My Times column on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and the 600th of De Rerum Natura’s rediscovery:
It was in May 1817, two centuries ago this month, that Mary Shelley completed the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which was published anonymously the next year. That first science-fiction novel has come to represent all that is dangerous about science. As well as being enacted almost 80 times in films, the book lends its plot to almost every film in which a scientist goes too far, as they usually do in films, from Metropolis to Jurassic Park. It inspires every campaign against biotechnology: the green movement fatally christened genetically modified crops “Frankenfoods”.
Gothic fantasy has infected reality. Those of us who argue that biological innovation — tinkering with the stuff of life — has proved a great force for good, and that the risk of hubristic disaster from research is largely a myth, could wish that Mary Shelley had not written the darned book, in which a brilliant scientist brings to life with an electric spark
a monster made from bits of dead people. There is a curious symmetry to this bicentenary. It is also 600 years this year since the discovery of the poem that could be called the anti-Frankenstein: De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), by the mysterious Roman poet Lucretius.
There is a link between the two. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, as she then was, told a curious tale about how her spooky story came to be started. During the cold, wet summer of 1816 — sometimes called the “year without a summer” after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia — she was at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. There too were her lover (Percy Shelley), her half-sister (Claire Clairmont) and the latter’s lover (Lord Byron), gathered around the fire.
“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley,” she wrote, “to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr Darwin . . . who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion . . . perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
This Dr Darwin was Erasmus, grandfather of Charles, who was not just a physician, inventor and scientist but also a famous poet, who would be an early influence on the Romantic poets, until they grew embarrassed at his flowery style and affection for pure reason. But what was his experiment with “vermicelli”, with pasta that came to life?
Erasmus Darwin’s last and longest poem, The Temple of Nature, was heavily influenced by Lucretius, who wrote of the spontaneous generation of life in rotting matter, which “brings forth worms”. Lucretius uses the word vermiculos for worms. Shelley too had read Lucretius. Could Mary have misheard vermiculos as vermicelli?
Darwin and Shelley were not the only poets to admire Lucretius. De rerum natura had inspired and obsessed to varying degrees Michel de Montaigne, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Molière, John Dryden, John Milton and Alexander Pope. Indeed, Lucretius could be said to be the greatest single influence on the Enlightenment: cited, quoted or echoed by Galileo, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Rousseau and Berkeley. Voltaire called himself the latter-day Lucretius. Thomas Jefferson had five different translations in his library. Botticelli’s Venus depicts the opening scene of De rerum natura.
The reason for this fame was the daringly materialist and humanistic tone of the 7,400-line, unfinished poem. In a world struggling to escape from piety, inquisition and dogma, Lucretius’s radical free thinking was shocking and bold in early modern Europe. He argued that everything in the world consisted of nothing but atoms and voids recombined in various ways — which foreshadowed physics and chemistry, as we now know them.
He anticipated Charles Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive.
De rerum natura argues that the body, the mind and the world are all the result of physical forces, not divine intervention. It rejects magic, mysticism, superstition and myth, calls providence a fantasy, says that there is no end or purpose to existence, no afterlife, and that there was no golden age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past. At times Lucretius is so bluntly atheist, he makes Richard Dawkins sound like the Pope.
Written in Rome around the time of Caesar and Cicero, the poem had disappeared from sight for 14 centuries, suppressed by the Christian church as heresy. By 1417 it was only from references in Cicero and Virgil, and denunciations by St Jerome, that anybody knew of it at all. In that year, as recounted in Stephen Greenblatt’s fine book The Swerve, an underemployed papal secretary named Poggio Bracciolini found an intact copy of the entire poem, which had lain unread for centuries, in a monastic library in Germany. He transcribed the work and began disseminating it throughout Europe. It is an exaggeration to say that this caused the Renaissance or the Reformation, let alone the Enlightenment, but it was a significant influence.
Perhaps 1817 marks a sort of reaction against reason and in favour of mysticism again. With the writing of Frankenstein, and a few years earlier Goethe’s Faust, comes the first stirring of the modern mistrust of Promethean science, and dissatisfaction with materialism. Dr Frankenstein’s monstrous creation is the product of reason and experiment. He is brought to life with “galvanism”, the new discovery that dead frogs would twitch their limbs if given electric shocks.
Yet the monsters loose in the world today are the creation not of science, but of ideology and fanaticism. What Mary Shelley called “the nature of the principle of life” has indeed been discovered, in the form of natural selection, the genetic code and biochemistry. Life did turn out to have a comparatively simple cause, and knowing it did led overwhelmingly to beneficial consequences for humankind. Lucretius was right: materialism is less dangerous than superstition. So let us bury Frankenstein’s monster.