BOSTON – Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” foreshadowed a key concept in evolutionary biology formally defined by scientists a century after the man-made monster shambled across the pages of the 19th century novel, an academic study published on Friday found.
The study, titled “Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion” and published in BioScience, takes its inspiration from a pivotal scene in the 1816 gothic story when the monster identified only as the “Creature” asks its creator, Victor Frankenstein, to create him a mate and allow the two to go live in “the vast wilds of South America.”
Unlike in the 1933 movie “Bride of Frankenstein,” the book’s Victor Frankenstein ultimately decides against repeating his experiment, fearing the two could breed a new race of creatures that would ultimately drive humanity extinct.
Making a few assumptions about the creature, described in the novel as 8 feet (2.44 m) tall, able to eat a wider variety of foods than humans and heal itself after being shot in the shoulder, the study projects that its population would grow sufficiently large to drive humanity extinct in about 4,000 years.
Frankenstein’s decision anticipated a concept that scientists in the 1930s defined as “competitive exclusion,” which illustrates the limits of life’s expansion when animals or humans need to compete for the same limited resources.
The early appearance of the idea in a popular novel illustrates the way that humans readily intuit some fundamental scientific concepts, said Nathaniel Dominy, one of the article’s co-authors.
“People have a fundamental understanding of concepts like the ecological niche and that species will do well in some habitats and not so well in others,” said Dominy, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
While the human population has grown by seven times since the publication of “Frankenstein,” to some 7.35 billion people, hundreds of species have gone extinct, many due to competitions with humans or with invasive species moved by humans.
“You take an invasive species, put it in a new place and it starts to compete with what is already occupying the niche,” Dominy said.