Social Issues,  Thought-provoking

We must learn from Frankenstein’s monster

We need the humanities more than ever in the 21st century, believes Mary Ann MacDonald.

There has been much discussion about the decline of the humanities, with many even cheering their demise. 

But this raises important questions about what society is prioritising now and the loss of the humanities might be far more serious than we realise. For these subjects provide an essential understanding of what it is to be human. It is clear that knowledge of this is needed more than ever, as threats to human dignity persist and even increase. 

One clear example of this is the growing tendency around the world to implement legislation militating against human life. 

Canada, for example, plans to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia on the grounds of mental health alone, despite its logistical difficulties. 

The British Pregnancy Advice Service is lobbying for abortion up until birth on any grounds. This is already the case for the unborn diagnosed with severe disabilities. In August 2023, an Ipsos opinion poll claimed that two in three Britons support legalising assisted suicide. 

In the US at least a dozen states are considering legalising it too, adding to the 10 states and one district that have already done so. In the first change in law of its kind, the state of Vermont has now opened the door for anyone across the US to visit it to end their lives in this way.

And, just recently, France became the first country in the world to enshrine abortion explicitly as a constitutional right.

All these anti-life actions demonstrate a misunderstanding of the true dignity of the human person.

More, and not less, study of the humanities, at any level, may be a tool to help us better understand the human condition.

One of the favourite topics I studied in my first year as a history student was the 17th century Scientific Revolution, which tackled the question of what it is to be human. Its central theme focussed on mechanical philosophy. 

Robert Boyle, who coined this term, argued that the natural world was better explained in terms similar to those of the workings of a machine, like a ‘great piece of clock-work’. 


The Scientific Revolution led to advances in our understanding of astronomy, mechanics, optics and chemistry, among various other aspects of nature. And yet pioneers found their mechanical efforts failed to answer a fundamental question, one which gives meaning to all the discoveries they made. Why are we here? 

Granted, they never exactly set out to answer this question in the first place, and, indeed, they criticised Aristotle’s teleology, that is, his emphasis on the purpose of nature and its various parts. 

However, for a period that is often hailed as the epoch which made the world modern, this failure raises the question of whether so-called ‘modernity’ is heading in the right direction. 

Another 17th century pioneer, René Descartes, took the notion of mechanical philosophy one step further by embarking on an ambitious project also to account for the workings of humans in purely mechanical terms. But this was a step too far, as he found out for himself. 

In his Treatise on Man, Descartes was indeed able to account for the entire human body as if we were machines. But he was still faced with the undeniable fact that the human being has free will, a purpose, and the capability to reason and think. 

This means we do not feel like, and could never be, simply machines. By the end, Descartes was forced to concede that explanations of the mind or soul lay outside the realm of mechanical theory which could not explain the evident dual nature of man sufficiently. 

Later in the same century, Isaac Newton, in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a text generally regarded as the most important work of the Scientific Revolution, also shows awareness of these limitations. 

He writes, “in bodies, we see only their figures and colours…but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses…” So, in the midst of the revolution, we see a philosopher and a scientist acknowledging that a merely mechanical take on the world had its limitations. 

Reducing people to their bodies, thus ignoring the existence of a spiritual soul and, in turn, treating people like machines, is not only scientifically deficient, but is also deeply dangerous. 

It means that violations of human dignity continue to be seen as justified, particularly of those who may be deemed ‘insufficient’ in the eyes of society, its most vulnerable members – the unborn, the disabled and the elderly. 

Typewriters, telex machines, VCRs, and fax machines have all been thrown out and superseded by more effective technology. This is normal because they are simply made up of disposable materials. Are we really to treat humans, each with an indestructible soul from conception, in the same way?

Humans are not simply machines that can be assigned a particular value based on what we can and cannot do. 

Neither are we machines which can be deemed too much of a financial burden to maintain. We are people, each created in the image and likeness of God, fundamentally made to love and to be loved.

Throughout history, dangerous legislation has been justified because of the erosion of this very notion. It is only through studying history critically that we can spot the alarming pattern of this in anti-life laws today. 

Dehumanising legislation has been, and is now, justified on the grounds that particular circumstances can diminish someone’s eligibility or possibility for a fulfilling life.


The ancient Spartans imposed a strict regime on newborns to address the need for strong physical prowess to defend territory. Each checked by the state, unsatisfactory children were left to perish soon after their birth.

Francis Galton, an English mathematician, was the first to formally define ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Troubled by what he saw as a lack of intelligence in society, he advocated for selective breeding to prevent the further creation of ‘unfit’ and ‘feeble-minded’ people. This was enacted notably in the United States during the 20th century.

The mass murder of disabled people was justified by the Nazis to try to create a ‘perfect’ race. The T-4 programme was launched to eradicate those whom they called ‘life unworthy of life.’ About 250,000 disabled adults and children were euthanised between 1940-45. 

