But Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley published anonymously in 1818, also changed science. These days we have plenty of robots and CGI movies galore to illustrate that we humans are viscerally, fundamentally not cool with humanoid gray areas. And 200 years after Frankenstein lurched onto the scene, science still hasn't definitively answered some of the questions Shelley posed about the ethics of researching things you might not want to take responsibility for later. Questions like, just because you can create a monster, does that mean you should create a monster?
Creating a monster didn't turn out well for Victor Frankenstein in Shelley's novel, but that didn't stop us from building the atom bomb. We continue to pursue research in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering, human-made pathogens, and nanobots, regardless of doomsday predictions surrounding these fields of research. So, although science has come a long way since Frankenstein was published, we are still grappling with some of the ethical questions posed by the novel, like what is a scientist's responsibility for the results of her research, and is there a limit to what she should try in the first place?
For instance, while slapping together a bunch of body parts and sticking a consciousness in it is currently impossible, we are getting closer and closer to growing organs and body parts from stem cells in the lab, which is exciting because it might make organ donation obsolete. If the researchers get their way, in the next 50 years, we could just grow a new kidney out of your own stem cells instead of taking one from your very generous sister or some poor soul who's died in a car accident. Or waiting years for a donor.
But when we're talking about growing living tissue, we're still firmly in Frankenstein territory.
"Ethics are certainly part of the conversation," says Dr Karl Koehler, assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, in an email. Koehler and a team of researchers recently succeeded in growing a ball of mouse ear skin in the lab, complete with inner and outer layers of skin, in addition to hair follicles.
According to Koehler, one ethics discussion in this line of research has to do with the need to place boundaries on lab-grown organ production. So far, most studies have looked at individual organ systems, but in the near future, we'll see more and more attempts to put organoids — basically tissues that look and function like organs, grown in a culture dish — to work with other organoids.
"There is another concern about "embryoids," which are a special class of organoid containing all three layers of embryonic tissue: the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm," says Koehler.
"It is feasible that embryoids could generate an entire embryo. Although this is technically impossible at the moment, we need to carefully consider how to use these systems responsibly as the technology improves."