200 Years of Biohacking, from Mary Shelley to Don Delillo

How literary visions of the future evolve with life cycles being altered by scientific progress

Two centuries after the first publication of Mary Shelley’s most distinguished novel, so-called “modern-day Frankensteins” have been celebrating their fifth annual gathering at Grindfest, a biohackers meetup held in Tehachapi, California. The desire to alter life cycles, enhance the body and, perhaps, obtain control over death through the powers of technology does not seem to have diminished since Galvani’s discovery of “animal electricity”, and as science-fiction fantasies morph into reality, art adapts, re-imagining how the future will be shaped with the development of bio-engineering, cloning, and cryogenics.

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

At the beginning of 1792 Luigi Galvani, an Italian physicist member of the Institute of Sciences of Bologna, published De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari (“Commentary on the Forces of Electricity in Muscular Motion”), the booklet where his findings in the field of bioelectromagnetics are first presented. After a series of experiments involving the connection of muscles and nerves of dead frogs through metallic conductors, the scientist noticed a twitching of the animals’ legs which led him to believe that an innate electrical charge is present within the tissues of the body. The discovery of such force, later named “animal electricity”, sparked a debate that echoed in the whole scientific community, pushing researchers in different parts of Europe to reproduce similar experiments with both frogs and other animals.

The results had profound implications, they suggested: “that natural and man-made electricity were functionally the same, […] and this allowed Galvani to substitute a relationship between animal and man-made electricity for life itself”. Galvani’s main opponent was Alessandro Volta, the physicist credited with the invention of the electrical battery, who contested the findings contained in De Viribus by saying that animal electricity was in fact extrinsic, produced by connecting two metals. According to Volta, what Galvani saw as a contraction sparked by a form of vital energy, was simply mechanical motion. The two scientists debated over the existence and origin of such force until Galvani’s death, in 1798.

The controversy surrounding animal energy outlived Galvani himself. In 1803, Giovanni Aldini, Professor of Physics at the University of Bologna and nephew of Galvani, performed a public experiment at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in order to confirm his uncle’s theories: he electrified the body of deceased criminal George Forster using Volta’s voltaic pile, an act that provoked a series of convulsions in the test subject and that, according to newspaper reports of the time, caused some of the spectators to genuinely believe “that the body was about to come to life”. It is within this cultural context that Mary Shelley developed the idea behind Frankenstein. Although she was only a child when the Galvani — Volta controversy was taking place, as an adult Shelley expressed a deep interest in the discussion on the origin of life and the theories behind Galvanism, as noted in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, […] who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.
(Romantic Circles)

Although Shelley’s novel can be read as a reflection of the customs and ideas of society at the time, it is safe to assume that her interest in reviving the dead, as projected in Frankenstein, has roots in her own personal life as well. A parallelism can be found between the deaths occurring in the novel and those happening in Shelley’s life: Caroline Frankenstein, Justine’s three siblings and Madam Moritz all die of illness, while William, Henry Clerval and Elizabeth are killed by the monster; before the publication of Frankenstein Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her first daughter (born prematurely) both die because of health complications and in 1816 both her sister, Fanny Imlay, and Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, commit suicide. The combination of new scientific discoveries and the wish to escape the suffering derived from the loss of family members, may have led Shelley to explore the work of those researchers who could be considered the pioneers of modern-day biohacking.

Since 1818 the human ability to alter nature thanks to technological advancement has changed in a way that would have been impossible to predict for Shelley’s contemporaries. The demand for sustainable protein sources is creating the conditions for the lab-grown meat industry to start marketing cultured beef and chicken, and while regenerative medicine is allowing for animal tissue to be produced in vitro, at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, a cryogenic facility where 144 bodies are currently stored in liquid nitrogen, we are told that “What is “fatal” varies from place to place and time to time depending on available medical technology”; body modification enthusiasts in different parts of the world are installing sub-dermal implants for both aesthetic and medical purposes and websites such as Cyberise.me or Biohack.me are making tools and information related to body augmentation easily available worldwide.

