al mon­e­tary pol­i­cy, to what­ev­er the issue du jour is, I think Frankenstein becomes a metaphor for… You end up Frankensteining the metaphor to fit the sto­ry itself, or the real-world sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ment that’s hap­pened.

Johnston: One of the things that fas­ci­nat­ed me when I read the book for the chap­ter that I wrote for the book that was men­tioned was not just that by play­ing God,” by mak­ing life, Frankenstein had unleashed harm on him­self and peo­ple he loved, but that the expe­ri­ence of being that per­son who made real­ly changed him. And I think that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing aspect of what play­ing God can code for, which is not just the fact that you take pow­er and use it and that has con­se­quences for oth­ers and you change the world around you, but that in the process of being some­body who cre­ates, who makes, who does that, you change who you are.

And I think about this in the con­text of things like stem cell research, or IVF, or preim­plan­ta­tion genet­ic diag­no­sis, or even poten­tial use of gene edit­ing in repro­duc­tive con­texts, which are all issues I work on, where we’re also think­ing not just about the con­se­quences of using these tech­nolo­gies for those that are made or cre­at­ed but also what it does to you as a par­ent or to be some­one who has that degree of con­trol over some­one else. How it changes you. And in the book you know, he real­ly suf­fers, phys­i­cal­ly suf­fers, from the expe­ri­ence of play­ing God.

Kress: This is one rea­son I don’t like the book. And I know I should not say that at a forum that’s ded­i­cat­ed to Frankenstein.

Finn: Oh, do you not like the book, Nancy?

Kress: I don’t like the book—

Johnston: She was a teenag­er.

Kress: And I don’t like the book for two rea­sons. The first rea­son I don’t like the book is that I don’t believe the psy­chol­o­gy. Okay, the mon­ster is reject­ed by Frankenstein. He has all of these ter­ri­ble expe­ri­ences of rejec­tion and cru­el­ty and bar­bar­i­ty, so he turns into a killer. I’m will­ing to buy that.

What I’m not will­ing to buy is the repen­tance at the end, which hap­pens for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son and sud­den­ly he’s com­plete­ly upset that he did all of these things and repen­tant about it. Sociopaths don’t repent that way. And as a nov­el, the con­struc­tion doesn’t work. Because there’s no fore­shad­ow­ing that he is going to be able to do this. And that’s one rea­son that I dis­like it if his repen­tance is going to come about. And it isn’t as though— It was an ear­ly nov­el, yes. But Jane Austen was even ear­li­er and her psy­chol­o­gy holds up beau­ti­ful­ly. So that’s the first rea­son.

The sec­ond rea­son is what you just said. Yes, Frankenstein suf­fers. And the way he suf­fers is every time some­thing awful hap­pens, he falls into a dead faint and goes into some sort of hor­rors that last for months. Which is real­ly con­ve­nient for the plot. And so I have prob­lems with the con­struc­tion of it as a nov­el, as well as with the psy­chol­o­gy of it as a nov­el, as well as with the sci­ence of the nov­el.

So what do I like about it? I like the basic idea, which is why it has per­sist­ed for so long. The basic ques­tions it rais­es, as you point­ed out. It rais­es those basic ques­tion of play­ing God that res­onate down through the ages. But, I like the Prometheus ver­sion bet­ter. Sorry.

Finn: Oh, no. One of the inter­est­ing things here is the way in which the play­ing God motif can be used to sweep things under the rug. But it’s also a very famil­iar sto­ry to tell. And so I won­der how each of you have seen peo­ple sort of use this as a kind of tool, as a sto­ry­telling tool, and what that what the rules are of telling a good play­ing God sto­ry. Because Futurama for exam­ple is full of these moments, right. Heads in jars and play­ing God things.

