Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Humanity of Frankenstein's Monster

In Edward O. Wilson’s novel On Human Nature Wilson attempts to examine humans through a sociobiological lens. He tries to define humans and humanity in this context by highlighting and analyzing the characteristics that are innate in humans and uses those to alert us to the next steps in our evolutionary path.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Shelley presents us with a creature whom after being abandoned, attempts to define itself and the world around it. The major question is, what is this creature and can it be categorized as human. I contend, by using Wilson’s novel and evidence that it is not. It’s heighten ability to learn and develop, its disinterest with sexuality, and it’s fondness for aggression among other things all define him as something non-human as opposed to human. It can be seen from the monster’s “birth” alone that this thing cannot be defined as human.
In his chapter on development, Edward O. Wilson presents us with a very literal and scientific definition on what it means to be a human being. He begins with asserting that a fertilized egg does not constitute a human. He goes on to describes the processes from fertilization through neurulation to get to the final point at which the fetus becomes a human being. Wilson decides that birth is that very point, the time, nine months after conception, that an organism becomes human. If we use this definition from this chapter alone then Frankenstein’s monster is far from human. The monster was not born, there was no fertilization or conceptions involved in his creation, he was simply that, a creation. By some definitions he is more aptly defined as a machine than an organism due to the fact that he was created from preexisting parts and no physical development took place.  However, through further reading of the chapter when Wilson begins to discuss mental development, the categorization of the monster’s humanity becomes a little less clear cut.
Wilson, when discussing development from a mental perspective, gives a much less hard and fast definition for what it means to be human. Humanity, according to him, is not defined by points and milestones but rather the potential that our genes inherently possess to become more complex and unique.  The channels of human mental development, in contrast, are circuitous and variable. Rather than specify a single trait, human genes prescribe the capacity to develop a certain array of traits.”(56 wilson) With this definition we can see that the monster is very human and possibly almost superhuman in this regard. Usually when normal human children develop they learn most of the social cues and behaviors from not only observation but from coaching from those around them as well. Contrastingly, not only does the monster not receive coaching from anyone such as a parent or his maker but also, he has to observe everyone he comes in contact with from a safe and considerable distance. Surprisingly however, by the time he is reunited with his maker he understands all of the necessary and basic social etiquette it takes to be a functioning human being. If analyzed from this perspective than the monster is definitely a human being; he possessed the ability to mentally develop and even though he was faced with many potentially hindering restraints he developed seemingly perfectly and in a remarkable amount of time.
The only thing that is more remarkable than the speed at which the monster learned about social etiquette was his ability to learn to speak. The monster spent the majority of his “developmental stages” observing the De Lacey family, which consisted of Felix and Agatha, whom were brother and sister, and their old blind father. As the monster observed this family he began to pick up on their speech and attempted to learn it. In a very short period of time he was able to speak French extremely eloquently and traditionally. He was further assisted when Safie, Felix’s illiterate lover, arrived and they began to teach her how to read and write. By observing a family though a small chink in the wood on the wall of the cottage the monster became proficient in French around the age of two.  Wilson asserts that the human mind is predisposed to language and structured to be able to string sets of words together in pleasing manors. He describes a thing called “deep grammar” which “permits a far more rapid acquisition of language than would be possible by simple learning.” (Wilson 63) The monster definitely displays traits of having “deep grammar” and his heighten ability to develop and learn show that he is human, if not even superhuman.  
In his fifth chapter Wilson gives a pretty clear and concrete answer to the age-old question ”Are humans innately aggressive.” He uses the vast amount of examples from human history to answer simply “Yes”. He claims that one must redefine the words “innateness” and “aggression” to a useless point in order to disprove the claim. So, if aggressiveness is a characteristic of humanity it can be used as another criterion to define the monster as human or inhuman. Using this as the benchmark alone it would be difficult to define the monster as inhuman because there are several instances in which he resorts to violence. He killed numerous people including his maker’s brother and wife, he burned down the De Lacey’s cottage in spite and after he was evicted from their home he declared war on the entire human race. (152 Frankenstein) However as we continue to read Wilson’s chapter we see that he acknowledges that there are other, more violent beings than humans and that humans are not the only animals prone to violence. Therefore, since the expression of aggression is not a solely human phenomenon it alone is not enough of an indicator of the humanity of the monster. 
Wilson goes on to claim that one of the more important parts of human nature is sex and human sexuality. He highlights that sex is not just necessary for procreation but rather to create and promote genetic variation amongst the population. He also goes on to point out the importance of sexual dimorphism and the significance of human sexuality. To Wilson, the biological diversity alone is not why sex is such a desirable action but the pleasure, bonding and relationship shared between the two individuals taking part in the act as well. When the monster implores his master to create him a mate, of the reasons he gives to persuade his maker not one of them include and notion of sex, procreation or sexuality. It seems as though the monster is unconcerned with these types of things. His main reason for wanting a mate is companionship; he feels an overwhelming sense of isolation and needs someone to connect with. He does not mention a sexual intention at all, even though Victor did not strip him of the ability to be a sexual being. The monster has the ability to, but does not show any sexual tendencies so; it becomes hard to define him as human in this regard.
By using the criteria given to us by Edward O. Wilson I do not think one can accurately define the monster as human. Biologically, he is not human because he did not have a birth, or parents or was not created through fertilization. He does have the capacity for aggression but so do many other non-human things so that criterion cannot be used to define him as human. He does not have the desire for procreation or sex and does not mention it (at least in my reading) at all in the novel. And finally all though he did develop socially and mentally as a human would he did it so remarkably fast that one could only define him as super human rather than human. It is a possibility that the monster was the next step in our evolutionary paths, but just like apes who were the step preceding us, he is not human, especially when using Wilson to categorize him. Overall I think that Wilson’s novel shows us that Frankenstein’s monster was not human but instead something entirely different.  


