In Thursday’s class, we looked at two texts—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Erasmus Darwin’s poetry. The intent was to examine the intersections between biology and literature. The representation of science in poetry or science in literature is a fascinating subject—and one that I play with. But in the 1800s, before the sciences became so specialized, there was a considerable amount of discussion or interplay between writers and naturalists. For example, we read a few poems by Erasmus Darwin, yes Charles’s Darwin’s grandfather, who presented his ideas on the origin of life in heroic couplets. Here’s one excerpt from Temple of Nature (published in 1803):
“Organic Life began beneath the waves….
Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth.”
Erasmus, who was a doctor, a naturalist, and a lover of fossils, had a hunch that life began, as he described above, in water. In fact, his experiments to try to prove this inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
The well-known legend goes that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (then Mary Godwin), Percy Shelley, and John Polidori had gathered together to meet up with Lord Byron in Geneva. The weather, though, was cold and rainy, so they were stuck inside, becoming a bit bored and restless. Polidori suggested they have a competition to see who could write the best ghost story. As they talked about this idea, Shelley, who was an admirer of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, told them of one of his experiments: that by mixing water and flour, he had taken a dried out organism and made it move. He had created life. I’m not sure how the misinformation happened, but Mary Godwin thought she heard the word “vermicelli.” The pasta. But no. Darwin had experimented with “vorticellae,” which is a microscopic aquatic filament that lives in lead gutters.
I placed above two pictures–one of vermicelli and one of vorticella–more out of cheekiness than anything. Ultimately, it did not matter that Mary confused the facts. What she was responding to was the idea—the fear—that man could create life. While Frankenstein may be considered by some the first science-fiction novel or the first to give us the stereotype of the mad scientist, I’m struck by how some of us are still grappling with the same fears presented in a text from 1818.