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Frankenstein: How the Fictional Scientist Saved Humans From Extinction

Oct 29, 2016 08:11 AM EDT
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A new study published in BioScience has proposed that Mary Shelley's gothic novel, Frankenstein, is based on a fundamental principle of biology. Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion supports Victor Frankenstein's decisions in one of the most iconic scenes in the novel where he denies his creation, the nameless Creature reanimated from human corpses, his request for a mate.

"His rationale for denying a mate to his male creation has empirical justification," Nathaniel J. Dominy and Justin D. Yeakel wrote. "The principle of competitive exclusion was not formally defined until the 1930s," said Nathaniel J. Dominy, a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Dartmouth. "Given Shelley's early command of this foundational concept, we used computational tools developed by ecologists to explore if, and how quickly, an expanding population of creatures would drive humans to extinction."

By using a common model for interspecies competition and factoring in the human population in 1816 as well as the Creature's regenerative abilities, the researchers calculated that the overall growth rate of the creatures would be 1.5 times higher compared with humans. Frankenstein's monster had volunteered to go to "the vast wilds of South America" with his mate. But according to the researcher's findings, this would result in humans going extinct even more rapidly than if the creatures remained in Europe since South America had fewer humans, leading to less competition for resources.

Evolution had not yet been established, but Shelley seemed to have an incredible amount of foresight regarding the biology of invasive species. "We calculated that a founding population of two creatures could drive us to extinction in as little as 4,000 years," said Dominy. This hypothetical experiment sheds new light on the extinction of man, a possibility most humans prefer not to entertain.

"To date, most scholars have focused on Mary Shelley's knowledge of then-prevailing views on alchemy, physiology and resurrection; however, the genius of Mary Shelley lies in how she combined and repackaged existing scientific debates to invent the genre of science fiction," stated Justin D. Yeakel, an Omidyar fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced. "Our study adds to Mary Shelley's legacy, by showing that her science fiction accurately anticipated fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution by many decades."

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