  1. James,

    This is a pretty thorough reading of Frankenstein via Wilson (or vice versa). It is particularly impressive that you grapple with several of Wilson’s chapters and apply them to the monster. However,you seem to be continuously making the distinction, when referring to the monster, between ‘human’ and ‘superhuman.’ I think, to strengthen your argument, you must offer some sort of definition of what is ‘superhuman.’ Most importantly, is there a difference between ‘not-human’ and ‘superhuman?’ (I definitely think you are making a distinction here.) Then you can proceed to show how, while the monster does not fit into Wilson’s definition of ‘human’ very easily, he also doesn’t quite belong in the ‘non-human’ category either.

    Second, beware of summarizing Wilson’s criteria too much. There are examples of human beings that do not quite fit into the distinctions you are claiming that Wilson claims. For example, Wilson does not exactly say that the presence of sexual tendencies makes or breaks a definition of humanity. Surely, every mammal and many species of lower phylogenetic complexity show tendencies for sexuality, if only to, however subconsciously, perpetuate their lineage. Thus, sexual tendencies are not uniquely human (I am aware that you are not claiming otherwise). However, humans without sexual drives/desires do exist, most notably eunuchs, and, to a degree, individuals with certain mental conditions that occlude regular hormonal development/distribution/concentration. Also, with regards to learning capacity, there are certain mental conditions that make it astoundingly simple for individuals to learn and memorize things (including languages) in mass quantity, most notably savantism (which can arise from autism). Clearly there are also mental conditions in which learning is severely limited as well. I would think that neither of these cases would offer individuals that would be accepted as non-human (or superhuman.)

    But I don’t think you are being ignorant, insensitive, or bigoted by any means. Nor am I claiming that you are reading Wilson incorrectly. My above complaints are much more of a response to Wilson’s text itself than your interpretation and usage of it to read Frankenstein. That is to say, I think Wilson is fairly erroneous in many of his claims; this is framed concisely in the above paragraph. So, perhaps instead of using Wilson’s text as your ‘groundwork’ and fitting Frankenstein around it, perhaps your argument would benefit from taking Frankenstein as your groundwork and using the text as a rebuttal to Wilson’s claims. I apologize for the quality or tangential focus of my feedback, as I’m quite bias towards opponents of Wilson’s theory, but I hope this can help regardless.

  2. There's a lot of good advice in Dean's response. While I am at somewhat more friendly toward Wilson than Dean is (unsurprising - I assigned the text), I think that the idea of being more grounded in Frankenstein has a great deal of merit. Here's one reason why: by including not one element/definition of humanity from Wilson, but several (five?) you greatly dilute your argument. Some of this material is entirely unnecessary - we know from the start that the monster isn't human in an ordinary biological sense, so you don't need to labor over that detail.

    Dean is certainly right that there are interesting questions to be asked about human vs. superhuman, which can be addressed through either text, or both (Wilson's discussion of hypertrophy has a lot of potential here, I think). One reason you don't have the space to develop this investigation in more detail is precisely because you talk about so many different things from Wilson. Therefore, one of the strengths of the essay (a strong, detailed grasp of Wilson) also becomes its weakness (we are in danger of being lost in the details of Wilson, rather than doing a focusd application of Wilson to Frankenstein).

    Like Dean, I think, I found your discussion of the monster's sexuality a little muddled, in part because I'm not sure that either Shelley or Wilson would contrast sexuality as such with companionship. Again, this doesn't make you wrong - but it's another example of an underdeveloped thought, which is driven by trying to apply *to much* from Wilson to *to little * from Frankenstein.