Victor Frankenstein, the main character in Mary Shelley's novel, may have created a grotesque and frightening monster, but he saved the world from a devastating fate by refusing to create a companion for his creature, scientists argue. The entire human race could have been wiped out in 4,000 years if two of his monsters had been allowed to mate.
The topic of their research may sound frivolous, but it shines a light on a tragic theme explored in Shelley's book – the risk of human extinction. Considered to be the first science fiction novel to look at the ethical challenges of scientific research, Frankenstein also reflects on fundamental principles of biology, the research published in BioScience argues.
The researchers focus on the creature's demand for a female companion. Lonely and rejected by human society due to his horrific appearance, he asks Victor Frankenstein for a partner.
"I dared to fancy amiable and lovely creatures sympathising with my feelings and cheering my gloom; their angelic countenances breathed smiles of consolation. But it was all a dream; no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam's supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him", the monster laments.
Frankenstein hesitates, but ends up refusing because of the fear the creatures could reproduce and the risk that might lead to human extinction. Here, Shelley touches upon the crucial biological concept of competitive exclusion. This refers to the inevitable elimination from a habitat of one of two different species with identical needs for resources.
Testing the competitive exclusion hypothesis
The scientists developed a mathematical model to test the risk of competitive exclusion when two monsters are created. "The principle of competitive exclusion was not formally defined until the 1930s. 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," explains study author Nathaniel J Dominy from Dartmouth University in New Hampshire.
The model includes human population densities in 1816, two years before the novel was published. It studies the competitive advantages of the creatures over humans in different environments. Based on this data, the scientists calculate that just two creatures would have been sufficient to found a population that would have driven out humans in just 4,000 years.
The study concludes that by refusing to create a female, Frankenstein saved humans from extinction.