Friday, June 10, 2011

MONSTER not by birth or achievements (or lack there of) Stephen Jay Gould


I took this from a PDF Download that is not giving me a link (*BOOO) - except this:

I hope this all copies.
this was written by Stephen Jay Gould - one of my heros.....  
it makes such a critical statement about humanity, art, and  - well so much else, I needed to share it.  

I took this from a PDF
copied and pasted


and he was on the Simpsons: 

Interesting supplementary texts – http: //
Click on English Department.

The Monster’s Human Nature
Stephen Jay Gould

     An old Latin proverb tells us to “beware the man of one book” – cave ab homine unius libri.  Yet
Hollywood knows only one theme in making monster movies from the archetypal Frankenstein of 1931 to
modern works.  Human technology may not go beyond an intended order decreed by God or set by nature’s
laws.  No matter how benevolent the purposes of the transgressor, such cosmic arrogance can only lead to
killer tomatoes, very large rabbits with sharp teeth, giant ants or even larger blobs that swallow entire cities. 
Yet these films often use far more subtle books as their sources and in doing so, distort the originals beyond
all thematic recognition.

 The trend began in 1931 with Frankenstein, Hollywood’s first great monster talkie.  Hollywood
decreed its chosen theme by the most upfront of all conceivable strategies.  The film begins with a prologue
featuring a well-dressed man standing on stage before a curtain, to issue both a warning about the potential
fright and to announce the film’s deeper theme as the story of a man of science who sought to create a man
after his own image without reckoning upon God.

 In the movie, Dr. Waldman, Henry’s old medical school professor, speaks of his pupil’s insane
ambition to create life, a diagnosis supported by Frankenstein’s own feverish words of enthusiasm: “I
created it.  I made it with my own hands from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows, from

 The best of a cartload of sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) makes the favored theme even
more explicit in a prologue featuring Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein when she was
only nineteen years old and published the story two years later in 1818). In conversation with her husband,
Percy, and their buddy Lord Byron, she states: “My purpose was to write a moral lesson of the punishment
that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.”
 Shelley’s Frankenstein is a rich book of many themes, but I can find little therein to support the
Hollywood reading.  The text is neither a diatribe on the dangers of technology nor a warning about
overextended ambitions against a natural order.  We find no passages about disobeying God – an unlikely
subject for Mary Shelley and her freethinking friends (Percy had been expelled from Oxford in 1811 for
publishing a defense of atheism.)  Victor Frankenstein (I do not know why Hollywood changed him to
Henry) is guilty of a great moral failing, as we shall see later, but his crime is not technological
transgression against a natural or divine order.
 We can find a few passages about the awesome power of science, but these words are not
negative.  Professor Waldman, a sympathetic character in the book, states, for example:

(*An Image I am (Abbi)  - using in my own art) - I TOOK THIS IMAGE FROM & IT IS NOT MY OWN:

 They [scientists] penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding
places.  They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates and the nature of the
air we breathe.  They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers.

 We do learn that ardor without compassion or moral consideration can lead to trouble, but Shelley
applies this argument to any endeavor, not especially to scientific discovery.  Victor Frankenstein says:

 A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to
allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility.  I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge
is an exception to this rule. 


affections…then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.  If this rule
were always observe…Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America
would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

 Victor’s own motivations are entirely idealistic:  “I thought that if I could bestow animation upon
lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to
corruption.” Finally, as Victor expires in the Arctic, he makes his most forceful statement on the dangers
of scientific ambition, but he only berates himself and is own failures, while stating that others might well
succeed.  Victor says his dying words to the ship’s captain who found him on the polar ice:

 Farewell, Walton.  Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition even if it be only the
apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.  Yet why do I say this?  I
have myself been blasted in these hopes yet another may succeed.

 But Hollywood dumbed these subtleties down to the essay formula – “man must not go beyond
what God and nature intended” (you almost have to use the old gender-biased language for such a
simplistic archaicism) – and has been treading in its own footsteps ever since.

 Karloff’s Frankenstein contains an even more serious and equally prominent distortion of a theme
that I regard as the primary lesson of Mary Shelley’s book – another lamentable example of Hollywood’s
sense that the American public cannot tolerate even the slightest exercise in intellectual complexity.  Why
is the monster evil? Shelley provided a nuanced and subtle answer that, to me, sets the central theme of her
book. But Hollywood opted for a simplistic solution, so precisely opposite to Shelley’s intent that the
movie can no longer claim to be telling a moral fable (despite the protestations of the man in front of the
curtain, or of Mary Shelley herself in the sequel) and becomes instead, as I suppose the maker intended all
along, a pure horror film.

 James Whale, director of the 1931 Frankenstein, devoted the movie’s long and striking opening
scenes to this inversion of Shelley’s intent – so the filmmakers obviously viewed this alteration as crucial.
The movie opens with a burial at the graveyard.  After the mourners depart, Henry and his obedient servant,
the evil hunchbacked Fritz, dig up the body and cart it away.  Then they cut down another dead man from
the gallows, but Henry exclaims:  “The neck’s broken. The brain is useless; we must find another brain.” 

