A short while ago, I began publishing a story entitled For Love of Life, which used pseudoscience to justify the transformation. Immediately after the story was released, I started receiving a series of e-mails from the author of this guest editorial questioning some of the scientific principles in the story. He quite accurately suggested several corrections to improve the accuracy of my story and I decided that anyone who knew more than me (don't laugh; I know there are a lot more of you out there, you just haven't been sending me e-mails) should be sharing that information with others. Thus, this guest editorial describing some of the more common pseudoscientific approaches. Enjoy.

Jeffrey M. Mahr -- Managing Editor

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by Volk-Oboroten
©2001 Volk-Oboroten -- all rights reserved

Many transformation stories involve ostensibly scientific methods of producing a metamorphosis. Sometimes, something goes awry when a mad scientist experiments on himself. More often, an evil genius uses another as a test subject, forcing his victim into another shape. What do these stories imply about the status of science in popular culture? Could any of them reflect actual changes wrought by scientific advances?

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, was one of the earliest popular novels to present the transformation of a person in a supposedly scientific setting. In the story, a potion transforms an elderly professor into the wicked Mr. Hyde by performing age-regression, changing his appearance and setting his evil nature loose. It is interesting to consider that 20th century versions of this tale usually present the Hyde character as taller, stronger and more muscular than Jekyll. In Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Hyde was actually much shorter than Jekyll, as he reflected a less developed aspect of the scientist's persona. As Hyde started to gain control, his height increased, reflecting the growth of Jekyll's alter ego at the expense of his previously dominant personality.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis might be scientifically compared to a person who becomes addicted to a drug. At first, the drug only activates a previously dormant portion of his personality. Then, as the influence of the drug increases, it starts to consume the rest of his being. Like Dr. Jekyll, an addict must take ever-increasing doses in order to obtain a desired effect.

Many stories based on Stevenson's book present a character as split into two halves. However, in the original novel, Jekyll and Hyde do not appear to be polar opposites. Jekyll is actually a whole personality, with both good and evil factors, while Hyde is a destructive fragment, freed for independent action.

Some recent Jekyll-and-Hyde stories involve the metamorphosis of a mad scientist into an animal. Paddy Chayevsky's novel Altered States retained the drug theme from Stevenson's tale, describing the use of psychedelic drugs by a scientist to awaken his inner nature. He transforms into an ape-like proto-human after experimenting with a sensory deprivation tank. Partial changes occur later, as he experiences flashbacks from the drug, which seems to resemble LSD.

The general tone of Chayevsky's book suggests that transformation is a foolish goal. There is a clear parallel drawn between the scientist's devolution into a simian state, and his quest for an altered state of consciousness. Essentially, he seems to present a message that any person seeking such a drastic change is cutting himself off from the rest of society.

Chayevsky's book ends with a suggestion of the second type of transformation: evil scientists turning innocent victims into other forms. After the Altered States scientist abandons use of the psychedelic drugs, his colleagues decide to use them on local college students. After all, won't undergraduates do almost anything for a bit of extra money? It is implied that a few test subjects will be permanently turned into apes, but that does not bother the crazed experimenters.

H. G. Wells was the most prominent early promoter of certain themes common in current science fiction, such as alien invasions and time travel. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, he presented transformations between animal and human forms in a scientific basis. In the January 19, 1895 issue of The Saturday Review, Wells wrote a purportedly serious article about changing animal structures by means of surgery. Was it really serious, or did it just reflect an early stage of the novel, published in 1896? In the Review article, entitled The Limits of Individual Plasticity, Wells predicted that scientific investigators would soon revive the monsters of mythology, and use the artistic treatment of living beings to mold the commonplace into the beautiful or grotesque. The fictional mad scientist, Dr. Moreau, expresses similar aesthetic goals in his speeches in the book.

Dr. Moreau is more of an artist than a scientist, not so much seeking the truth, as hoping to create something beautiful. In modern terminology, he could be called a plastic surgeon. Thus, H.G. Wells may have been partly correct in predicting the future course of science, as humans today spend vast sums of money to change their physical forms by means of surgery. Perhaps modern psychology reflects the other part of Moreau's work. Wells' fictional doctor claimed that alteration of mental structures was even easier than a physical metamorphosis. Is this really true? Recent studies indicate that some patterns of behavior may be recorded into the brain before birth, and not changed by later events, including drastic surgery.

Recent retellings of the Dr. Moreau story typically portray him a genetic engineer. Plastic surgery has become far too commonplace for people to accept it as a means for transforming an animal into a human. It just would not be realistic. Similarly, consider the B-movies of the 1950s, which often used radiation as a means for metamorphosis. This theme has faded, as concern about nuclear weapons has declined, and gamma rays are regarded as a cause of severe illness, not a form of magic.

So, what will happen in the future? I imagine most scientific-themed transformations will feature some form of genetic change, at least until a new scientific breakthrough fills the popular imagination. A new revival of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would be more likely to have the experiment involve DNA splicing than a quest for the nature of the human soul. A revised Incredible Hulk would probably de-emphasize gamma rays in favor of activation of atavistic genes. Thus, scientific transformation stories really reflect current concerns about science rather than anything likely to produce metamorphosis in the future. The few durable tales that accurately predict new technologies, like plastic surgery, will be drastically changed in perceived meaning. In either case, it is useful to include such themes in fiction, in order to make them both more believable and relevant to readers.

Some interesting websites:

Teaching Clinical Psychology, Fact and Fiction in "Altered States"

Mad Doctors, or How Professional Middle Class Labor Makes You Lose Your Mind

Dr. Jekyll Hydeing in the Garden of Eden

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