Humans wouldn’t have survived if Dr. Frankenstein hadn’t cock blocked his Monster, biologists argue in a new study.
In Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein, the Monster appeals to the famous Doctor for a mate. “I’m only a murderous savage because I’m lonely,” he seems to say; “Make me a girlfriend and I’ll ditch Europe for South America, and leave humans alone forever.” Dr. Frankenstein considers it for a hot second, then realizes that allowing the Monster and his bride to mate might result in the birth of a species that could overwhelm — and eventually decimate — the human population. In telling the Monster Nope!, he signs his own death warrant, but also saves humanity, according to the study, published today in the journal BioScience.
In the study, the scientists from the University of California, Merced and Dartmouth University explain that Mary Shelley’s plot twist predicted a fundamental biological concept before scientists even pinned it down. The concept of the “competitive exclusion principle” — which scientists didn’t formally define until the 1930s — explains that different species in the same geographical zone will inevitably compete for resources like food and shelter, and if one is better at acquiring those resources, the other could eventually be driven to extinction. The Monster and his offspring, they conclude, would have overwhelmed the human population in about four millennia.
The authors used a mathematical model to back up their claim. Taking into account several factors, including the world population in 1816, the geographical distribution of humans compared to other species, and the fact that the Monster claimed to eat only acorns and berries (“I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite,” he says, judgmentally), they developed a model to predict the worst-case scenario for humans. As it turns out, the worst possible thing that could have happened to our species, in the age of Mary Shelley, would have been the proliferation of a competitive new species in South America, which was, at the time, an area with fewer humans and less competition for resources. “We calculated that a founding population of two creatures could drive us to extinction in as little as 4,000 years,” said Dartmouth College anthropologist Nathaniel J. Dominy, Ph.D., the study’s co-author, in a release.
We should note that both Dr. Frankenstein, and the study authors, make one very hasty assumption: that the Monster’s mate would necessarily mate with him. In the series Penny Dreadful, the female Monster Dr. Frankenstein creates develops a mind of her own, and refuses to hook up with her male counterpart in a surprising and very fun misandrist twist. A similar story is laid out in the 1935 classic film Bride of Frankenstein.
Nevertheless, the outcome of Shelley’s Frankenstein is a sordid one for the Monster. In the original story, Dr. Frankenstein’s decision might have seemed selfish at the time, but it was ultimately a sacrifice for us all: Not only did he save humanity from inevitable death by competitive exclusion, but his example shed light on the biology of invasive species altogether. While it’s not likely we’ll be seeing any Frankensteinian populations taking over IRL (though CRISPR’s ability to create genetic patchworks might change that), there are a number of species whose unchecked growth currently threaten the well-being of others, and scientists can thank Shelley for anticipating this problem before it even became one.