 The scene switches to the university where Professor Waldman is lecturing on cranial anatomy
and comparing “one of the most perfect specimens of the normal brain” with “the abnormal brain of a
typical criminal.”  Waldman firmly locates the criminal’s depravity in the inherited malformations of his
brain; anatomy is destiny.  Note, Waldman says, the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobes and the
distinct degeneration of the middle frontal lobes.  All of these degenerate characteristics check amazingly
with the case history of the deed man before us, whose life was one of brutality, of violence, and of murder.
 Fritz breaks in after the students leave and steals the normal brain, but the sound of a gong startles
him and he drops the precious object, shattering its container.  Fritz then has to take the criminal brain
instead, but he never tells Henry.  The monster is evil because Henry unwittingly makes him of evil stuff.
Later in the film, Henry expresses his puzzlement at the monster’s nasty temperament, for he made his
creature of the best materials.  But Waldman, finally realizing the source of the monster’s behavior, tells
Henry, “The brain that was stolen from my laboratory was a criminal brain.” Henry then counters with
one of the cinema’s greatest double takes, and finally manages a feeble retort: “Oh, well, after all it’s only
a piece of dead tissue.”  “Only evil will come from it, “ Waldman replies, “you have created a monster and
it will destroy you” – true enough, at least until the next sequel.

 Karloff’s intrinsically evil monster stands condemned by the same biological determinism that has
so tragically and falsely restricted the lives of millions who committed no transgression besides
membership in a despised race, sex, or social class.  Karloff’s actions record his internal state.  He manages
a few grunts and in one of the sequels, even learns some words from a blind man who cannot perceive his
ugliness, although the monster never gets much beyond “eat,” “smoke” and “good.”  Shelley’s monster, by
contrast, is a most remarkably literate fellow.  He learns French by assimilation after hiding for several months in the hovel of a noble family temporarily in straitened circumstances.  His three favorite books
would bring joy to the heart of any college English professor who could persuade students to read and
enjoy even one:  Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (of
which Shelley’s novel is an evident parody.) The original monster’s thunderous threats certainly pack more
oomph than Karloff’s pitiable grunts: “I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of
your remaining friends.”

 Shelley’s monster is not evil by inherent condition.  He is born unformed – carrying the
predispositions of human nature, but without the specific manifestations that can only be set by upbringing
and education.  He is the Enlightenment’s man of hope, whom learning and compassion might mold to
goodness and wisdom. But he is also a victim of post – Enlightenment pessimism as the cruel rejection of
his natural fellows drives him to fury and revenge. (Even as a murderer, the monster remains fastidious and
purposive. Victor Frankenstein is the source of his anger, and he only kills the friends and lovers whose
deaths will bring victor the most grief; he does not, like Godzilla or the Blob, rampage through cities.)

 Mary Shelley chose her words carefully to take a properly nuanced position at a fruitfully
intermediate point between nature and nurture – whereas Hollywood opted for nature alone to explain the
monster’s evil deeds. Frankenstein’s creature is not inherently good by internal construction or benevolent
theory of “nature alone,” but no different in mode of explanation from Hollywood’s opposite version. He
is, rather, born capable of goodness, even with an inclination toward kindness, should circumstances of his
upbringing call forth this favored response.  In his final confession to Captain Walton, before heading north
to immolate himself at the Pole, the monster says:

 My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to
vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even

 He then adds:  Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.
Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent
qualities which I was capable of bringing forth. I was nourished with high thoughts of honor and design.
But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal…when I call over the frightful catalogue of my
deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions
of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.

 Why, then, does the monster turn to evil against an inherent inclination to goodness?  Shelley
gives us an interesting answer that seems almost trivial in invoking such a superficial reason, but that
emerges as profound when we grasp her general theory of human nature.  He becomes evil, of course,
because humans reject him so violently and so unjustly.  His resulting loneliness becomes unbearable.  He

 And what was I?  Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I
possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.  I was, besides, endowed with figure hideously
deformed and loathsome…when I looked around, I saw and heard none like me.  Was I then a monster, a
blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?

 But why is the monster so rejected if his feelings incline toward benevolence, and his acts to
evident goodness?  He certainly tries to act kindly, in helping the family in the hovel that forms his hiding

 I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption, but
when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with
berries, nuts and roots, which I gathered from a neighboring wood. I discovered also another means
through which I was enabled to assist their labors. I found that the youth spent a great part of each day in
collecting wood for the family fire; and during the night, I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly
discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days.

 Shelley tells us that all humans reject and even loathe the monster for a visceral reason of literal
superficiality: his truly terrifying ugliness – a reason heartrending in its deep injustice and profound in its
biological accuracy and philosophical insight about the meaning of human nature.
 The monster, by Shelley’s description, could scarcely have been less attractive in appearance.
Victor Frankenstein describes the first sight of his creature alive:

 How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such
infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his
features as beautiful.  Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and
arteries beneath: his hair was a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these
luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color
as the dun white sockets in which they were set; his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.