Verrone: Yeah. Well I mean, the irony of work­ing in ani­ma­tion as I strug­gle with the con­cept of try­ing to be cre­ative… You’re only work­ing with your words and images. You have the voic­es of real peo­ple. But unlike stage, unlike live action TV or film, you are cre­at­ing an entire world, an entire uni­verse. And with Futurama we were try­ing to do, on a reg­u­lar basis, both long­stand­ing tropes and things that were kind of top­i­cal. And the dif­fi­cul­ty with just the pro­duc­tion of ani­ma­tion is that you’re writ­ing some­thing today that’s not going to— The soon­est you’re going to be able to release it nine, ten months from now. So we had to deal with things that were some­what ever­green.

And that clip that I showed was one of about— I found three or four times when we dipped into sort of Frankenstein lore. Those of you will remem­ber there was an episode where we were sup­posed to bring Fry’s dog back to life, which he then decid­ed he did not want the Professor to play dog God. We got more nasty let­ters from peo­ple because— We end­ed up flash­ing back and show­ing that the dog died of nat­ur­al caus­es. The dog died of nat­ur­al caus­es and peo­ple got mad at us for show­ing a dog that it end­ed up dying of nat­ur­al caus­es.

Kress: [inaudi­ble com­ment]

Verrone: Well, but it was nat­ur­al. You would rather we just didn’t show it.

Kress: No, I’m say­ing you can’t kill dogs. I had an awful—

Verrone: Right, you would rather we just didn’t— But the fact is, it was 1,000 years lat­er. What do you think ha— It didn’t live for­ev­er. That would’ve been unnat­ur­al.

And then we also did episodes that involved cyber tech­nol­o­gy, where implants, robot­ics that helped to cre­ate or pro­long life and extend pow­ers and what­not. And even in those, inevitably you put some­body on an oper­at­ing table and you strap him down James Whale fash­ion, and you’ve got the— Everything— I guess even in the year 3,000 pow­er is most­ly gen­er­at­ed from light­ning bolts as opposed to any oth­er means.

So yeah, we were very cog­nizant of the notion of pro­long­ing or extend­ing or revi­tal­iz­ing life start­ing with Frankenstein. Not with Prometheus. We didn’t go that far back.

Finn: So how about in the field of bioethics now, Josephine? If the notion of play­ing God is large­ly sort of vacat­ed, do peo­ple… It seems in pop­u­lar cul­ture that it’s still alive and well. And so what’s that inter­face look like? How do peo­ple respond to it, or what kinds of issues, what kinds of argu­ments do they make in lieu of this sort of cloudy notion of what is God and what are we talk­ing about here?

Johnston: I think peo­ple in bioethics don’t always respond very well to the fact that the play­ing God argu­ment means some­thing to most peo­ple. The ordi­nary per­son on the street pret­ty much knows what it means. And they sort of often will have that as a con­cern. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly a con­cern of like, Because of this I will not go near the tech­nol­o­gy,” but they’re like, Oh, that’s an inter­est­ing tech­nol­o­gy but I have this lit­tle con­cern about play­ing God.” And that most of the time is just meet with like, Well that’s just because peo­ple don’t under­stand sci­ence,” or what do they want, we have vac­ci­na­tions now so that’s play­ing God, so the whole argu­ment is dis­missed.

And so I don’t think it’s met with a whole lot of sym­pa­thy. And I think also peo­ple in my field take the God part pret­ty seri­ous­ly, so they’re like, Well, you must think there is a God if you think that there’s an argu­ment called play­ing God,’” and then that means some­thing.

So in place of that argu­ment. So, cer­tain­ly there’s heaps of atten­tion to like well, do we real­ly know what we doing when we do some­thing? And lots of exam­ples from sci­ence of not think­ing some­thing through clear­ly enough. So most recent­ly you’re see­ing it in real-time right now with the reac­tion to gene edit­ing tech­nol­o­gy. In February 2015, so two years ago, a group pub­lished an arti­cle in Science, sci­en­tists and oth­ers call­ing for atten­tion to the uses of CRISPR/Cas9 tech­nol­o­gy. And that led to this inter­na­tion­al sum­mit that took place in DC in December of 2015. And now the National Academies of Sciences is in about ten days going to release a report on the uses of gene edit­ing in humans.

