Anthrax and the Mad Scientist
The Specter of a Scientific Stereotype
Bruce Ivins, the accused 2001 anthrax killer, really scares me.
He doesn’t scare me mortally or physically (although if the FBI does indeed have their man, then he scared me pretty badly back in 2001 in Washington, D.C., when I was terrified to open the mailbox). But dead or alive, guilty or innocent, he scares me because of what he can do for the image of the scientist in popular culture today.
There are very, very few kinds of knowledge that we actually ought to regard as forbidden.
There’s a lengthy tradition, dating back long before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to mythological precedents like the story of Prometheus, that depicts the search for knowledge as forbidden, dangerous, and leading disastrous consequences. In this narrative, knowledge leads to the temptation to “play God,” interfere with “nature,” thwart fate to determine who lives and dies. Or as Victor Frankenstein himself puts it in Shelley’s novel: “Learn … by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
In modern cinema especially, the Frankenstein myth has fueled the recurring depiction of “mad scientist” characters whose pursuit of knowledge tempts them to pursue forbidden powers as well—a desire that ultimately leads to their downfall (after taking lots of innocent victims along with them). These scientists want to know, and in such narratives to know is often to kill. The paradigmatic example is perhaps E.T., in which the evil scientists, looking like astronauts in their protective gear, want to slice up the cute alien. But there are many other such films, often linked to the biomedical sciences and especially to the subject of cloning. One thinks of films like Godsend and The Island—in which the doctor running the clone complex has a “God complex”—but the same trope appears in flicks ranging from Jurassic Park to Star Wars (especially episodes II and III). Traveling back further in time, we can detect the same mythology in early twentieth century novels like The Island of Dr. Moreau and Brave New World.
Certainly science has had its dark episodes in the past—most notably the eugenics fad in the early part of the twentieth century (which is what works like Moreau and Brave New World were reacting to). But in the modern period, one could argue that most scientists, and biomedical scientists in particular, have shown strong moral consciences. The 1975 Asilomar conference, when scientists gathered to agree upon ethical guidelines for recombinant DNA research, and to ban some particularly troubling experiments, serves as a noteworthy example. So while the Frankenstein myth never dies, it also doesn’t really fit reality today: Far and away most scientists save lives, rather than dooming them. And there are very, very few kinds of knowledge that we actually ought to regard as forbidden.
But now, if we’re to believe the FBI, then we have a case of reality coming around to match fiction. The Bruce Ivins we’re hearing about in the media sounds like a mad scientist straight out of Hollywood’s most feverish fantasies. He had access to forbidden knowledge (anthrax spores and how to use them), and a sly, horrible plan to apply that knowledge to its worst possible end. For a public that has been repeatedly instructed not to trust the responsibility of scientists—because they don’t value life and their quest for understanding is somehow dehumanizing and dangerous—Ivins perfectly reaffirms the dangerous stereotype.
Moreover, in doing so, he plays into a particular political agenda. Recognizing well the potency of the mythological tradition I’ve just described, the foes of various forms of biomedical research and advancement have long sought to exploit it to further their ends. Leon Kass, the conservative first chair of President Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, opened the council’s meetings by assigning members to read a Frankenstein-type story, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” whose plot (summarized by someone far more able than myself) involves “a scientist married to a stunningly beautiful woman whose only flaw is a tiny, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. The scientist devises a treatment to get rid of the imperfection. The treatment works, but—alas!—kills the wife in the process.”
I used to delight in criticizing or even lampooning Kass, and in pointing out the inapplicability of fictional stereotypes to the sober consideration of modern issues in bioethics and science. Today the mad scientist stereotype remains as unhelpful as ever—but the dominant image of the anthrax killer only strengthens its already mythic power.
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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