Origin Horror Stories: Men, Gods and Monsters

For many of us, “monsters” are shadows on a child’s bedroom wall; aliens only exist in the imaginations of “pathetic low-lifes with boring jobs,” as cartoon child Lisa Simpson says. While these creatures’ real existences are debatable, they are essential elements of our stories. In the sci-fi horror genre, monsters and aliens are not only for good for tingling spines and jump scares, but also to stand in for much less tangible, yet more real, sources for anxiety – fears rooted in the human experience. In certain circumstances, characters’ tumultuous encounters with monsters and aliens in our horror and sci-fi favorites reference our relationship with an entity whose existence is even more hotly contested, whose actions may appear even more twisted and mysterious – God.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof), tangle, erase, and mock the lines between good and evil; villains and heroes; men, monsters and gods. Both of these tales touch on the question of where we come from, and how the answer to this impacts our views of ourselves and our place in the universe. Scientific discovery has an especially influential role in developing the answer to where we come from. But the closer science seems to get to an answer, the more disturbing our very existence can be. In between the creations of these two stories, Friedrich Nietzsche grappled with science’s consequences on our perceptions of ourselves.

In 1818, in the midst of a competition between other literary greats, Mary Shelley dreamed the basic horror of the Frankenstein story – human life engineered by man himself.  Much of the repulsiveness of Frankenstein’s monster arises from the unholiness of his existence; an imperfect being made by an imperfect being, Frankenstein’s monster is not only a reflection of the scientist’s flaws, but a representative of an essential quality of human existence. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural Creator, we undoubtedly create each other – our personalities, our capabilities, our weaknesses, our perceptions of ourselves.

Another contributor to modern culture, Friedrich Nietzsche, shares Frankenstein’s disgust of the human being without divine origin, and blames the likes of Dr. Frankenstein for unleashing the horror unto humanity. In 1887’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues against using science as a foundation for moral evaluation and philosophical inspiration, asserting that scientific discoveries have disfigured our image of ourselves, turning man into Frankenstein’s monster. In Section 25 of the Third Essay, Nietzsche writes:

Has man perhaps become less desirous of a transcendent solution to the riddle of his existence, now that this existence appears more arbitrary, beggarly, and dispensable in the visible order of things? Has the self-belittlement of man, his will to self-belittlement, not progressed irresistibly since Copernicus? Alas, the faith in the dignity and uniqueness of man, in his irreplaceability in the great chain of being, is a thing of the past – he has become an animal, literally and without qualification, he who was, according to his old faith, almost God (“child of God,” “God-man”).

Copernicus’s proof that the Earth revolves around the sun contradicted the long-held belief that the universe literally revolved around humanity.  This scientific discovery is also symbolically significant for Nietzsche’s argument; in the vastness of the natural universe, man is just another carbon-based lifeform, on a spinning blue marble that has no remarkable role in the great unknown. In analyzing physical processes, our scientific study of man creates an mechanistic image of him, seeking to define his behavior as calculable and instinctive, like an animal, whereas Christianity had proposed him to be the child of the divine, the only living creature made in a perfect God’s image. In regards to our understanding of the natural origins of our behavior and the corresponding dethronement of the mysterious divine, Nietzsche complains  that “all science…has at present the object of dissuading man from his former respect for himself, as if this had been nothing but a piece of bizarre conceit” (OGM, Third Essay, Section 25, page 156).

Perhaps Frankenstein’s worst mistake was not in creating his Adam, but in abandoning him, without socializing him and providing him with an understanding of the human world into which he has been “born.” Frankenstein’s scientific work stopped short of molding the persona of the creature, giving his life meaning, and helping him to position his existence in a world he cannot possibly understand alone. Similarly, Nietzsche decries the manner in which humanity has embraced science in a manner that has debunked faith in belief and religion, which had encouraged humanity to believe in moral ideals and purpose irrespective of empirical evidence, without providing alternative meaning for man’s existence. That is not to say Nietzsche supports a religion like Christianity.  Rather,  he rejects the view of science as a replacement for Christianity, which he calls a representation of the “ascetic ideal,” as they share the same foundation –  that “truth is inestimable and cannot be criticized” (153). The value of truth driving scientific inquiry compels us to discover and describe what can exist (or could exist), rather than interpret the moral meaning behind what exists (or could exist). Nietzsche opens Section 25 criticizing the moral power of science:

No! Don’t come to me with science when I ask for the natural antagonist of the ascetic ideal, when I demand: ‘where is the opposing will expressing the opposing ideal?’ Science is not nearly self-reliant enough to be that; it first requires in every respect an ideal of value, a value-creating power, in the service of which it could believe in itself – it never creates values.