So the rea­son they’re pay­ing all this atten­tion is because they rec­og­nize that there could be dan­gers associated—very prac­ti­cal dan­gers like how do you know that it’s going to be safe? How do you know it would be safe across gen­er­a­tions in humans or in oth­er organ­isms? They did a report also on gene dri­ves in non-human organ­isms. So there’s a clear and large body of lit­er­a­ture and peo­ple pay­ing atten­tion to con­crete risks and ben­e­fits. What are the safe­ty risks asso­ci­at­ed with it, and sort of a broad under­stand­ing of that.

The oth­er stuff that’s encap­su­lat­ed in a play­ing God argu­ment I think, or that’s hint­ed at in it which is not about like, if it was safe— Like imag­ine if Frankenstein turned out to be great, right. Like he was awe­some, he was kind, he was you know. I mean, not Frankenstein—the mon­ster, the crea­ture. And Frankenstein him­self felt great about it and was her­ald­ed as a hero and all the things he was hop­ing.

So if safe­ty is tak­ing care of, what else remains? What is that stuff? And that is some­thing I think peo­ple in acad­e­mia are pret­ty bad at talk­ing about? But again I think it gets back to this stuff about what it means to be some­one who has more con­trol, and more pow­er, in a cre­ation rela­tion­ship than we’ve had in the past. And it’s eas­i­est to see that in parental rela­tion­ships and what it means to be a par­ent, and as par­ents gain more con­trol how does that feel? What is that like? Does that change the mean­ing of their own lives in any way? And it’s a sort of flour­ish­ing type con­cern rather than a straight-up safe­ty relat­ed issue. So that’s kind of how I think we” are respond­ing.

Kress: One of the respons­es has been in con­cerns of safe­ty, and that’s from the FBI. You can now order online, if you find it on sale, for $140 on sale, a CRISPR kit for edit­ing bac­te­r­i­al genes. This is being done in high schools, in some places. The FBI has a unit now whose job is to fol­low up pos­si­ble uses of this to cre­ate pathogens, air­borne or oth­er­wise, out of bac­te­ria. Which is frankly not that hard to do.

We have the genie out of the bot­tle. And there can be any num­ber of reports issued. And there can even be any num­ber of laws passed. And that doesn’t mean that it’s going to put the genie back in the bot­tle, because it’s not. And as far as the ulti­mate play­ing God, which is human germ line egg and sperm edit­ing rather than bac­te­ria (although edit­ing bac­te­ria has the pos­si­bil­i­ty of end­ing all of life if they do it right—)

Finn: If they do it wrong.

Kress: If they do it wrong. Sorry. There are reli­able reports com­ing out of China, some of which were ref­er­enced not too long ago in an MIT tech jour­nal, that there is edit­ing of human embryos going on in China. In fact they did try to edit an embryo in order to remove the gene that cre­ates a blood disease—a genet­ic blood dis­ease.

As a fol­low up to this, MIT tech jour­nal did a sur­vey*** of Americans, try­ing to find out how Americans feel about edit­ing human genes in embryos. Forty-six per­cent said that if it were to con­trol dis­eases they would be in favor of going in this direc­tion. That’s play­ing God with a vengeance.

What we can do now—it’s ille­gal to edit genes here in an embryo. It’s not ille­gal, how­ev­er, to mul­ti­ply (as of course you [Johnston] must deal with all the time) the num­ber of embryos that you have, using fer­til­i­ty drugs, and then scan them genet­i­cal­ly and choose out the ones that are not car­ry­ing, for instance, inher­it­ed genet­ic mark­ers for Huntington’s chorea, or Tay-Sachs, or any of those. That’s a first step. You scan them so that you choose those that have the genes you want.

