Mary Shelley’s other horror story; Lessons for Super-pandemics

The Last Man

Back in the early 19th century a novel was written that tells the story of humanity’s downfall in the 21st century.  Our undoing was the consequence of a disease that originates in the developing world and radiates outward eventually spreading into North America, East Asia, and ultimately Europe. The disease proves unstoppable causing the collapse of civilization, our greatest cities becoming grave sites of ruin. For all the reader is left to know, not one human being survives the pandemic.

We best know the woman who wrote The Last Man in 1825 as the author of  Frankenstein, but it seems Mary Shelley had more than one dark tale up her sleeve. Yet, though the destruction wrought by disease in The Last Man is pessimistic to the extreme, we might learn some lessons from the novel that would prove helpful to understanding not only the very deadly, if less than absolute ruination, of the pandemic of the moment- Ebola- and even more regarding the dangers from super-pandemics more likely to emerge from within humanity than from what is a still quite dangerous nature herself.

The Last Man tells the story of son of a nobleman who had lost his fortune to gambling, Lionel Verney, who will become the sole remaining man on earth as humanity is destroyed by a plague in the 21st century. Do not read the novel hoping to get a glimpse of Shelley’s view of what our 21st century world would be like, for it looks almost exactly like the early 19th century, with people still getting around on horseback and little in the way of future technology.

My guess is that Shelley’s story is set in the “far future” in order to avoid any political heat for a novel in which England has become a republic. Surely, if she meant it to take place in a plausible 21st century, and had somehow missed the implications of the industrial revolution, there would at least have been some imagined political differences between that world and her own. The same Greco-Turkish conflict that raged in the 1820’s rages on in Shelley’s imagined 21st century with only changes in the borders of the war. Indeed, the novel is more of a reflection and critique on the Romantic movement, with Lord Byron making his appearance in the form of the character Lord Raymond, and Verney himself a not all that concealed version of Mary Shelley’s deceased husband Percy.

In The Last Man Shelley sets out to undermine all the myths of the Romantic movement, myths of the innocence of nature, the redemptive power of revolutionary politics and the transformative power of art. While of historical interests such debates offer us little in terms of the meaning of her story for us today. That meaning, I think,  can be found in the state of epidemiology, which on the very eve of Shelley’s story was about to undergo a revolution, a transformation that would occur in parallel with humanity’s assertion of general sovereignty over nature, the consequence of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Reading The Last Man one needs to be carefully aware that Shelley has no idea of how disease actually works. In the 1820’s the leading theory of what caused diseases was the miasma theory, which held that they were caused by “bad air”. When Shelley wrote her story miasma theory was only beginning to be challenged by what we now call the “germ theory” of disease with the work of scientists such as Agostino Bassi. This despite the fact that we had known about microscopic organisms since the 1500s and their potential role in disease had been cited as early as 1546 by the Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro. Shelley’s characters thus do things that seem crazy in the light of germ theory; most especially, they make no effort to isolate the infected.

Well, some do. In The Last Man it is only the bad characters that try to run away or isolate themselves from the sick. The supremely tragic element in the novel is how what is most important to us, our small intimate circles, which we cling to despite everything, can be done away with by nature’s cruel shrug. Shelley’s tale is one of extreme pessimism not because it portrays the unraveling of human civilization, and turns our monuments into ruins, and eventually, dust, but because of how it portrays a world where everyone we love most dearly leave us almost overnight. The novel gives one an intimate portrait of what its like to watch one’s beloved family and friends vanish, a reality Mary Shelley was all too well acquainted with, having lost her husband and three children.

Here we can find the lesson we can take for the Ebola pandemic for the deaths we are witnessing today in west Africa are in a very real sense a measure of people’s humanity as if nature, perversely, set out to target those who are acting in a way that is most humane. For, absent modern medical infrastructure, the only ones left to care for the infected is the family of the sick themselves.

This is how is New York Times journalist Helene Cooper explained it to interviewer Terry Gross of Fresh Air:

COOPER: That’s the hardest thing, I think, about the disease is it does make pariahs out of the people who are sick. And it – you know, we’re telling the family people – the family members of people with Ebola to not try to help them or to make sure that they put on gloves. And, you know, that’s, you know, easier – I think that can be easier said than done. A lot of people are wearing gloves, but for a lot of people it’s really hard.

One of the things – two days after I got to Liberia, Thomas Eric Duncan sort of happened in the U.S. And, you know, I was getting all these questions from people in the U.S. about why did he, you know, help his neighbor? Why did he pick up that woman who was sick? Which is believed to be how we got it. And I set out trying to do this story about the whole touching thing because the whole culture of touching had gone away in Liberia, which was a difficult thing to understand. I knew the only way I could do that story was to talk to Ebola survivors because then you can ask people who actually contracted the disease because they touched somebody else, you know, why did you touch somebody? It’s not like you didn’t know that, you know, this was an Ebola – that, you know, you were putting yourself in danger. So why did you do it?

