Not only is he a genius, he has resources, and…a mission. The Mad Scientist (MS) has a brilliant mind that is devoid of the burden of conscience. He is outrageously egotistical, biased, and obstinate. He cannot be tutored or reasoned with once his mind is made because aside from possessing no discernable empathy, compassion, or morality outside what he deems useful, the MS is the prince of flawed logic, poor judgement, and bad choices. Moreover, as the opposite of wise, he is an astounding fool. And in all of this, he is either blissfully ignorant of his own shortcomings, or rejects the notion of shortcomings out of hand. This is why the MS is such a frightening character. In a nutshell, he is a resourceful and single-minded genius who cannot be reasoned with and makes terrible choices with even more terrible consequences in pursuit of his own selfish directives from which he cannot be turned by either love, compassion, or guilt. He will step on his grandmother’s throat to get where he needs to be. The MS is not a good person.
Right now, in popular culture, we are beset on all sides by the zombies trying to eat our brains. However, usually lurking beneath the zombie horde is the MS or group of MS who created the zombies in the first place. Someone, somewhere was messing about with things they should not have been messing with, and the evil essence that was created escaped, and made brain-eating zombies. Therefore, the MS represents everything that society mistrusts about those who are given the noble burden of caring for the health, wellness, and lives of the people in their communities.
Pop culture is full of the MS trope, in varying degrees. Of course there is the lovable and absurd Doc Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy. Go go gadget DeLaurien! Doc Brown is the unwitting and well-meaning MS, even though his experiments have far-reaching, and almost dire consequences for the McFly family. But evil and dangerous not so much as really flaky.
Then there are the scientists of the Jurassic Park franchise. It’s Frankenstein with dinosaurs—big, mean, man-eating dinosaurs—that ultimately, invariably, escape. Are the people in the glass room MS, or are they genetic bioengineers, or are they a bit of both? It’s hard to say but it is certain that they all know what it is they are producing under the careful eye of billionaire John Hammond. After all, he spared no expense, right? In the end, Hammond has a change of heart, but the ethics of his lead scientist can be and are bought by the corporation who returns to film in Jurassic World. And we still have not learned our dinosaur lesson, it seems. The lesson is: Stay away from the dinosaurs because they will ALWAYS escape, they will ALWAYS hunt you, and they will ALWAYS eat you. Most of us would need to hear about what happened on the first island only once to be convinced that we should not go there—ever. But others, well… This also applies to the MS who cannot seem to be dissuaded by the most phenomenal of epic fails because they keep returning to the blood-stained place of their disastrous last experiment to give it another go. This kind of MS is harmful and certainly foolish, but not necessarily evil.
Then there are the MS of the Alien series who cannot be convinced that the hideous and ultraviolent alien creature who feeds on humans, bleeds acid, fears nothing, and multiplies so fast it puts rabbits to shame, is not the sort of creature we want to introduce to the Earth. However, the MS as a corporation, see the alien as a tool to weaponize and profit from. They have absolutely no concern for human life. These MS use science as a business, and extremely foolish, they are motivated solely by greed.
So where does someone like Victor Frankenstein fit in? He doesn’t actually seem evil or cruel. He does seem to care about his family and loved ones. He isn’t motivated by greed or other dark desires. And while he is egotistical, he does not wish to be the cause of any death or pain. He even has a moment’s compassion for the creature he creates. With Victor, it’s all about Reasoning. His ability to reason is malfunctioning. And when his ability to reason clearly—to apply logic and ethics to his science—falters, he fails spectacularly.
Science can certainly continue without reason and ethics, but as the Mad Scientist archetype demonstrates, science does not succeed without reason and ethics. If the purpose behind science is largely to understand the universe, this planet, and ourselves, then science must include all those elements that define us, and must discover us completely within those parameters. We are not stars, after all. We are merely the stuff of stars. When science rejects or omits these fundamental ingredients of our thisness, it becomes incomplete. Attempting to see us from the shoulders down and fully understand what we are is the foolishness of incomplete science. It speaks to madness—at least a place of mistrust, suspicion, and all things wicked and cruel. We need reason. We need to learn how to reason together, to seek the sublime elsewhere, to embrace the other, to see into the center of the issue and treat the argument. These skills are learned in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Humanities…humanness…the art of being “us.”
So, should we eliminate the instruction of Reason from our Universities? I cannot believe this requires a discussion, but looks like we are going to be forced to have it all the same. It is the very thing some agencies seek to eliminate that provides the answer of why it shouldn’t be done. Science cannot stand on its own. It must be tempered with reason and ethics. Just as justice must be tempered with mercy, ethics and reason tell us “why” and “why not” from those sources that exist beyond the abilities of science to prove. Yes, kids need to learn arithmetic, but they also need to know that there is a magical forest through a wardrobe of old fur coats. And that doesn’t stop just because kids become adults.
The human “soul” is revealed through literature, art, philosophy, and music. Without these things, we become the incomplete thing. We slip into the kind of flawed reason that allows us to rationalize the unethical. This is some of what happened to Victor Frankenstein, and not suddenly, but over time. In his pursuit of science, he left behind beauty, art, and philosophy. He did not know this until it was too late, and then realized that in his haste to be purely scientific, he had created ugliness and was, himself, ugly. And what’s more, he couldn’t see true beauty any longer. When he heard the creature’s story, instead of marvelling at the intellectual achievement of the creature and the creature’s moral nature that had developed in spite of himself, he could not see past the creature’s face. Frankenstein had crippled himself spiritually. He had gouged out his own moral eyesight.
I don’t think Victor Frankenstein set out to become a Mad Scientist, but he became one just the same… Mad Scientists have all transmuted from something else…