The sec­ond step would be to knock out a sin­gle gene and replace it with anoth­er one. We know how to do this. We do this all the time in mice. Knockout mice are a basic for med­ical research. You cre­ate mice with­out immune sys­tems so that you can then do med­ical research or test var­i­ous drugs for con­di­tions that you give them. We could do it. It’s ille­gal to do it now. That isn’t to say that it isn’t going to be hap­pen­ing off-shore.

Again I don’t mean to be a down­er, because even though it doesn’t sound like it I’m in favor of genet­ic engi­neer­ing, although not nec­es­sar­i­ly on human embryos. I think it’s nec­es­sary in order to feed the Third World. I think it’s nec­es­sary in order to clean up pol­lu­tion. I think it’s nec­es­sary to advance med­ical­ly.

But, we have the genie out of the bot­tle now. The knowl­edge is out there. It’s not that every­body can use it, but more and more peo­ple can use it. It’s not like cre­at­ing an atom bomb, where you have to round up a bunch of plu­to­ni­um and get a big facil­i­ty to do it. It can be done in a base­ment, which is why the FBI’s unit is now track­ing down these kinds of reports that they get from pro­fes­sors in biol­o­gy and in genet­ic engi­neer­ing who feel that some stu­dents may be doing some­thing slight­ly sus­pi­cious, or that there are a lot of sup­plies dis­ap­pear­ing from labs, more than are being used. They have units track­ing this down now. The genie’s out of the bot­tle.

Finn: You know, one of the areas where I think there’s the largest gap between the bound­aries of tech­ni­cal abil­i­ty and the social framework—and cer­tain­ly the legal framework—around what we cul­tur­al­ly under­stand is pos­si­ble, what we think about it, is in the bio­log­i­cal sci­ences and around this kind of genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy, this whole are­na. So what are the respon­si­bil­i­ties of the sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers and the sto­ry­tellers in try­ing to bridge some of that gap. Is this some­thing that you’ve thought about, Nancy?

Kress: I’ve thought about it a lot. Because here’s the prob­lem when you write a sto­ry. Fiction is about stuff that gets screwed up. Nobody wants to read—or watch—a long movie or a 400-page nov­el where every­thing goes won­der­ful­ly for the char­ac­ter. You want your life to look like that but you don’t want to read about it. Fiction’s about stuff that gets screwed up.

So the temp­ta­tion, the easy way out, is to take the sci­en­tif­ic advances and to show them being screwed up. So that you get Jurassic Park. So that you get all of the kind— I just fin­ished an incred­i­bly good nov­el by the Chinese writer Wang Jinkang. It’s only been here in this coun­try for a year, this nov­el. It’s called Pathogenic. It’s a fresh and entire­ly dif­fer­ent take— Pathological. It’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent take on the idea of biowar­fare. And again, he has to write about it being screwed up because oth­er­wise you don’t have a sto­ry.

But this both­ers me because again, I think we need this kind of genet­ic engi­neer­ing. And it both­ers me so much that I try to cre­ate at least out­comes in my sto­ries that are bal­anced. Some gain, some loss (which is what I think usu­al­ly hap­pens in real life any­way), rather than all loss, such as the end of Frankenstein where every­body is dead. They kill each oth­er in the book and every­body is dead. It could be Hamlet, you know. The stage is lit­tered with all these bod­ies.

Finn: Yeah. And Patric, I feel like Hollywood has an incred­i­ble pow­er to nor­mal­ize cer­tain things, right. Or frame [crosstalk] con­ver­sa­tions—

Kress: Yeah, why aren’t you?

Verrone: Yes, well here’s a par­tial defense. I mean, I agree— The gen­er­al premise is, and I think Hitchcock said this, that dra­ma is life with the bor­ing parts cut out. So you do. You want your life to be nor­mal, but you don’t want your dra­ma to be like that because then you’re not going to get the view­er­ship or the read­er­ship.