And in all the cases, the people I talked to there were, like, family members. There was this one woman, Patience, who contracted it from her daughter who – 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca – who had gotten it from a nanny. And Rebecca was crying, and she was vomiting and, you know, feverish, and her mom picked her up. When you’re seeing a familiar face that you love so much, it’s really, really hard to – I think it’s a physical – you have to physically – to physically restrain yourself from touching them is not as easy as we might think.

The thing we need to do to ensure naturally occurring pandemics such as Ebola cause the minimum of human suffering is to provide support for developing countries lacking the health infrastructure to respond to or avoid being the vectors for infectious diseases. We especially need to address the low number of doctors per capita found in some countries through, for example, providing doctor training programs. In a globalized world being our brother’s keeper is no longer just a matter of moral necessity, but helps preserve our own health as well.

A super-pandemic of the kind imagined by Mary Shelley, though, is an evolutionary near impossibility. It is highly unlikely that nature by itself would come up with a disease so devastating we will not be able to stop before it kills us in the billions. Having co-evolved with microscopic life some human being’s immune system, somewhere, anticipates even nature’s most devious tricks. We are also in the Anthropocene now, able to understand, anticipate, and respond to the deadliest games nature plays. Sadly, however, the 21st century could experience, as Shelley imagined, the world’s first super-pandemic only the source of such a disaster wouldn’t be nature- it would be us.

One might think I am referencing bio-terrorism, yet the disturbing thing is that the return address for any super-pandemic is just as likely to be stupid and irresponsible scientists as deliberate bioterrorism. Such is the indication from what happened in 2011 when the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier deliberately turned the H5N1 bird flu into a form that could potentially spread human-to-human. As reported by Laurie Garrett:

Fouchier told the scientists in Malta that his Dutch group, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, had “mutated the hell out of H5N1,” turning the bird flu into something that could infect ferrets (laboratory stand-ins for human beings). And then, Fouchier continued, he had done “something really, really stupid,” swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using the gathered viruses to infect another round of animals, repeating the process until he had a form of H5N1 that could spread through the air from one mammal to another.

Genetic research has become so cheap and easy that what once required national labs and huge budgets to do something nature would have great difficulty achieving through evolutionary means can now be done by run-of-the-mill scientists in simple laboratories, or even by high school students. The danger here is that scientists will create something so novel that  evolution has not prepared any of us for, and that through stupidity and lack of oversight it will escape from the lab and spread through human populations.

News of the crazy Dutch experiments with H5N1 was followed by revelations of mind bogglingly lax safety procedures around pandemic diseases at federal laboratories where smallpox virus had been forgotten in a storage area and pathogens were passed around in Ziploc bags.

The U.S. government, at least, has woken up to the danger imposing a moratorium on such research until their true risks and rewards can be understood and better safety standards established. This has already, and will necessarily, negatively impact potentially beneficial research. Yet what else, one might ask should the government do given the potential risks? What will ultimately be needed is an international treaty to monitor, regulate, and sometimes even ban certain kinds of research on pandemic diseases.

In terms of all the existential risks facing humanity in the 21st century, man-made super-pandemics are the one with the shortest path between reality and nightmare. The risk from runaway super-intelligence remains theoretical, based upon hypothetical technology that, for all we know, may never exist. The danger of runaway global warming is real, but we are unlikely to feel the full impact this century. Meanwhile, the technologies to create a super-pandemic in large part already here with the key uncertainty being how we might control such a dangerous potential if, as current trends suggest, the ability to manipulate and design organisms at the genetic level continues to both increase and democratize. Strangely enough, Mary Shelley’s warning in her Frankenstein about the dangers of science used for the wrong purposes has the greatest likelihood of coming in the form of her Last Man.


Finding Frankenstein a Home

Frankenstein Cover

Percy’s epic poem, Prometheus Unbound is seldom read today while his wife’s novel,  Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has become so well known that her monster graces the boxes of children’s cereal, and became the fodder from one of the funniest movies of the 20th century.

The question that always strikes me when I have the pleasure of re-reading Frankenstein is how could someone so young have written this amazing book? Mary Shelley was a mere twenty-one when the novel was published and the story she penned largely to entertain her husband and friends has managed to seep deeply into our collective assumptions especially those regarding science and technology. Just think of the kinds of associations the word “frankenfood” brings to mind and one gets a sense of how potent as a form of resistance against new forms of technology her gothic horror story is.

What is lost in this hiving off of the idea of the dangers of “unnatural” science for use as a cautionary tale against using a particular form of technology or exploring a certain line of research is the depth and complexity of the other elements present in the novel. I blame Hollywood.

