2 MAY 1998, Page 31

Hideous progeny

Andrew Barrow


Yale University Press, £16.95, pp. 276

About 20 years ago, I had lunch with the actor Peter Cushing at his remote, sea- swept cottage near Whitstable. It was a cheerful and unscary experience except for the times when my host put on a strange white glove, in order, he said, to prevent nicotine stains forming on his hand, which would then show up anachronistically in cinema close-ups.

I mention this occasion partly to show how slight my qualifications are for reviewing this deadly serious, meticulously researched scientific book. Aside from that meeting with the actor most famous for his portray- als of Frankenstein, I have never come near the notorious myth or what its origi- nal creator Mary Shelley called its 'hideous progeny'.

Nor have I wished to. Am I entirely alone in finding eight-page spreads about test-tube babies and genetically engineered soya beans more ridiculous than distasteful? And why are jokes about cloning meant to be so frightfully funny and so socially acceptable?

But in fact this is exactly what this clever and complicated book is all about. It is written by a lecturer on 'Science Communication' and is more concerned with the public image of science and scientists than the reality of their past and likely future achievements.

The author has set himself a very diffi- cult task. He clearly believes in the influ- ence of fictional representations but knows that scientific plausibility is hard to define, as are the boundaries between fact and fic- tion, the present and the past.

His survey starts naturally enough (or should I say unnaturally?) with Franken- stein itself, anonymously published in 1818 but soon to prove itself one of the most fertile, adaptable and pervasive myths of all time. It has inspired innumerable horror and science fiction stories, at least 130 full- length novels and more than 400 films, sev- eral of which have starred Peter Cushing. According to Jon Turney, the Frankenstein saga still remains 'the governing myth of modern biology'. Pasteur and Koch may have been instantly viewed as 'universal benefactors', but the idea of the 'mad sci- entist' even these days clings tenaciously to the popular imagination. The media has a lot to answer for.

Frankenstein's Footsteps moves steadily and inexorably towards the 'genetic pornog- raphy' of today's tabloids and broadsheets. In the process, it takes in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Island of Dr Moreau, Brave New World and a whole host of less literary but equally successful modern efforts. With great glee and considerable perspicacity, the author embraces films like Jurassic Park, Mary Shelley's Prankenstein and other evi- dence of the durability of the negative stereo- type of the Man of Science. The scientist may have graduated from Gentleman Amateur in Frock Coat Stands in His Library to Man in White Coat Looking at Molecular Model with Furrowed Brow, but his activities still generate what Mr Turney describes as 'profound disquiet', 'growing unease', 'foolish fears' and 'deep ambiva- lence'.

Of course, you could argue that a book featuring Boris Karloff on its back cover does nothing to ease these concerns. Can a book built round Frankenstein seriously hope to raise the level of debate about genetic engineering? The author's relish in describing the 'evolutionary monstrosities', `cruel parodies of natural selection' and `soulless somethings' that might result from `tinkering in God's realm', 'prying into Nature's secrets' and 'wandering beyond the proper limits of human knowledge' sug- gests that he is in two minds about the mat- ter and not necessarily the right person to guide us through these ethical mine-fields.

My own feeling is that this book is to some extent a gigantic red herring, more concerned with distant rather than immedi- ate possibilities and focusing only on the most sensational side of medical advance. The author only briefly mentions vaccina- tions, transplant surgery, antibiotics, the kid- ney machine, the Pill, anti-depressant drugs and other modern miracles and intellectual triumphs but constantly reverts to the more exciting, newsworthy and vulgar search for the Secret of Life, without ever really explaining why there is a need to create life or what the great hurry is.

I am prepared to believe that there may be a 'biological Utopia', as predicted by J. B. S. Haldane, and that certainly there are `vast treasures in store' but I am sure these will be brought about by educational and psychological advances rather than purely scientific, mech-anical ones. Was man's landing on the moon anything more than a magnificent spectacle?

This is, however, a painstakingly thorough book. The author has unearthed expert people with names like Landrum Shettles, Bentley Glass and Paul Nurse (whatever happened to Janette Turner Hospital by the way?) and more than makes up for the miserable four-and-a-half-page index by providing 25 pages of footnotes and a 21- page bibliography. The 16 pages of black- and-white illustrations include an eerie `still' from Hammer Films' Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed showing my old friend Peter Cushing grappling with an unearthly jungle of gurgling pipes and test-tubes without protective gloves. Cushing, incidentally, always claimed that he based his portrayal of Frankenstein on the pioneering Edin- burgh surgeon Robert Knox, who was vili- fied for buying corpses from Burke and Hare and hounded out of the city. Haven't we read something about that recently?