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Victor Frankenstein: Ecologist?

The central horror of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel isn’t the monster, researchers write. It’s a concept that would take biologists another century to figure out.

By Nathan Collins


James McAvoy as Victor Frankenstein. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

By any standard, Frankenstein is a scary story. The nameless eight-foot-tall creature at the heart of the story is marked by his yellow eyes and transparent skin. He’s remarkably strong and intelligent to boot. But the real horror, according to a new report in BioScience,isn’t the monster; it’s something called competitive exclusion, a concept ecologists didn’t discover until a century after the book was published.

If you don’t know the full story of Frankenstein, here’s some essential background (spoilers ahead): After escaping the lab, teaching himself to speak and read, and murdering Frankenstein’s brother, the monster encounters Frankenstein again and makes a seemingly reasonable request: If Frankenstein creates a female “of the same species,” he’ll run away with her to the South American wilderness and leave everybody alone. Victor initially agrees, but something terrible occurs to him: If the creature carries out his plan, he might want kids, “and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

In other words, if Dr. Frankenstein allows the creature to procreate, the population of this new species could explode. If the creatures didn’t simply murder the human race, creatures and humans would battle for food and other resources—and, chances are, humans would lose and die out.

“The central horror and genius of Mary Shelley’s novel lie in its early mastery of foundational concepts in ecology and evolution.”

To Justin Yeakel, an assistant professor of life and environmental sciences at the University of California–Merced, and Nathaniel Dominy, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, Frankenstein’s reasoning sounded a lot like the principle of competitive exclusion—roughly, that two species competing for the same resources can’t co-exist if one has the slightest advantage over the other. While that version doesn’t exactly play out in the real world, the concept survives in modern ecological models of population growth. Curiously, the idea of competitive exclusion postdates Shelley’s work by more than a century.

With that in mind, Dominy and Yeakel decided to work out whether Frankenstein’s prediction matched what modern ecologists would predict using a seminal theory of competition, called the Lotka-Volterra model. They assumed that, like humans, the creature population would grow exponentially, but at a somewhat faster rate given their greater overall fortitude, and that the competitive effects of creatures on humans were stronger than vice versa.

If the creatures stayed in Europe, competition with them could drive humans to extinction as early as 6006, the researchers write. But what’s really interesting is the South American scenario. Because the population there is smaller and less dense, creatures would quickly overtake humans. Then, as they reached the limits of what the continent could support, they’d spread back to Europe “and drive humans to extinction faster” than if creatures had never left for South America, Dominy and Yeakel write.

“The present findings are drawn from a work of science fiction, but their importance is threefold,” the authors write: They cast new light on the story, both as a reflection on moral and scientific responsibility and on the central characters’ motivations—remember, the creature promised moving to the South American wilderness as a compromise, but it would, in fact, work to his and his progeny’s advantage. The third observation: Frankenstein was right to be worried.

“We conclude by suggesting that the central horror and genius of Mary Shelley’s novel lie in its early mastery of foundational concepts in ecology and evolution,” Dominy and Yeakel write.