Victor Frankenstein faces a thorny dilemma in the novel that bears his name: Consign his horrific creature to a lonely life, or create a female companion to keep it company? At first, the doctor decides to go ahead and use his creepy method to make a partner for the creature, but then he abandons the idea when he realizes he's created a monster. That decision, it turns out, was the right one—and for scientific reasons Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley, could never have foreseen when she wrote the book in 1816.
In a new paper published in the journal BioScience, two biologists make the case that Frankenstein’s decision not to hook up his friend was a biologically sound one. “His rationale for denying a mate to his male creation has empirical justification,” they write, for ecological and evolutionary reasons based on the ways species interact.
It all comes down to evolutionary competition—the ways in which species vie for limited resources. Using a common model for interspecies competition, the researchers laid out the probable course of events had Frankenstein and his never-created girlfriend in fact reproduced. They took factors like the human population in 1816 and the fact that Frankenstein’s monster can regenerate his flesh after a gunshot wound into consideration to determine that the overall growth rate of the creatures would be 1.5 times that of humans.
When the team extrapolated from there, they found that humans would die out in 4,188 years, leaving creatures to rule the earth. And if Frankenstein’s monster had inhabited “the vast wilds of South America,” where the monster told his creator he’d head if he ever got a partner, humans would go extinct even more quickly than if the creatures got together in Europe.
It might seem silly to run evolutionary models on a work of science fiction, but the team insists their project is important. The idea of evolution didn’t exist when Shelley wrote her famous book, but she seems to have foreseen it anyway, even prompting Frankenstein’s monster to realize that South America is a great place to start a family. That reinforces one of the central messages of the book—that humans have moral and scientific responsibilities—even more, they say.
Frankenstein was forward-thinking in other ways, from its critique of how far humans are willing to take their quest for control to its status as one of the first and most important works of science fiction. Given that Shelley wrote it long before most of the tenets of what we think of as modern science were in place, it’s even more impressive. It’s easy to think of her creation as a silly, spooky pop culture phenomenon—but perhaps the scariest thing about Frankenstein is just how close it comes to being real.