It was a bold move, the kind of thing only someone who understood both the power and promise of science would undertake. The idea that lightning was electricity was immediately embraced by science - and it was reviled by the superstitious. The natural world was not to be trifled with, challenging nature was opening up a Pandora's Box, they said. The ripple effects of science were unknown, animals could mutate, humans could create a machine that could crack the world. Like mystics of old, they found evidence as needed. 64 years later, science in Europe returned from a hiatus brought on by the Napoleonic Wars and the left's French Revolution and there had been a gigantic volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia - and its effects were being felt worldwide.
Snow fell in July, the global temperature dropped, crops died. The sun was blocked out. 1816 became The Year Without A Summer, it was God's wrath against man tinkering with the natural world again. Steeped in knowledge of both the science and the ethical concerns of the day, Mary Shelley began writing what would become her famous novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was a good time to write a Gothic horror novel because the future looked bleak and Shelley included her knowledge of Galvani and Aldini and their work understanding electricity and dead bodies, and Erasmus Darwin's 'generation' concept. To complement that, she included lush descriptions of the natural world.
In the story, a man finally cracked the ultimate law of nature - he created life from unlife - and things went bad. But Shelley was not writing it because she was afraid. Like a science fiction author who writes about how things can go bad, she did not hate science, she loved it. And she understood it.
So it is ironic that today Shelley's novel is used in exactly the opposite way she wrote it. Instead of superstitious religious people being afraid of science, it is wealthy elites that once flocked to see science experiments in theaters. Science was feared by Baptists in the 1700s but today Baptists in conservative, religious, southern states like Alabama and Mississippi adore science - their vaccine exemptions and acceptance of GMOs are almost unanimous - while educated elites in states like California and Oregon huddle in fear and promote the idea that nature will strike down foolish men; for using less pesticides, of all things.
"Frankenfood" is their phrase of choice, because apparently none of them ever actually read the novel Frankenstein or a paper on how genetic modification is done. They think GMOs are random attached parts, when in reality that is more like what nature does.
Writing in a guest post at Genetic Literacy Project, I outlined the circumstances of the 18th century anti-science culture and how it compares to the superstitious people of today.
There is good news. Superstition did not hold back science in the 18th and 19th centuries. Maxwell would give us electromagnetics, Darwin's grandson Charles would give us evolution, we got commercial fertilizer. Malthus has been pushed back for a few hundred more years.
One thing we share in common with the 18th century is that there are still doomsday prophets - the big difference today is that they are found mostly in a Whole Foods store rather than a church.
Science as profane: What superstition of 1752 and 2014 share in common by Hank Campbell, Genetic Literacy Project
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