Could a population of Frankenstein's monsters have driven humans to extinction?
Nathaniel Dominy, an evolutionary biologist at Dartmouth College, and Justin Yeakel, an ecologist at the University of California, Merced, pose just that ghoulish question in a study published Friday in the journal BioScience ahead of Halloween. And, according to their research, the answer is yes.
That scenario may have come to pass in the fictional world of Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein" had the monster's creator, Victor Frankenstein, kept a promise to his creation to build him a female companion. But fortunately for humans, say Dr. Dominy and Dr. Yeakel, Dr. Frankenstein went back on his word.
"[Ms. Shelley] correctly alluded to the science of ecology and evolution, which of course didn't come until much later" with Charles Darwin's 1859 "On the Origin of Species," Dominy tells The Christian Science Monitor. When Shelley describes the creature's plea for a female companion and Frankenstein's thought process in denying that request, she articulates concepts of ecology that weren't defined until decades after the novel was published, he explains.
Had Frankenstein gone ahead with the plan and animated a female creature, and had it then gone on to mate with the original, male creature, Homo sapiens could have gone extinct in as few as 4,000 years, calculated Dominy and Yeakel.
In Shelley's novel, the monster pleads with his creator:
"If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again: I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food."
At first, Frankenstein grudgingly agrees to his creature's request, thinking initially that a monster that does not eat humans, or the livestock humans rear, and is banished to the "wilds of South America" surely could not cause humans problems.
But upon further reflection, Frankenstein realizes that indeed, "A race of devils would be propagated upon Earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror."
Dominy and Yeakel say Frankenstein was employing the concept of competitive exclusion, a term that was only formally defined in the 20th century. Though the phrase didn't exist, Shelley understood that if two species share overlapping ecological niches, they will be in direct competition for those overlapping resources – and eventually, the more competitive species will drive the other to extinction.
To test if Homo sapiens would lose out in such a scenario up against Frankenstein's creatures, the researchers used the birth rate, death rate, and competitiveness of both species in an ecological model called the Lotka-Volterra competition framework, which biologists use to model the impact of invasive species.
They estimated values for the human populations of Europe and South America in 1816 and for Frankenstein's creatures, based on Shelley's descriptions of the monster's physiology.
In Europe, the human population probably would have been well-established enough to stave off the threat of multiplying creatures, although the researchers do note that, as the monster built from dead flesh survived a gunshot wound in the novel, these creatures likely have a very low death rate. So it's questionable whether the two species could coexist.
But establishing a population of "devils" in South America would make for a much worse situation, Dominy and Yeakel say.
Because the human population in South America was so sparse in the 19th century, Frankenstein's creatures could have out-competed the humans and established a large population there. And with a rapidly increasing population, the creatures eventually could have taken over the globe, "and then we humans would not have had a chance," Dominy says.
"That was the genius of the creature proposing that it could go to South America," Dominy says. "It was one of the few places that it could go where it could thrive."
These calculations are based on a number of assumptions, points out Marc Cadotte, executive editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology and a professor at the University of Toronto. For example, the creatures and humans likely would have had more direct interactions than simply competing for the same resources, such as one killing the other, he tells The Christian Science Monitor.
Also, "that's assuming that the Frankensteins could procreate," Dr. Cadotte adds, referring to the creatures by their creator's name. "Given the fact that the Frankensteins are built from dead body parts of humans, that's a pretty big assumption that they could actually procreate and increase their population size."
But, for the sake of science fiction, Dominy and Yeakel assume Frankenstein's creatures could indeed generate little monsters.
Cadotte also points out that these calculations do not take into consideration changes in mortality, birth rate, and the carrying capacity of an ecological niche. For example, he says, today's technology is quite different than that of 200 years ago. Modern agricultural techniques have improved to allow one piece of land to produce more food and cities to house more people in higher concentrations than ever before.
But when Yeakel ran the calculation based on today's numbers, the outcome was largely the same.
"If we assume the creature and its companion were reanimated in today’s world, suppose they absconded to Manaus, Brazil, which has a population of ~2 million people. If we increase the assumed carrying capacity of the Amazon Basin (inflated by the establishment of major cities) to 10 million people, the new estimate for the time to human extinction becomes ~4,460 years," he writes in an email to the Monitor.
So, Yeakel says, "due to increases in the carrying capacity and human population of the Amazon today, our estimates for human population extinction would be a little bit larger, but probably not enough to ease the concerns of Dr. Frankenstein."
Frankenstein's creature is a work of fiction, but these ecological ideas are not, Cadotte says.
Invasive species like Asian carp, introduced around the world by human movement, are "modern day Frankensteins," he says. "These are things that have been unleashed and are wreaking havoc and could be causing the extinction of other species, or at least causing other species to become very rare and threatened."
"Even though this is a fun example," Cadotte says of the study, "it mirrors some of the things that humans have actually done to the world."