In order to support only that which is true, the skepticism that pervades scientific pursuit precludes certain human creativity, such as the creative enterprise of moral values or religion. Yes, physicists study the intangible and theoretical; in 1886’s Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche praises the very same Copernican discovery that he had criticized above because it requires humanity to believe what is contrary to what our senses lead us to think. However, to impose meaning, purpose, or moral quality onto natural phenomena, as religion has traditionally done, would be to go beyond the ideal impartial structure of scientific method, disenfranchising man’s ability to determine the purpose of our existence himself. Ironically, as science brings man closer to playing God in a physical sense, explaining natural phenomena such as evolutionary development, which had previously been understood in a mythological manner dependent on faith rather than knowledge, it suppresses and weakens man’s Godlike natural talent for creating culture and inventive thought in perpetuating skepticism.

Besides sharing a reference to the Greek origin myth of human creation and civilization, Prometheus also explores the implications of the relationship between science and religion on human existence that characterizes much of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Prometheus mirrors Shelley’s conception of man creating man, introducing human beings to the Engineers, or Dr. Frankensteins who gave them life. Just as Frankenstein and his monster are haunted by the impurity of the monster’s existence, Elizabeth is horrified in learning that the Engineers who created humanity had “changed their minds” and were intent on destroying their creation. In Prometheus we are not the product of purely good God, but of beings as capable of evil and destruction as ourselves – at least according to our traditional, humanity-centered criteria of good and evil.

The horror at the centers of both these works of art is  the idea that humanity, and the purpose of human existence, is not created by a pure, good God, nor by an entirely amoral natural process. Shelley’s work comments on the idea that we mold each other into who we are, while Scott’s poses a creator who is in the very least morally ambiguous, if not downright evil, according to our conventional moral norms. In the Prometheus universe, in learning more about our physical origins, we do not merely lose moral meaning to our existence, but are introduced to the possibility of our existence arising from evil. Our creator is on course to destroy us using their living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. Out of this discovery arises the question – were we created as weapons ourselves or perhaps as a support system for their biological warfare? Indeed, the human beings are merely inferior versions of the Engineers, and ideal prey for the Alien. Were we meant to prepare earth for breeding the aliens? Was earth meant to be fortified for the good of their race? Elizabeth asks why the Engineers “changed their minds” about human beings. Maybe they didn’t change their minds. Maybe life as prey, not predator, was our “purpose” all along. Sounds a little scarier than just losing our place at the center of the universe, doesn’t it? 

What disturbs me the most in these sci-fi horror stories is the loss of control in determining the meaning of human existence. While both works examine who we are and how we have become who we are, the authors pose very different answers to these questions, with different forms of horror. In Frankenstein, our lives and our identities are subject to each others’ influences. Man creates man in a process that may lack the influence of the divine. While this may mean suffering at the hands of others, struggling against the purposes and constraints posed on us by others, we retain our own agency over our selves. Man is free to create, to impose his will, to imagine. In Prometheus, we owe our existence to external creators, who, presumably, created us for their purposes. It appears they did not value our independence, but saw us as either tools or pets, subject to their wills. Similar to Nietzsche’s argument that posing science as a replacement for religion hinders man’s affinity for value-creation, the Engineers’ material purpose for giving us life makes it difficult to fully believe and justify meanings of life that we have created by our own philosophizing, for we owe our fundamental, material existence to another being.

In reality, we have entered Frankenstein’s and the Engineers’ realm of bioengineering. Harvard’s Wyss Institute is growing artificial organs to replace animals in experimental drug testing. They have created a lung on a chip. Perhaps this work could lead to a working artificial human brain, and with that, an artificial human being. I wonder what an artificially created human brain be like, what its capabilities would be, and how it would develop under environmental influence. How much would we resemble Dr. Frankenstein or the Engineers’ in our motivations for and reactions to such an invention? How would such a scientific study affect our beliefs about divinity? Would our Adam believe in a supernatural Creator?

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