The Frankenstein’s monster of our collective imagination isn’t the one given us by Mary Shelley, but that imagined by the director James Whale in his 1931 classic Frankenstein.

It was Whale who gave us the monster in a diner jacket, bolts protruding from his neck, and head like a block. Above all, Whale’s monster is without speech whereas the monster Mary Shelley imagined is extraordinarily articulate.

Whale’s monster is a sort of natural born killer his brain having come from a violent criminal. It is like the murderous chimpanzee written about in the weekend’s New York Times a creature that because we can not control or tame its murderous instincts must be killed before it can harm another person. Mary Shelley’s monster has a reason behind its violence. He can learn and love like we do, and isn’t really non-human at all. It is his treatment by human beings as something other than one of us- his abandonment by Victor Frankenstein after he was created, the horror which he induces in every human being that encounters him, that transforms the “creature” into something not so much non-human as inhumane.

There is a lesson here regarding our future potential to create beings that our sentient like ourselves – the technological hopes of the hour being uplifting and AI – that we need to think about the problem of homelessness when creating such beings. All highly intelligent creatures that we know of with the remarkable exception of the cephalopods are social creatures therefore any intelligent creature we create will likely need to have some version of home a world where it can be social as well.

The dangers of monstrousness emerging from intelligence lacking a social world was brilliantly illustrated by another 19th century science-fiction horror story- H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. In Mary Shelley’s novel she gives us insight into the origins of evil in the absence of such a world. Because it cannot be loved, Victor’s Frankenstein’s creation will destroy in the same way his every attempt to reach out to other sentient creature is ultimately destroyed with the creature telling his creator who has left him existentially shipwrecked:

“I too can cause desolation.”

Mary’s Shelley’s creature isn’t just articulate, he can read, and not only everyday reading, he has a taste for deep literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost which seems to offer him understanding of his own fate:

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every respect.  He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his creator, he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition: for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. “ (Chapter 15, p.2)

In some sense Mary Shelley’s horror story can be seen as less of a warning to 19th century scientist engaged in strange experiments with galvanization than a cautionary tale for those whose dehumanizing exploitation of industrial workers, miners, serfs and chattel slaves might lead to a potentially inhuman form of revolutionary blow back.  The creature cries to his creator:

Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguisable hatred. “(Chpapter 17 p. 1)

Yet, these revelations of the need for compassion towards sentient beings were largely lost in the anti-scientific thrust of the novel by which Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and its progeny has become one of our most potent cautionary tales against hubris.  A scene in Whale’s Frankenstein where the doctor is speaking to a fellow scientist who lacks his ambition for great discovery sums it up nicely:

Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond. Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or what causes the trees to mount, or what changes the darkness to light? When you talk like that people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things- what eternity is for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

This bias against trying to answer the big questions isn’t merely an invention of the film maker but a deep part of Mary Shelley’s novel itself. Victor Frankenstein is first inspired not by science but by medieval occultists such as Cornelius Agrippa. Exchanging these power and knowledge aspirations of the magicians for run of the mill science meant for Victor:

“I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (Chapter 3, p. 3)

Victor would not let this diminishment of his horizons happen:

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more will I achieve: treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Chapter 3)

His ultimate goal being to create-life anew, a road not only to biological immortality but his worship:

A new species would bless me as creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as should deserve theirs. “ (Chapter 4, p. 4)

It is here, I think where we see that Mary Shelley has turned the tables on her husband’s Prometheus giving him the will to power seen in Milton’s Satan whom Percy Shelley in his tale of the Titan had tried to find an alternative for. Scientists would oblige Mary’s warnings by coming up with such horrors as the machine gun, chemical warfare, aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, napalm and inhumane medical experiments such as those performed not just by the NAZIs, but by ourselves.

At the same time scientists gave us anesthesia, and electric lighting, penicillin and anti- biotics along with a host of other humane inventions. It is here where the emotional pull of Mary Shelley’s divine imagination loses me and the anti-scientific nature of her novel becomes something I am not inclined to accept.

The idea of hubris is a useful concept some variant of which we must adopt the exploration of which I will leave for another time. In crafting an updated version of the tale of the dangers of human hubris Mary Shelley has dimmed under Gothic shadows some of the illumination of the Enlightenment in which she played a large part. Warnings against following our desire to know is, after all, the primary moral of her novel. As Victor tells the polar explorer Robert Walton who has saved him:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier the man is who thinks his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become more than his nature will allow (Chapter 4, page 2)

Walton on the basis of Victor’s story does prematurely end his polar exploration, perhaps saving his crew from mortal danger, but also stopping short an adventure and as a consequence contracting the horizon of what we as human beings can know. Many of the lessons of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus we need to grapple with and take to heart, yet this refusal to ask or take upon ourselves the danger of attempting to answer the deepest of questions would constitute another very different, though very real, way of losing a elemental component of our humanity.