What Dr. Frankenstein Got Right
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
May 27, 2018
The Book, Not the Movie
If you are anything like me, when you think of the story of Frankenstein, you think about the 1931 classic movie from Universal Pictures staring Boris Karlov. Unfortunately, that movie is not faithful to the book it was based on.
In the movie a scientist and his assistant engage in grave robbing to construct a patchwork being. The assistant accidentally gives the being the brain of a homicidal maniac. When the patchwork being is brought to life by electricity harnessed from lightening, it becomes a monster. If this movie is what you think of when you think of Frankenstein, you are missing the point of the story.
The actual story is found in a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who died in 1851. The book was titled Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. She wrote the novel when she was only eighteen, working over a rainy summer in 1816.
It was a summer that concerned many people. We talk of global climate change, but that summer Mary Shelley and her friends were experiencing it. It was the “Year Without a Summer” caused by an exceptional cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. People were scared and of a dark turn of mind.
It is the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who was born in Naples into a wealthy family. He would later fall in love with his adopted sister, Elizabeth Lavenza. Just before leaving to study chemistry at a German university, his mother died of scarlet fever. In grief Dr. Frankenstein vows to find a cure for death. He was successful.
At the university he discovers a secret technique to bring organic matter to life. He ultimately creates a humanoid, making it a giant in order to simplify construction of otherwise minute parts. When brought to life, the creature’s appearance is repellent. Dr. Frankenstein does not know what to do, and while he is deciding the creature, seeing the horror in his creator’s face, escapes.
Living in isolation in the wilderness the creature avoids human contact. He hides and listens to people talk, and in so doing learns to talk himself. Happening upon a suitcase of abandoned books, he taught himself to read and becomes learned and articulate.
The creature locates Dr. Frankenstein and begs him to create another creature, this time female so that he might have a companion. He argues that as a living being, he has a fundamental right to happiness.
Dr. Frankenstein agrees, but secretly decides he would not do what he had promised lest the two creatures breed and form a new master race.
In a rage, the creatures kills members of the Frankenstein family, including Elizabeth. He flees to the North Pole, followed by Dr. Frankenstein who vows revenge. However, Dr. Frankenstein overestimates his own resilience and dies of hypothermia in the frozen wasteland. Heartbroken at the death of his creator the creature isolates himself on an ice flow and drifts out to sea, never to be heard from again.
That’s the original story.
The mention of Prometheus as the subtitle to the novel relates to the Greek legend of the Titan who created the human race at the request of Zeus. But Zeus, seeking to control humanity did not given our race fire. Prometheus, in defiance of Zeus does so. This ushers in the arts of cooking and hunting, but also allowed humanity to learn to kill. Intending good, Prometheus caused harm, just like Dr. Frankenstein.
Eric Berne, the founder of a system of practical psychology called Transactional Analysis, argued (and I agree) that all people have emotional needs that we seek to fulfill. He called these needs “Hungers.” As we go through life we instinctively seek to meet these needs. We have a choice in that we can do so in ways that are healthy or unhealthy.
Dr. Berne felt there were six such hungers. The first was Contact. We need physical connection to others to thrive. Children who have more skin-to-skin contact with their parents do better than those that have less. This continues throughout life in different ways
The second is a hunger for what Berne called Incidents, or periodic breaks from routine. A vacation or day off is a good example.
The third hunger is the need for Recognition. We all want to be appreciated to some degree by others in order to feel a sense of self-worth and dignity.
The fourth hunger is a Sexual Hunger. Fulfilling that in a healthy way is important for our well being, although Berne noted that it is possible to channel this hunger into other outlets such as creativity, sports or even spirituality.
The fifth hunger is for Stimulation. We will actually go insane if deprived of sensation for too long. That’s why people tend to hallucinate when they float in a sensory deprivation tank for extended periods.
The final hunger is for Structure. We all try to have some measure of organization regarding our time and relationships so that we are not living in a way that is chaotic.
What is interesting about this list of Hungers, is that in her narrative Mary Shelley systematically deprived Frankenstein’s creature of every one of those Hungers.
He lives in isolation. No one will touch him. Although he is articulate and intelligent, he lacks even the recognition of a personal name. All around him is chaos. He is denied a mate. Striving to survive there is no break from a punishing routine for him. All the human Hungers go unfulfilled.
And that’s what Dr. Frankenstein got right. If you want to crush a person, you deny that person inner fulfillment. To make this sermon relevant to Memorial Day—I will mention that think we’ve done this to a lot of veterans who return from war broken and then find there is nothing to help them recover.
