When Did Mad Science Become Regular Science?

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People are too big. If we want to save the planet, we must take action to shrink ourselves.

The musings of a classic movie mad scientist or the concept driving an article in a highly reputable publication? I’m afraid it is the latter.


People are too big. If we want to save the planet, we must take action to shrink ourselves.

The musings of a classic movie mad scientist or the concept driving an article in a highly reputable publication? I’m afraid it is the latter.

This message is at the heart of an Atlantic article from 2012 entitled How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.

The piece reports on a proposal to meet the challenge of climate change (if such it be), not by transforming the earth and its climate, as some have suggested, but rather by reengineering human beings themselves.

In a nutshell, the reasoning in this essay goes like this:

The article also discusses various types of possible bioengineering interventions:

I will concentrate on this last suggestion, or at least on its implications. Like the mad scientists of classic cinematic lore, the authors here fly boldly in the face of nature. Contrary to the canon of great films that explore scientific ambition run amok, there would seem to be no audience to provide an ethical conscience. Indeed, one could argue that the declining popularity of this film archetype is evidence that we, as an audience, no longer know where to draw the line between science and nature.

Significant Shrinkage

How did the mad science of classic cinema come to life? The Atlantic article resolves that in order to reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet, we must reduce our physical size.

Now, the first question that’s bound to occur to any sane reader upon hearing this proposal is whether it’s intended seriously. Surely, this must be satire! Perhaps the authors are Exxon…. paid infiltrators, bent on making climate-change alarmists look ridiculous.

But I assure the reader that the authors are perfectly serious.

The lead author is S. Matthew Liao (right), a professor in the Center for Bioethics and the Philosophy Department at New York University. The other authors are with the University of Oxford.

To figure out what’s going on here, let’s look at a few passages from the interview with Professor Liao contained in the Atlantic piece:

Well one of the things that we noticed is that human ecological footprints are partly correlated with size. Each kilogram of body mass requires a certain amount of food and nutrients and so, other things being equal, the larger person is the more food and energy they are going to soak up over the course of a lifetime. There are also other, less obvious ways in which larger people consume more energy than smaller people…. for example a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person, more fabric is needed to clothe larger people, and heavier people wear out shoes, carpets and furniture at a quicker rate than lighter people, and so on.

And so size reduction could be one way to reduce a person’s ecological footprint. For instance if you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs.

How, according to Professor Liao, might the goal of shrinking humanity be accomplished?

There are a couple of ways, actually. You might try to do it through a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which is already used in IVF settings in fertility clinics today. In this scenario you’d be looking to select which embryos to implant based on height.

Another way to affect height is to use a hormone treatment to trigger the closing of the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal…. this sometimes happens by accident in vitamin overdose cases. In fact hormone treatments are already used for height reduction in overly tall children. A final way you could do this is by way of gene imprinting, by influencing the competition between maternal and paternal genes, where there is a height disparity between the mother and father. You could have drugs that reduce or increase the expression of paternal or maternal genes in order to affect birth height.

Professor Liao goes on to discuss ways to chemically induce climate skeptics to accept his proposals.

In my day, this was known as brainwashing. (The scene at left is from the cold-war brainwashing classic, The Manchurian Candidate [John Frankenheimer, 1962].)

But like any archetypal mad scientist, Liao effectively couches his proposition of mind control in benevolent, if not eerily menacing, intent.

What are we to make of all of this?

When obviously intelligent people advance patently absurd…. even wicked…. ideas, the reason is usually not far to look. It is fanaticism: being in the grip of an ideology.

In this case, the ideology at work is called transhumanism.

Transhumanism is the idea that human nature is in no way essential or normative, and that therefore it may be reengineered at will in conformity with whatever ideology you like, be it environmentalism, moralism, or egoism. It carries the connotation that human nature is inherently deficient, and that progress consists in going beyond human nature.