And to your point [Johnston] I was try­ing to think of an exam­ple of bio­engi­neer­ing to the good. And what came to mind is the bridge between Star Treks II and III from the orig­i­nal series movies, where they go to the gen­e­sis plan­et, or the plan­et where the Genesis Device is det­o­nat­ed and it ter­raforms this entire plan­et, and the sci­en­tist who did it, she ends up say­ing— They see it for the first time in this beau­ti­ful, lush rain­for­est and she says, Boy can I cook.” It’s not Boy can I play God.”

And it ends up being the arti­fice under which, after Spock is killed at the end of the sec­ond movie—

Finn: What?

Verrone: Yeah, spoil­er alert from 1982. The first Spock, not the cur­rent Spock. The first Spock dies and then he’s left on the gen­e­sis plan­et, where through some non­sense he’s brought back—both mum­bo and jumbo—he’s brought back to life. But it’s to your point [Kress] that it’s not as inter­est­ing to do sto­ries where— I mean, despite the Hollywood end­ing notion that every­thing is sup­posed to have a hap­py end­ing, these are thrillers. These are…ultimately Frankenstein’s a tragedy. And what’s com­e­dy but tragedy with a hap­py end­ing. So tragedy just doesn’t have a hap­py end­ing. So no, I don’t think there’s a rush to do… I mean, oth­er than a virus movie where the entire Earth isn’t destroyed, just a por­tion of it made up of the peo­ple who we don’t like.

Johnston: It’s fun­ny because I often feel like Hollywood is the only place where some of the neg­a­tives of tech­nol­o­gy seem to be tak­en seri­ous­ly and vivid­ly brought to life. So—

Kress: You need to read more sci­ence fic­tion

Johnston: Oh I do read sci­ence fic­tion. I’ve been read­ing sci­ence fic­tion. I’m read­ing sci­ence fic­tion now. I’ve read sci­ence fic­tion my whole life. But I feel like it’s in movies and sto­ries, it’s from artists, that some of the down­sides of tech­nol­o­gy are actu­al­ly made vivid and real, where in aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing and sci­ence jour­nal­ism that isn’t always there. So I’ve kind of been grate­ful for the fact that those things have been explored.

Verrone: I tell you, though. Television changed… Series tele­vi­sion… Any time shows like Battlestar Galactica begin with a dystopic set­up and then in the inter­est of keep­ing char­ac­ters that you like alive and con­tin­u­ing to tell sto­ries, that’s why you end up not hav­ing a com­plete­ly fatal­is­tic end of the world approach.

But in fea­ture films that are not part of a series— And what fea­ture films is that? Maybe Ex Machina is a typical—and there’s the Frankenstein sto­ry in a recent form. Typically TV ver­sus film will have, because of the seri­al­ized fash­ion, a greater need to hap­py things up.

Finn: And in the spir­it of pop­ulism, let us open this up for ques­tions.


Audience 1: Thank you. There was a discussion at the beginning about playing God and also mentioning natural causes as being an okay thing. And it sounds as if the panel is saying playing God is bad and it violates the laws of nature— Well, this is exactly where I wanted to get you. You're nodding this way. So if you would discuss that. Because if we were just to leave everything to nature, we would not be able to address illness and other kinds of things that medicines, for example, allow us to do. But then that's playing God. And there is a widespread view that you actually can violate the laws of nature, and that that will cause negative effects.

Kress: I'm all in favor of violating nature. I think there's a lot we can improve on.

Johnston: I guess I would just say violate nature sometimes, and don't violate nature other times. And the problem with that is that it like, makes you actually have to think about it every time you're thinking about doing it, and people don't like that because they prefer bright lines and rules of thumb, right.

So, natural good, unnatural bad. And that would be so much easier than like well, sometimes natural is good and sometimes natural is bad. And so you have to think it through. You actually have to decide. We play God in a sense all the time. We vaccinate our children. Which by the way is an enhancement, which is something that is sometimes demonized as bad, too. Like it would be okay to make changes to embryos that would make them immune to diseases or, no— That would make them not pass on the cancer causing-genes that we've identified.

