Not too long ago I had the pleasure of watching the 1933 adaptation of The Invisible Man. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, the ending got me thinking about a very tired cliche in science fiction. ‘Jack’ Griffin, as the film has specified his first name, says with his dying breath that he had meddled in things that man must leave alone. What a surprise!(Please note the sarcasm)
This kind of thing happens a lot in the mad scientist crowd, as they all seem to be tripping over each other in the rush to step on the toes of God. Then when karma gives them a resounding slap for their shortsighted foolishness, their tune changes and they start going on about how they shouldn’t mess with nature or that sometimes it’s better to remain ignorant than have harmful knowledge.
Frankenstein is probably the quintessential example of this notion, but at least Shelly was being original at the time and had a more nuanced perspective than some writers. This idea has been repeated over and over, and it has always bugged me for many good reasons.
It’s simply a bad excuse. It takes some of the blame off the scientist in question at the cost of scientific curiosity. Why would a ‘Mr. MadScientist’ so to speak, take the time to think about the consequences of his actions when he could just say that said discovery simply wasn’t meant for humans to begin with? It’s a rather fatalistic argument too, making the assumption that when mankind is equipped with certain kinds of scientific knowledge people will either misuse or mess thing up in the same way.
How can anyone considering resurrecting the dead, making mutated monsters, or building dangerous robots not stop and ask themselves, ‘how could this possibly go wrong?’ Nope! Mr. MadScientist never stops to think about it because he’s caught up in obtaining scientific knowledge, in a rush due to altruistic motivations, or trying to take over the world. Take your pick at his motivations, they all require a lack of foresight.
(For the record, I fully acknowledge that ‘Mr. MadScientist’ could be ‘Miss MadScientist.’ Women are just as capable as men are when it comes to making terrible decisions. If it bothers you that much just change the pronouns around or something.)
One could say that Mr. MadScientist lacks morality, ethics, common sense, or all of the above. That can definitely be considered a character flaw. And yes, respect should be granted to nature or whatever divine power one may adhere to, but that doesn’t mean remaining ignorant is a preferable alternative. Human knowledge is simply a tool – inherently neutral by itself, and any tool can be an instrument for good or evil. A hammer can be used to help build a house or bash someone’s brains in, but it doesn’t say anything about the hammer.
This notion also makes a lot of harmful assumptions. I’ve already mentioned how it reveals a complete lack of faith in humankind’s ability to be responsible with scientific knowledge. Also, Mr. MadScientist, how do you know that what you messed with really belongs to the control of God/Nature? Science that was once taboo hundreds of years ago, considered blasphemous or worse, has become mainstream and useful today. Think of all the grave-robbing that occurred back in the day just to get bodies for anatomical study. Nobody got struck by lightening for furthering human understanding of our own anatomy.
This kind of attitude goes against the very nature of science. I hate the idea that having no knowledge of a subject is the best solution. Sometimes making discoveries involves taking risks, and knowledge shouldn’t be scrapped when things go wrong. Rather, learn from your mistakes so you don’t make them again. Who says that someone couldn’t do better with the scientific discoveries that lead to your downfall?
I just want to say Mr. MadScientist, you fucked up. You and you alone. Don’t go putting your mistakes on anyone or anything else.
Readers, are there any stories that have annoyed you by using this trope? Are there any cliches that bother you to no end? Let me know in the comments.