 At the hyper-NBA height of eight feet, the monster scares all who cast eyes upon him.

 The monster quickly grasps this unfair source of human fear and plans a strategy to overcome
initial reactions and prevail by good ness of soul. He presents himself first to the blind old father in the
hovel above his hiding place and makes a good impression.  He hopes to win the man’s confidence, and
thus gain a favorable introduction to the world of sighted people. But in his joy at acceptance, he stays too
long. The man’s son returns and drives the monster away – as fear and loathing overwhelm any inclination
to hear about inner decency.

The monster finally acknowledges his inability to overcome visceral fear at his ugliness; his
resulting despair and loneliness drive him to evil deeds:

 I am malicious because I am miserable: am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? 
Shall I respect man when he hates me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of
injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be:
the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.

 Our struggle to formulate a humane and accurate idea of human nature focuses on proper
positions between the false and sterile poles of nature and nurture. Pure nativism – as in the Hollywood
version of the monster’s depravity – leads to a cruel and inaccurate theory of biological determinism, the
source of so much misery and such evasive suppression of hope in millions belonging to unfavored races,
sexes, or social classes.  But pure nurturism can be just as cruel and just as wrong – as in the blame once
heaped upon loving parents, in bygone days of rampant Freudianism, for failures in rearing as putative
sources of mental illness or retardation or autism that we can now identify as genetically based, for all
organs, including brains, may be subject to inborn illness.

The solution, as all thoughtful people recognize, must lie in properly melding the themes of inborn
predisposition and shaping through life’s experiences.  This fruitful joining cannot take the false form of
percentages adding up to 100 – as in intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture – and a
hundred other harmful statements in this foolish format.  When two ends of such a spectrum are
commingled, the result is not a separable amalgam (like shuffling two decks of cards with different packs),
but an entirely new entity that cannot be decomposed (as adults cannot be separated into maternal and
paternal contributions to their totality.)

Frankenstein’s creature becomes a monster because he is cruelly ensnared by one of the deepest
predispositions of our biological inheritance – our aversion toward seriously malformed individuals.
(Konrad Lorenz, the most famous ethologist of the last generation, based much of his theory on the primacy
of this inborn rule.) We are now appalled by the injustice of such a predisposition, but this proper moral
feeling is an evolutionary latecomer, imposed by human consciousness upon a much older mammalian
 We almost surely inherit such an instinctive aversion to serious malformation, but
remember that nature can only supply a predisposition, while culture shapes specific results. And now we
can grasp – for Mary Shelley presented the issue to us so wisely – the true tragedy of Frankenstein’s
monster and the moral dereliction of Victor himself. The predisposition for aversion toward ugliness can be
overcome by learning and understanding. I trust that we have all trained ourselves in this essential form of
compassion, that we all work hard to suppress that revulsion (which in honest moments we all admit we
feel) and to judge people by their qualities of soul, not by their external appearances.

Frankenstein’s monster was a good man in an appallingly ugly body.  His countrymen could have
been educated to accept him, but the person responsible for that instruction – his creator, victor
Frankenstein – ran away from his foremost duty and abandoned his creation at first sight. Victor’s sin does
not lie in misuse of technology or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s
account. Victor failed because he followed a predisposition of human nature – visceral disgust at the
monster’s appearance – and did not undertake the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and
to educate others in acceptance.

He could have schooled his creature (and not left the monster to learn language by eavesdropping
and by scrounging for books in a hiding place under a hovel.) He could have told the world what he had
done. He could have introduced his benevolent and educated monster to people prepared to judge him on
merit. But he took one look at his handiwork and ran away forever. In other words, he bowed to a base
aspect of our common nature and did not accept the particular moral duty of our potential nurture:

I had worked hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate
body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded
moderation. But now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust
filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…a mummy
again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished;
he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing
such as even Dante could not have conceived.

The very first line of the preface to Frankenstein has often been misinterpreted:  “The event on
which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of
German, as not of impossible occurrence.” People suppose the “Dr. Darwin” must be Charles of
evolutionary fame. But Charles Darwin was born on Lincoln’s birthday in 1809 and wasn’t even ten years
old when Mary Shelley wrote her novel. Dr. Darwin is Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus, one of England’s
most famous physicians and an atheist who believed in the material basis of life. (Shelley is referring to his
idea that such physical forces as electricity might be harnessed to quicken inanimate matter – for life has no
inherently spiritual component and might therefore emerge from nonliving substances infused with enough

I will, however, close with my favorite moral statement from Charles Darwin who, like Mary
Shelley, also emphasized our duty to foster the favorable specificities that nurture and education can
control. Mary Shelley wrote a moral take, not about hubris or technology, but about responsibility to all
creatures of feeling and to the products of one’s own hand. The monster’s misery arose from the moral
failure of other humans, not from his own inherent and unchangeable constitution. Charles Darwin then
invoked the same theory of human nature to remind us of duties to all people in universal bonds of
brotherhood: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is
our sin.”
 Excerpted from an article by Stephen Jay Gould, who teaches biology, geology and the history of
science at Harvard University. 

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