But we wouldn't want to do anything that would be an enhancement. Well, we do enhancements actually a lot. The question is, is it the kind of enhancement that we think would be good for us and that we want to be engaging in or not? And we have to stop and think about it, because it's not just a question of good or bad. So I think the problem with the playing God argument is that you can throw it out because you can't use it in every context. And that would be a mistake as well. It's like, "Oh, playing God. Well hey, I played God yesterday when I vaccinated my daughter, so the playing God argument is bogus." Well, that's too easy.

Verrone: The trick is playing God and not losing.

Finn: Well said. Yeah, another question.

Audience 2: Kind of building on the idea of playing God and losing. In regards to the CRISPR or Cas9 complex that you mentioned, as I'm sure you're all aware Dr. Doudna ultimately called for a moratorium on her own technology. And I think you see in the book as well that Victor rejects his own creation. So I wondered if you guys could offer any commentary on the process of a creator ultimately rejecting that life that he's created.

Johnston: She didn't reject her techno— I don't think that's fair to her. She called for a moratorium on its use in humans, which it hadn't actually been used directly in humans at that time. But she was worried about— So, there are so many uses of it that aren't even in human organisms or even in human cells. So she really wanted some focus to be brought to potential use in adults, children, sperm, egg, embryos.

And, uh… So I think it's brave, actually, to do what she did. Because it would have been I think a lot of pressure not to do that, right. Like a lot of temptation to not open up the idea that there was anything negative about this. And I think it was really brave and important that she actually said this is a complex thing that I have helped to make, and I need everybody to pay some attention here and help us figure out how to use this wisely. And that seems like exactly the kind of thing that we should be encouraging and rewarding.

Finn: It is incredibly rare when you think about human nature, to see somebody open the door and then say no, I'm not going to walk through it, when you look at the history of recent technological research.

Johnston: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it reminds me of people involved in atomic physics, right.

Finn: I mean we did blow up a few of them.

Johnston: You can invent something incredibly powerful and understand that it could have all sorts of uses and that that's now going to need some conversation, and still not regret inventing it but just really need all of us to put up brains to work to figure out how to use it well.

Kress: Robert Oppenheimer famously said, "I have become the destroyer of worlds." He had some regrets about it.

Johnston: Yeah.

Verrone: Of course we also don't know if there were some great scientific discoveries that were really really bad that the scientists just tore up and threw away.

Finn: Yeah, that may well have happened. Interesting question.

Audience 3: So, part of the ability to create life and watch it blossom seems to be okay generally, even in storytelling. But this jumpstarting of life, or bringing something back to life, and then whether or not to kill it or now that you've created it it has to live out its life, the ethical issues related to that end and possibly if gene therapy and enhancements keep going— If you could speak maybe to the ethical issues related to social inequalities— You know, the wealthy will be able to have special treatments but maybe the poor won't, things of that nature.

Kress: I wrote an entire trilogy about this, starting with my novel Beggars in Spain. And it's about people who are genetically engineered to not need to sleep. I wrote it out of jealousy—

Finn: I've met a few of those.

Kress: I need a lot of sleep. I resent it. Other people get more life. But where the novel goes, I wanted to create a genetic enhancement—what you said—that has no downside. These people are not monsters. These people do not develop weird cancers. These people are not strange in any way, nor do they develop telepathy or anything like that—they just don't sleep.

And when I did that I had no story. But if I followed it through as I did, for the bifurcation of the human race (because the gene is dominant, the genetic tinkering is dominant), you end up with one strain that needs to sleep and one strain that doesn't, and one that has an evolutionary advantage. And of course it's the wealthy as well as the children of scientists who had access to this kind of thing. And that's where my story went, because again I had to have a conflict of some sort, and there it is.

Finn: Well, thank you. I think we are now out of time. Thank you so much for a fascinating discussion.

Let me invite Joey Eschrich up here to introduce our next panel and to lead us off with a another a reflection. Joey is the editor and program manager of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

Further Reference

The Spawn of Frankenstein event page at New America, recap at Slate Future Tense, and Futurography's series on Frankenstein


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