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Can Frankenstein be read as an early research ethics text?
  1. I Bamforth
  1. 86 rue Kempf, 67000 STRASBOURG, France; IainBAMFORTHwanadoo.fr

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    In his article (Med Humanit 2004;30:32–5), H Davies asks whether Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, can be read as an early research ethics text.1 It is misguided to give the impression, as the author does at times, that Shelley was ghost-writing for a future institutional review board: there are reasons for believing that the novel’s theme of overreaching was a largely unintended rebuke to the fame-seeking writers who made her early life such a heady but wary one: her dead mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, her husband Percy Shelley and her Geneva castellan Lord Byron. However, Davies’ partisanship on behalf of the novel finds confirmation in a recent publication by the French philosopher Dominique Lecourt, in which Frankenstein, along with Goethe’s intricate verse-play Faust, is examined in the light of modern interpretations of the ancient myth of Prometheus.2 Indeed, the diversity of ways in which Mary Shelley’s novel can be interpreted – “as a later version of the Faust myth, or an early version of the modern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the rampage, the proletariat running amok, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman”3 – suggests that, for all its occasional crudity of structure, it is indeed one of the foundation texts of “a scientific futurology” in which the cumulative effects of “the lengthened reach of our deeds” need to be countered, in view of our partial knowledge, by “an imaginative ‘heuristics of fear’”.4 Ethics, like Mary Shelley’s novel, ought to have a feel for the mythic too.

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