Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is probably the first book that focused on alchemy, physiology, and resurrection, which turned it into the first science fiction novel. Shelley also anticipated fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution by denying Frankenstein’s monster a female partner.

If Dr. Victor Frankenstein had created a companion for his first creation, humankind could have been extinct in the next 3,800 years. A new study led by Nathaniel J. Dominy and Justin D. Yeakel proved that Shelley’s novel is not only remarkable for introducing science fiction as a gender, but because it anticipated a fundamental principle of biology: evolution. The paper was published in the journal BioScience Friday and shows what would have happened if Frankenstein had created a female companion for his original creation.

Victor Frankenstein's Monster
A scene of James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” which was released in theaters in 1931. Image credit: Universal Pictures.

Dominy and Yeakel are researchers at Dartmouth University and the University of California, respectively. They focused their study on the scene when the unnamed monster asks his creator for a female creature of his kind to end his loneliness.

The monster is smart enough to see that his request could mean danger to humankind and then proceeds to explain how he and her partner would not cause troubles if they are isolated and sent to South America. The monster elaborates his argument and says that they would not represent a danger to the population in that part of the American continent because they would not share the same diet as humans.

Victor Frankenstein almost agreed to his monster’s wishes: he even created the female version of his creation. The scientist considered reasonable his creature’s demands thinking the isolated couple would do no harm. However, he suddenly realized that the pair’s reproductive potential could cause human extinction. Mary Shelley took into consideration the concept of competitive exclusion decades before it was first introduced. 

“If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again: I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and ­berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food.” (Frankenstein, 1818).

Mary Shelley anticipated in 1818 a concept that was first defined in the 1930s

Dominy, a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Dartmouth, made it clear that the principle of competitive exclusion was not formally introduced until the 1930s. Amazed by Shelley’s intuition, Dominy and his co-author Justin Yeakel used computational tools to discover if Victor Frankenstein was right when he thought both creatures could end with humans.

The authors used prediction models to calculate the impact of an expanding population of creatures. The computational program could also show how quickly the expanding population could affect the environment and other communities.

The experiment was conducted using a mathematical model based on human population densities in 1816. The model showed that sending Frankenstein’s creatures to South America would have been the worst decision because the presence of fewer people would mean less competition for the monsters.

The study concluded that the most horrifying aspect of Mary Shelley’s novel was that if Frankenstein had not changed his mind, human extinction would have been a fact in as little as 4,000 years. Shelley impressed scientists taking into consideration the biology of invasive species. Scholars have now something new to add when teaching the importance of the novel “Frankenstein.”

Yeakel, an Omidyar Fellow at Santa Fe Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, stated in a press release that his paper adds to Mary Shelley’s legacy. The study shows how the author was capable of anticipating fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution through her science fiction novel.

Source: Dartmouth University