At its core though, transhumanism is a form of Prometheanism, and is essentially power-crazed and cynical. And its penetration of mainstream scholarship is a troubling development. It is a particularly acute demonstration of how things have changed in our society, such that mad lucubrations like Professor Liao’s…. which once were entertained mainly for their value in generating a frisson…. have today become mainstream, respectable, and deadly serious.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad…. You Get the Point

After all, few of his ideas are new. Specifically, the idea of shrinking human beings for the sake of an ideology formed the basis of the plot of an old Hollywood horror film called The Devil Doll (Tod Browning, 1936) (top of page).

The film goes like this: A mad scientist and his wife (above right) have developed a technique for shrinking people to one-sixth their normal size.

The scientist’s noble motivation is to alleviate world hunger. But an evil partner soon takes over and uses the shrunken people (who lack free will due to their tiny brains) to commit murder and mayhem.

It’s all a lot of fun. Lionel Barrymore, playing the evil partner, even appears in drag as an old-lady doll maker (below left). Needless to say, the scientist, the wife, and the partner all get their comeuppance.

The characters in The Devil Doll are little-known examples of what used to be a vivid fixture in the imagination of the reading, theater-going, and film-going public…. the mad scientist.

The mad scientist as a trope of European literature has many sources, but a particularly important one is the Faust legend, in general, and Goethe’s magisterial treatment of the theme, in particular, in his play Faust, the first part of which was originally published in 1808.

Faust, of course, is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for forbidden knowledge, thus establishing the theme of the price to be paid for scientific knowledge that transgresses moral boundaries. For an early film treatment, see the splendid 1926 silent, Faust, by F. W. Murnau.

However, a more immediate prototype of the modern mad scientist is undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818 and retold in countless stage and film versions. The best-known…. and also the best…. of these is surely James Whale’s classic 1931 film, Frankenstein. In this tale…. which is too famous to require extended commentary…. Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secret of life and creates in his laboratory a hideous being, which is rejected by humanity and consequently proceeds to run amok.

Many other mad scientists appear throughout nineteenth-century literature. For example, E.T.A Hoffmann’s story, The Sandman (1816), includes an alchemist, Coppelius, and a physicist, Spalanzani, who conspire to create a lifelike automaton, which they call Olympia and pass off as Spalanzani’s daughter. This story forms the basis for the first act of Jacques Offenbach’s delightful 1881 opera, Les contes d’Hoffmann. Don’t miss the marvelous 1951 film version, The Tales of Hoffmann, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Nathaniel Hawthorne followed suit in 1843 with his short story, The Birth-Mark, in which a scientist becomes obsessed with curing a small birthmark on his beautiful wife’s face. This he succeeds in doing. However, as the birthmark fades from the young woman’s cheek, so does her life force. In the end, she dies…. -all unblemished. This story is almost made-to-order for modern debates about "perfecting" human nature.

Another winner in the mad-scientist sweepstakes was Robert Louis Stevenson, whose immortal novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was published in 1886. As everyone knows, Dr. Jekyll pursues a potion that will help men to restrain their base urges, but only succeeds in turning himself into the wicked Mr. Hyde whose base urges are entirely unrestrained. The story has been filmed many times, including the classic 1931 version, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Rouben Mamoulian. An intriguing variation on the same theme involving a brain transplant operation gone awry is the 1940 horror classic, Black Friday, by Curt Siodmak.

Finally…. to wind up this brief survey of mad scientists in literature and film…. we come to the inventor of perhaps the most horrible and haunting mad scientist of all time: H.G. Wells. His greatest creation is The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), in which Wells foresaw many of the moral quandaries we are grappling with today. Dr. Moreau works at transforming animals into human beings, after a fashion, using advanced surgical techniques (albeit without anesthesia) in a laboratory known to his experimental subjects…. beasts given the gift of speech…. as the House of Pain. You might say he is the founder of the transhumanist movement. Transhumanists everywhere should get together and erect a statue in his honor.

A disturbing film was made of this book in 1932. Directed by Earle C. Kenton, Island of Lost Souls is a marvel of atmosphere and the chilling intimation of evil, seen and unseen. Moreau is played by the great Charles Laughton (right), at his most repulsively sinister. You cannot help cheering at the end, when the chimeras who are Moreau’s creations break free and apply the knives to his own flesh in the House of Pain. Wells’s redressing of the moral balance in this way also inspired French filmmaker Georges Franju with the idea for the ending of his elegant 1960 horror classic, Les yeux sans visage [Eyes without a Face], in which the mad scientist is devoured by the dogs he has been experimenting on.

