The Frankenfood Myth Revisited

The final part from our guest author Jack Bobo this week on food technology. Jack Bobo serves as Chief Communications Officer at the Intrexon Corporation.

In 1992, as the Food and Drug Administration was completing its review of the first genetically engineered (GE) or GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops, an English professor of romantic and Gothic literature from Boston named Paul Lewis wrote a letter to the New York Times in which he commented:AAEAAQAAAAAAAAKeAAAAJDVhYjRkNGIxLTcwNDMtNDY2My05YzcyLWNjNDZiNzc3OGI2OA.jpg

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And thus the Frankenfood meme was born.

Professor Lewis really knocked it out of the park with that turn of a phrase.

The story of the Frankenstein monster is part of our modern mythology, representing a cautionary tale for any thing that is brought into existence only to escape control and destroy its creator.

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In much the same way, the novel (and subsequent movie), “Jurassic Park”, is a modern retelling of this myth, just as Frankenstein was a retelling of the Greek myth of Icarus.

The essential question that animates each of these stories is “What happens when man reaches too far and plays with forces he does not completely understand?”

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When I first learned the origin story for the term “Frankenfood” and its connection to a professor of Gothic literature, I felt compelled to go back and read Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein”. I wondered if the analogy of Frankenstein’s monster to Frankenfood was particularly apt.

I was shocked to learn that almost everything I thought I knew about the Frankenstein monster was wrong. While Shelley clearly ponders the question: “How can we harness the knowledge that we have so that it is not self-destructive and for the benefit of all mankind?” she is not at all clear on her feelings about the use or abuse of technology in the story.

How can we harness the knowledge that we have so that it is not self-destructive and for the benefit of all mankind?”

The deranged and destructive creature we think of when we hear the term “Frankenstein monster” is the creation of Hollywood, not Mary Shelley.

In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein does not create a monster so much as he creates a monstrous creature. The creature eventually becomes a monster, but only after being rejected by society – the true monster of the novel.

Romantic Heroes

Shelley’s novel is filled with the themes of romantic writers: concern with nature, human feelings, compassion for mankind, freedom of the individual, and, most importantly, the Romantic hero who rebels against society.

I was surprised to discover that Shelley’s “monster” was cast in the role of the Romantic hero through his rejection by normal society. Wherever he goes, the monster is chased away because of his hideous appearance and his huge size. These are superficial characteristics, however, for he begins the tale as a kind and benevolent creature who wants nothing more than acceptance by man.

Shelley is attempting to show the reader how many people in conventional society reject the less than average or disfigured souls who live on the margins of our society. We cannot blame the monster for what happens to him, and Shelley elicits from the reader a sympathetic response for a creature so misunderstood.

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Far from being the villain of the story, Shelley takes pains to show why we should sympathize with the creature’s dilemma. Late in the novel, even after the creature has taken his revenge against doctor Frankenstein, he is shown as more enlightened than the people who took up their torches and chased him from the castle, as Professor Lewis would have us do today with GMOs. For example, Shelley’s creature explains to Victor Frankenstein, “My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” During the Romantic period, the vegetarian lifestyle was just catching hold in Europe. Shelley’s husband, Percy, was among the earliest converts. Society was not very encouraging to those who pursued the vegetarian diet, which was viewed as a threat to the natural order of things. 

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Morals

Mary Shelley’s creature began his life as a brilliant and innocent being. Society’s blindness to these traits eventually leads him to destroy his creator, but this is done out of despair at being denied the warmth of human affection.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a simple story of man’s hubris sowing the seeds of his own destruction. It is a complex story that challenges the Enlightenment’s belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the constraints of custom or arbitrary authority.

Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to believe that a close connection with nature was mentally and morally healthy. In Shelley’s story the character most closely aligned with nature, and thus the ideals of the Romantic period, is the creature.

Shelley was no fan of the collective judgment or action of society. As in the novel, the monster of the modern Frankenfood myth is society mindlessly attacking what it does not understand. Professor Lewis’ call to light the torches and storm the castle of GMO food producers is, indeed, the perfect analogy for what took place in Shelley’s novel. 

Change is no easier to accept today than it was in 1818. People still find it difficult to look past outward appearances and judge people (and products) on the quality of their character.

Dr. Frankenstein’s failure was not in pushing the boundaries of science and creating the creature in the first place. It was in pushing those boundaries for his own personal glory. Scientists need a moral compass just as much as any other profession, if not more so.

Conclusion

Genetic engineering is used every day in the laboratory to make new medicines. It is used to produce genetically modified microorganisms that produce enzymes for our beer, wine, and cheese, among other things. All of these uses take place without the least bit of controversy. If people are unhappy with past applications of genetic engineering to our food, they should embrace the technology, rather than reject it. They should make it their own and demonstrate how they believe it should be applied to address the challenges that concern them.

The great tragedy of the Frankenfood meme is that so many people choose to play the part of the mindless mob rather than the Romantic hero representing compassion for mankind and concern for nature. Fortunately, the final chapter of the Frankenfood story has not yet been written. It may yet turn out to be a story of redemption rather than tragedy.

Author: Jack Bobo serves as Chief Communications Officer at Intrexon Corporation.

Original article can be found at: http://www.linkedin.com/pulse/frankenfood-myth-revisited-jack-a-bobo?trk=mp-reader-card

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