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De-Extinction's Problem is Not the Act, but the Abandonment
An opinion piece by Chris Bassil, MD/PhD candidate at Duke University.
When researchers at the University of Copenhagen announced last month that they had sequenced the ancient DNA of the extinct Christmas Island rat—a proof-of-concept study that provides a blueprint for overcoming some of the challenges involved in bringing the creature back from extinction—the press was quick to label the team’s study as “Frankenstein-esque.”
This is hardly the first time that Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's 1818 gothic novel, has been used as a reference point for controversial scientific research. Indeed, according to a 2014 article in Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, her novel has repeatedly appeared in conversations about man’s synthesis of highly contagious viruses, artificial bacterial genomes, and clones of mammalian species.
Separately, accusations of “Franken-science” have appeared in debates surrounding xenotransplantation—the introduction of cells, organs, or other components of non-human species into human bodies—and genetically modified organisms. Perhaps it speaks to the impoverished intellectual vocabulary of our times that, in an era in which all of our political and corporate controversies are born under the name of Watergate, all of our medical and scientific controversies must similarly be born under the name of Dr. Frankenstein.
Although “Franken-phobia” is practically ubiquitous, some have noted that it is especially pervasive in two particular areas of biomedical and scientific research: xenotransplants and genome editing. Perhaps this is because these two fields, which tinker with our component parts on macro- and microscopic scales, respectively, seem to approach the limits of who (and/or what) we really are. And when humans move beyond those limits, the argument goes, they endanger themselves by playing God.
The problem with this idea is that it is based on a limited and superficial understanding of the lessons of Frankenstein. (There’s that impoverished, intellectual vocabulary again.) Although it is true that the book has lessons to teach about man’s haste and hubris—its subtitle, after all, is The Modern Prometheus—those facets hardly tell the whole story.
In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein carefully pieces his creation together over the course of two slow and painstaking years. This is the part about playing God—so far, so good. But once he brings his creation to life, he quickly recoils in disgust, fleeing first his laboratory and then his country. The creature that he developed over years, in other words, he abandons in mere moments.
Eventually, Frankenstein’s creation catches up with him. By the time that it does, it has taught itself to read, it has studied the classics, and has performed secret acts of charity for a family of peasants. The problem, as it turns out, is actually not that Dr. Frankenstein has created this “monster”—which seems at times to be no monster at all—but rather that he has abandoned him.
“You, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound,” the forsaken creature says to its maker. “How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty toward me.”
In the end, Victor Frankenstein’s great sin is not that he’s a mad scientist; it’s that he’s a deadbeat dad.
We love to count our Promethean Drs. Frankenstein, but how many more scientists have unfortunately fallen into this latter category? How many more have bound themselves to experimental subjects before similarly turning their backs and abandoning them?
Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study took responsibility for the care of hundreds of African-American men before abandoning them and their families to suffer the preventable consequences of untreated syphilis. Later, throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, psychiatrists in New York separated identical siblings at birth and placed them in homes of different socioeconomic status to study the effects on their development before eventually abandoning them as well. Many of those children were never told that they were twins or triplets, and some of them committed suicide. The research records of their Drs. Frankenstein—who have long since passed away and left the rest behind—will remain sealed until 2065.
As time went on, however, things seemed to improve. In 1978, Louise Brown became the world’s first baby born via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Although Brown was quickly labeled a "Franken-baby," it feels like the comparison could not be any less apt. The world’s first IVF baby remained in close contact with her medical team for the remainder of their lives, and when she herself later became pregnant with her first baby, Brown wrote to them before anyone else.
So how are we doing now? Time alone will tell, but He Jiankui—the Chinese researcher who secretly used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to edit the genomes of human embryos before implanting them into women—was recently (and predictably) identified by the press as "China’s Dr.Frankenstein."
Despite the shocking nature of his experiments, however, it must be noted in the context of this discussion that He has at least demonstrated some degree of responsibility for his genetically edited experimental subjects. When the twins’ medical coverage fell through, He stepped in to assume the payments of their medical bills, and He also has plans to monitor the children for at least the first 18 years of their lives. Furthermore, two Chinese bioethicists publicly called on their government to ensure that He Jiankui lives up to his word. Books have already been written about He and his CRISPR-edited babies, but none of them really read like Frankenstein.
As we look toward our genetically engineered future, filled with synthetic life and de-extinct species, we would do well to remember the lessons of the other Drs. Frankenstein—those whose mistakes in the experiments they pursued were exacerbated by the responsibilities they abandoned.
For their part, the leaders of the modern de-extinction movement have already at least announced their intentions to avoid these errors and steward their target species through their de-extinctions by promoting things like sexual reproduction and the conservation of their ecosystems and environments.
George Church, for instance, hopes to house his de-extinct woolly mammoths in places like northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. The goal is to provide the creatures with a suitable environment that they can further fortify over time, he says, perhaps by “[taking] down small trees and [helping] repopulate the grasses they thrive on,” and “[tamping] down the snow, making it less insulating.”
Perhaps then, one day in the distant future, the only species that we’ll truly abandon to extinction is this tired reference to Frankenstein.
About the Author
Chris Bassil is an MD/PhD candidate who uses functional genomics to study drug resistance in cancer.