Much less grim, but equally gripping, is Wells’s 1897 novel, The Invisible Man, about a scientist who succumbs to the temptation of power upon creating a potion to render himself invisible. In essence a modern retelling of the myth of Gyges’s ring from the second book of Plato’s Republic, The Invisible Man was brilliantly realized on the screen by James Whale in 1933.

One might go on almost forever…. such was the former popularity of the mad-scientist theme in popular culture. However, let me conclude with a performance so indelible that it cannot be omitted here: that of Peter Lorre in the role of Dr. Gogol in Karl Freund’s 1935 reworking of the silent expressionist classic, Orlacs Hände [The Hands of Orlac] (Robert Wiene, 1924).

Freund’s film is retitled Mad Love, and concerns a doctor who becomes obsessed with an actress. Her husband is injured in a railway accident, losing his hands. Dr. Gogol replaces the husband’s hands with those of a murderer who has just been executed. All sorts of complications ensue, but never has a mad scientist behaved more despicably…. or at least less chivalrously…. than Peter Lorre’s Gogol (below left).

Restoring Moral Order

Now…. in case it is not already obvious…. let me stress that all of these novels, stories, and movies have a very interesting feature in common:

They all end with the moral order restored through the death of the mad scientist and the destruction of his unholy creations.

It is this feature which is often lacking in contemporary movies that flirt with the mad-scientist genre. For example, in what is surely the greatest science-fiction film of all time…. a veritable tour de force of cinematic imagination wedded to technical genius…. the Promethean attitude is the true hero of the film. I am talking about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

While the revolt of the omniscient computer HAL might be advanced as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, taken as a whole the film must be seen as a glorification of transhumanism. At the end of the day, the alienated and affectless human beings who populate the film are scarcely distinguishable from the gadgets that surround them (below right). But in any case in Kubrick’s eyes, they…. that is, we human beings…. are a bunch of poor specimens destined for rapid replacement by a better race. That’s the symbolic meaning of the star child…. the gigantic floating fetus…. at the end of the film, as well as the take-home message of Childhood’s End, the 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke upon which the film is based.

In summary, 2001 channels Kubrick’s misanthropy, cynicism, and moral nihilism, painting a picture of humanity as a feeble and faintly contemptible link in a chain from the monkey hurling a stick into the air to our utopian future. It is a true transhumanist manifesto…. one which has set the pace for science-fiction films ever since.(2)

To be sure, there have been exceptions to Kubrick-style Prometheanism. For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s great 1972 film, Solaris, is a kind of anti-2001. And…. on an aesthetically more-modest scale…. films like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), and Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) all clearly intend to raise moral questions in the viewer’s mind.

But none of these films takes a clear moral stand against the mad scientist in the way that the classic Hollywood films did. At most, they generate a feeling of discomfort in the viewer. Above all, they trade on a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time, when human beings were capable of taking morality seriously. But they all seem to exist in a post-moral universe in which transhumanism is…. even if deplored…. nevertheless perceived as inevitable.

Today’s mass-audience blockbusters…. the Avatars (James Cameron, 2009) and the Inceptions (Christopher Nolan, 2010)…. for the most part take Prometheanism and indeed transhumanism for granted. Their moral concerns, such as they are, lie entirely elsewhere. The gee-whiz factor trumps all moral and even aesthetic considerations.

In short, the mad scientist has disappeared from our cinematic landscape. The reason is not far to seek: We have lost our sense of the sacred, and with it our belief in transgression. There would seem to be no line that science can cross so as to be considered mad in our contemporary view.

That is why we can no longer recognize insane hubris whether in art or in scholarship.


(1) S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache, Human Engineering and Climate Change, Ethics, Policy, and the Environment, forthcoming.

(2) In the wake of World War II scientists became secular saints, and horror films for the most part suppressed their traditional mad-scientist element. To the extent that the theme has continued to be plumbed, it has been within the context of the science-fiction genre, not horror.

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