In response, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation does what any human being might do when he or she realizes that the game is rigged and there is no way to win, or even to win a little. The creature becomes angry and hostile.
The Recent News
Many people today believe they are living a life that is like the life that confronted Frankenstein’s creature.
We all feel that we have a fundamental right to happiness. In order to be happy—to flourish—we need to find a healthy way to fulfill what Dr. Berne called our “Hungers.” But it can seem like the game is rigged against us.
It’s hard to get ahead without a college education, but with the education can come crushing debt. I sometimes wonder how I would ever manage to go to college myself if I were a young person today. During High School I worked to support myself. There would have been no way I could have done any of the extracurricular activities colleges want to see on an application. Nor while working would I have been able to cope with the hours of homework routinely assigned today. The game would seem completely rigged to defeat the aspirations of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wanted to go to school.
As the financial return on investments is so much more than the rise in wages, with rare exceptions, there is no way to become wealthy by working hard. Economists have long explained that these days the way to become wealthy is to inherit wealth or marry someone who has. Unless you are going to be the rare entrepreneur like Bill Gates who invents a disruptive technology, you can’t get really rich through your paycheck alone any more.
Also, certain ethnic communities face structural oppression in our society, because our society like most societies, benefits its majority culture. The game seems rigged.
As a result, some become angry and hostile. I suspect that is the fuel that drives the active shooter tragedies we have seen. After the Stoneman Douglas School shooting in Parkland, Florida last February the Geneva police department held an “active shooter” training for the churches and community organizations in the City of Geneva. My wife is the parish minister of the Geneva Unitarian Universalist Society and was invited. I attended along with her.
The police told us the the evidence was now clear what motivates the people who commit atrocities like this. It is the lack of hope. Many feel themselves caught up in a rigged game. Believing themselves unable to achieve a good future or obtain recognition in any other way, they opt for infamy, revenge, and a quick exit.
Likewise, the belief that the game is rigged drives some people to cheat. This explains the corruption and lying we see at even the highest levels of business and government. Those of you who work in health care will be familiar with the contemporary story of the nine billion dollar blood testing company Theranos, whose technology was the darling of Silicon Valley. They sold equipment to allow pinprick blood testing in your local Walgreens. Except it turns out the technology was a fraud. A “get rich quick” scheme to bilk investors, at least for a while, by a college dropout who figured she had nothing to lose. There are many examples.
If you spend much time on the Internet you do not have to look far to encounter people making angry statements or engaging in personal attacks. These are expressions of rage from people who can’t think of anything else to do because they feel themselves held down. So what you get are expressions of rage.
The unspoken message many people hear is that you can’t win this game. You get a job and work hard for eight hours a day and as a reward you get promoted to manager where you are expected to work twelve hours a day.
If you are not born into happy circumstance you can’t earn your way to happiness, and they know in their hearts that life isn’t supposed to be this hard.
I am reminded of a subset of Murphy’s Law called Boling’s Postulate. “If you are feeling good, don’t worry…you’ll get over it.”
But It Isn’t True
The good thing about all this is that it really isn’t true. With a bit of creativity, it is in fact possible to flourish and fulfill the human Hungers, it’s just that a lot of people don’t see the opportunities that they in fact have. They fall victim to a nasty trick evolution has played on the human community.
If you are not familiar with the work of cognitive scientist, Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Steven Pinker, I recommend you take a look. He has more than a dozen books in print and has been named as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals by both Time magazine and Foreign Policy.
His proposition is a simple one. While nothing is guaranteed nor inevitable, things are way better than you think.
Human well-being, while in no sense guaranteed, has undergone a tremendous and underrated improvement over the past few centuries. While there are still people starving, it is worldwide obesity that is more of a threat to the majority of the planet’s population. Famine used to be so feared that when John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation, the end-times prophecy in the New Testament in 64 CE, famine was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not obesity.
In his 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argues that we are actually living in one of the most peaceful moments in the existence of human beings.
It’s not hard to find exceptions to these positive generalizations, but still when you look at the data dispassionately, the evidence is clear that war, crime and abject property are at historic lows. It’s not so much a testimony to how good things are now as it is a testimony to how bad things used to be. But the point remains.
As an example, in medieval times you could be executed by Drawing and Quartering for the “crime” of criticizing the Royal Garden. The world still isn’t a just place, but it’s way better than it was.
While injustices still abound, there are not as many as there used to be. The upward general trend is glaringly obvious when you disregard your feelings and fears and consult the objective data instead.
Pinker believes that the Enlightenment era in the 17th century, a movement that is also the origin of Unitarian Universalist thought, kicked off a wave of humanism and science that changed our civilization fundamentally in positive ways and continues to do so.