Even when organs are not directly affected by surgical operations, a study has shown that smartphones and other electronic devices that have come to play a fundamental part in people’s everyday life are beginning to resemble extensions of the brain itself, for the effects on cognition and physiology their absence provokes. The Theory of the Extended Self is already considering our possessions as inseparable from identity and, with the introduction of information technology, scholars have asked whether the concept of self can be contained within the boundaries of human skin. In his Natural Born Cyborgs, Clark writes:

The human mind, if it is to be the physical organ of human reason, simply cannot be seen as bound and restricted by the biological skinbag. In fact, it has never been thus restricted and bound, at least not since the first meaningful words were uttered on some ancestral plain. But this ancient seepage has been gathering momentum with the advent of texts, PCs, coevolving software agents, and user-adaptive home and office devices. The mind is just less and less in the head.

Bio-engineering, artificial intelligence and permanent connection to virtual realities are becoming an integral part of modern life — a utopia for some, dystopia for others — , and the division between what is natural and what isn’t, is ceding to exist. In this context literature is evolving, the romantic love for progress is being substituted with postmodern relativism and doubts about the unfirm technological landscape surrounding us arise.

Don Delillo’s relationship with death has a long history. The American author has been philosophizing about the role of death in defining the meaning of life in many of his seventeen novels. In White Noise, the 1985 book where “a husband and wife fret together about who should die first. It’s a love scene of sorts. The wife, Babette, has gotten hooked on a medication called Dylar, a black-market pill that’s supposed to control the fear of death. The husband and narrator, a liberal-arts professor named Jack Gladney, is similarly obsessed with his own demise”, the character Winnie Richards questions whether dying is necessary in order to understand life “I think it is a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?”, while in Falling Man (2007) the concept of “boundary” is being referred to in a way that seems to add a new significance to Victor Frankenstein’s monstrous composition of different body parts by repurposing it in a modern setting:

a physician attending Keith’s physical injuries inflicted at his decimated work place in the Twin Towers on September 11 informs Keith that “organic shrapnel” is the residue of “the tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body.” When “the bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range.” By definition, perfectly healthy individuals who survived the attack on the Twin Towers might be diagnosed “months later” as having developed lumps in their body: “these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into the skin”.

Zero K, Delillo’s last novel, continues on the same trend, redefining beginnings and ends by observing them through a contemporary lens. Most of the story takes place in a secretive compound in Kazakhstan, a cryogenic facility where billionaire Ross Lockhart is about to bid his partner Artis Martineau “an uncertain farewell”, as she locks her body in a preservation pod in the hope that science will, in the future, advance to the point of finding a cure to her disease. Ross’ son, Jeffrey, skeptically guides the reader through the decisions taken by his father, discussing with a series of other characters the implications of immortality, with questions often left unanswered. A monk, for example, asks “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”, while an unnamed woman at the end of the novel hints at Clark’s and Chalmers extended mind theory:

“Haven’t you felt it? The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed?”.

Frankenstein and Zero K both deal with the ever-present human desire of “playing God” by taking control over death and work as a commentary on the ethical dilemmas that surround life-altering technologies. The discovery of electricity and the experimentation with blood transfusion provoked drastic changes in the course of human history and Shelley’s work was affected by such situation in the same way that Delillo’s writing is being influenced by new bio-engineering practices and the approaching third industrial revolution. Shelley and Delillo portray technological progress as unstoppable with both Victor Frankenstein and Ross Lockhart indulging in their desire to defeat death, disregarding the moral concerns that their actions might spark and suggesting that given the inability to reduce the speed at which science advances, humanity should not question whether the impossible will become possible, but rather focus on how to better confront new realities as they come into existence.

In February 2018 the first successful cloning of a primate was reported to the scientific community. After almost seventy years of experimentation with mammals, reptiles and insects, Chinese researchers achieved their goal of reproducing a macaque monkey via somatic cell nuclear transfer. As a result, the media immediately reacted by asking whether humans will be the next species to be duplicated. Shelley’s vision of giving birth in a laboratory does no longer belong to the realm of science-fiction fantasies. The technologies needed to create a human being, enhance its capabilities and extend its life are being studied, tested and developed, with results which suggest that the only obstacle standing in front of their mainstream adoption is time. With such powers appearing to become reality, literature is switching its focus: “what would happen if” becomes “what will happen when”.

In Frankenstein, Shelley offers a view into the optimistic dreams of the First Industrial Revolution, dreams made out of unrestricted progress and production, but not devoid of negative consequences. In a similar manner, Delillo’s work is a reflection of his own historical period, the late capitalist era where individualism leads even a finite resource such as time to become expandable for the few that can afford it. Zero K is a depiction of ultimate greed, a portrayal — and a warning — of the near future scenario where people will not only be divided between rich and poor but also between mortal and immortal.