To curb population growth, China implemented a one-child policy in 1979. Local government officials resorted to such measures as forced abortions to enforce compliance. 

Dictating who can live according to the trends of the times has long been a historical phenomenon. We, with the same human nature as those before us, need to be careful not to think we are incapable of making the same mistakes.

In our current times, there can be circumstances involving great pain and suffering, whether physical, mental, or emotional, in which the decision to end life could be presented as an act of necessity or even kindness. 

The result is, for example, 90% of the unborn diagnosed with Down Syndrome being aborted across Europe. Iceland claims to be close to eradicating Down Syndrome births. This is done under the facade of being an act of kindness. But this has already been long justified in the same cynical way in events that have now been denounced.

Even before the Scientific Revolution, diverse historical periods have witnessed those who have tried to give a mechanical take to the human. They then twisted this to argue certain groups do not work for the said circumstance. Like machines, when they do not work, it is seen as advisable to let them go. 

Any anti-life legislation, then and now, relies heavily on the untenable premise that, like machines, the notion of what constitutes a human can be constantly reinvented to fit the time. 

And with this age-old tactic, it is a lot easier to get away with what is essentially always murder.

If we are to avoid repeating such mistakes, we need to understand ever more how great it is to be a human. Religion and philosophy can help. But lessons can be learned from literature too. Fiction has the power to open our eyes to reality. 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, is a tale about a scientist Dr Frankenstein who successfully experiments in bringing to life a sapient creature made out of human body parts.  

Frankenstein’s monster enters life eight foot tall, described as hideously ugly, with the mind of a newborn. 

He represents the fears that can come with the creation of life itself, and the suffering that follows. Shelley demonstrates, to anti-life legislators throughout history, what happens when we act solely on these fears and deny the existence of life in order to achieve our own goals.

Frankenstein, faced with the reality that is before him, abandons his creation. This neglect leads to the acts of violence we see from the creature in the rest of the story. 

Despite this, we see the creature as a simple, sensitive being, driven by a craving for love in a setting where this is so lacking. 

He says “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” He is tormented by the fact that the most evil creature of all was still not excluded from others in the way he was. 

The marginalisation of this creature, to the point where he is even jealous of Satan, reflects the experience of all unwanted life, be this at its creation or when it can feel a heavy burden to keep maintaining it.

Literature enables us to reflect on the experience of those we may not otherwise encounter. In this way, the creature offers a voice to the voiceless unborn, and other vulnerable persons who may struggle to express their views. 


By the end of the novel, we question whether, if Frankenstein had been able to look beyond his fears, he might eventually have come to nurture the good potential his creation had.

Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, is a novel about a Kansas girl named Dorothy who is swept away to the magical land of Oz in a cyclone. 

Here she meets a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tin man, and a courageless lion. They spend the rest of the story going on a journey to meet the Wizard of Oz. He is said to be able to help them with what they are missing. 

Here, the Wizard symbolises how all authorities can be idolised, perhaps unknowingly, to the point where they even have the power to decide who has the necessary qualities to live and die. The Wizard is looked upon to give validation to these unsatisfactory characters.

But, like all authorities, the Wizard is flawed. Dorothy’s small dog, Toto, pulls the curtain that is in front of the Wizard. This reveals him to be just a scared man hiding behind a facade of glimmer and false wisdom. He has no real power, and is only able to give them tokens to appease their desires. 

All these characters looked to the Wizard to feel normalised. And yet they, like we who can never have our humanity taken away, come to realise they actually had these ‘missing’ qualities all along. 

The so-called cowardly lion figures out that courage is not the total absence of fear that he was looking for, but the ability to face up to our fears. He did this every step of the way to see the Wizard. Yes, he was scared and doubtful. But he never once gave up.

The scarecrow, the tin man and the lion never needed validation. Just as we should never look to others to determine our humanity. Despite our fears of what life could look like from the beginning and during its trials, the fact is our life does exist and has value in itself.

This is not just a sentimental idea that is restricted to ‘Somewhere over the rainbow.’ 

Instead of anti-life actions, what is vitally needed is greater strength to face up to our fears. 

Certainly, the study of the humanities is not the be-all and end-all. But subjects like history, philosophy and literature can help us answer the fundamental questions of all time. 

The unwillingness to look critically for deeper answers is what creates despair among people and leads to extreme legislation in an attempt to take control of the situation and others. 

This in turn frequently results in the loss of many lives which had the potential to change the world for good. 

Mechanical solutions are based on the false assumption that we can control life and people. But very often the richer the reality, the less we can control it. Faith tells us that most of all. But so do the humanities.


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Mary Ann Macdonald is studying history and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is half-Filipina, half Irish, and is from London.

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