When I first read these ideas I experienced cognitive dissonance. I grew up in the “Duck and Cover” era of the Cold War where we expected destruction at any moment. My parents passionately believed in the Red Menace and the Yellow Peril. I was raised in a climate of fear. But I am trained as a philosopher and students of philosophy are taught to bracket their emotions and look at arguments from an objective frame. When I did so, I was convinced.
Pinker argues that the mental fog that brings so many of us down is due to journalism. He says, “As long as rates of violence and hunger and disease don’t go to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news. Since our intuitions about risk and probability are driven by examples…we get a sense of how dangerous the world is that’s driven by whatever events occur, and we’re never exposed to the millions of locales where nothing bad happens. (Reason magazine interview, June 2018)”
The Negativity Bias
To understand why we think that way I turn to the recent work of University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo. While I have long argued that the human brain has been wired by evolution to favor a negative expectation, Dr. Cacioppo have proven it.
He calls this the “negativity bias,” and he means that your brain has evolved with a greater sensitivity to negative news than positive news. This bias is so strong it can be detected even in the brain of an infant.
In an experiment Dr. Cacioppo showed subjects photographs known to arouse positive feelings (a photo of a pizza was popular). Then he showed them pictures intended to arouse negative feelings (an injured person or a dead animal). Finally they were shown photographs intended to produce neutral feelings (one was of a hair dryer). While this was happening he electronically recorded the activity in the cerebral cortex in the brains of the subjects, measuring how much information processing was occurring.
The brains of the subjects reacted much more strongly to the the negative stimuli. The subjects were much more strongly influenced by negative things than positive.
This trait evolved to help us survive. Fearful creatures are cautious and tend to survive, while fearless creatures tend to become food. But this bias affects every domain of our lives.
Romantic partners are more heavily influenced by the negative things done by their partners than the positive, even if the positive are more plentiful. Parents respond more to what their offspring does wrong. Employers quickly forget our contributions and clearly remember our mistakes.
In fact, Dr. Cacioppo computed that it takes five positive inputs to overcome the harm done by a single negative input. No wonder people feel bad. No wonder they can see no way to meet their human Hungers when they perceive obstacles to their flourishing. They put themselves on the metaphorical ice flow and drift away into depression and negative expectation. In today’s world anti-depressant medication is wildly popular.
Feeding Our Hungers
This is all by way of saying that in Mary Shelley’s story Dr. Frankenstein’s creation fell into the trap of his own negative bias. He decided there was no way to meet the human hungers, and he fell into rage and despair. That was the tragedy in his story. But it didn’t have to be that way. I can think of other ways to have told that story.
One of the greatest scientists who ever lived was not Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Instead, I think it was Dr. Victor Frankl, a psychoanalyst sentenced by the Nazi government to the Concentration Camp at Dachau. While there, he studied his fellow prisoners and he studied himself. He discovered that even in a Concentration Camp, there were ways to be happy.
He started small. The sun was still warm and on a nice day could be enjoyed. The clear air still smelled good. As what you have experienced cannot be taken from you, he could enjoy his happy memories and take a few moments of pleasure in them.
Sometimes in the soup line the man serving the soup would give him what he called “one from the bottom,” meaning that the ladle was put all the way to the bottom of the pot before being pulled up—and had a little more meat in it.
Gradually, Frankl learned that by carefully noticing the good things he could still enjoy, his fear and anger were conquered. He found a way to notice five good things for every bad thing, and he began to think great thoughts.
When he was set free after the American occupation in April 1945, Frankl took these great thoughts and wrote a profound and influential book—titled in English Man’s Search for Meaning. In it he explains how remembering to notice every good thing, however small, was enough to keep dark thoughts away and overcome his negative bias.
I often quote my time management guru David Allen’s favorite quip. “Your brain does not have a brain. You have to be smarter than your brain.” We need to understand the dirty trick evolution has played on us that causes us to be short sighted and negative by default.
Dr. Frankenstein’s creation might well have found a way to meet his needs and find a measure of happiness if he had not decided there was no hope.
If I were a High School student now in the same situation I was in many years ago I might have had to spend a couple of years at a local Community College to prove my academic worth before applying to a University. But I do believe I’d have found a way to make that work if I didn’t give up.
We are not out of options unless we decide that we are. And Cognitive Science tells us that if we make such a decision we are probably mistaken. There is always a way for a creative person to find a path to happiness.
Start small. Carefully notice the good things, however tiny and gentle. Keep piling them up. As we say at the HeartMath Institute, “A Change of Heart Changes Everything.”
And that’s my sermon.