‘Frankenstein’ predicted a concept key to modern biology

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” foreshadowed a key concept in evolutionary biology that was formally defined by scientists a full century after the man-made monster shambled across the pages of the 19th-century novel, an academic study published on Friday found.

The study, which is titled “Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion” and was 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, which was described in the novel as 8 feet (244 cm) 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 species 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 competition with humans or with invasive species that have been introduced 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.

Shelley first imagined the horror story during a visit to Switzerland. She and her future husband, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, went to a summer home rented by the literary great Lord Byron on the outskirts of Geneva.

A massive eruption from the Tambora volcano in Indonesia wreaked havoc with the global climate that year. A weather report for Geneva in June mentions “not a single leaf” had yet appeared on the oak trees.

To pass the time, Byron challenged the literary bohemians at the villa to each invent a ghost story, resulting in several famous pieces of writing.

English doctor and author John Polidori came up with the idea for “The Vampyre,” which is considered to have pioneered the vampire genre.

Shelley’s story tapped into widespread angst about the increasing power of science and technology.