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Could Modern Science Make Frankenstein’s Monster?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is a cautionary tale against ambition in the sciences, as well as a sore point for many professional researchers. (As a general rule, we don’t like it when non-scientists start making ethical obligations against genuinely helpful research; especially when the ramifications are blown out of proportion.) But this is Science and not Comment, so a rant is inappropriate here; what we want to know is could Frankenstein’s monster be made? Well, probably not yet.

Frankenstein was written when “galvanism” – passing an electric current through corpses – was seen as a potential method for reanimation. These days, passing electricity through the body is largely restricted to the very-much alive, as a shock will not boot up an inactive heart. It can help re-establish a regular heart rhythm if it’s still beating; if it’s not beating, chances are really quite slim.

The Monster

How To Build A DIY Frankenstein Monster. Image: Deanna Crisbacher (CC BY 3.0)

Mary Shelley described the monster as having yellowish skin, with black lips and glowing eyes. The black lips and yellow skin scream “liver disease”; the black lips could be explained by anaemia (a lack of haemoglobin), and this in turn could be caused by excessive degradation of haemoglobin (which is red) to bilirubin (which is yellow). Normally the liver gets rid of superfluous bilirubin through the bile; people that do not develop jaundice, a condition that makes your skin turn yellow and maybe destroy your brain cells. The glowing eyes, meanwhile, suggest that the monster has bioluminescent plankton or fungi in front of its retina, meaning realistically it couldn’t see a thing.

Stitching random pieces of flesh together also never has good prospects; you only need to look at early transplant experiments to figure that one out.

Then you have the iconic film adaptation of Frankenstein’s monster. I’m sure you’ve all seen one; flat head, skin stitched across in various places, two bolts in the neck… ring any bells? This, scientifically speaking, is a total shitshow. For one thing, protruding bits of metal tend to be rejected by the body; it’s an issue with pacemakers and it would be an issue here as well. (Piercings don’t have this problem as skin re-forms around the metal.)

The Monster Head

How To Build A DIY Frankenstein Monster. Image: Deanna Crisbacher (CC BY 3.0)

Stitching random pieces of flesh together also never has good prospects; you only need to look at early transplant experiments to figure that one out. Pretty much all human cells carry set of proteins called Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) proteins, and these vary greatly from person to person. This is why modern transplants take a long time before they are approved; a donor organ has to have most of its HLA proteins matched with the recipient body. If the HLA proteins are not matched, the body “rejects” the organ by sending the immune system at it.

If you have an above-average knowledge on transplant science you could say “why not use an immunosuppressant?” Fair point, this would prevent the monster’s immune system from attacking the rest of its body, but then it would quickly die to infection. Anybody post-transplant is at risk from infections, and they’re usually only taking three immunosuppressants at a time. Frankenstein’s monster would have to have about six or seven (due to all the different corpses used to build it), and would quickly die if somebody sneezed on it.

In short, Richard Dawkins is more likely to be elected Pope than Frankenstein’s monster is to even exist within the next fifty years or so.

Last modified: 26th October 2017

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