A Scientific Literary Analysis

A new article in the journal Bioscience (the actual article is currently behind a paywall) purports to use mathematical models to determine just what would have happened had Victor Frankenstein provided his Monster with a female mate in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Needless to day, this has intrigued me and my literary colleagues alike.

I appreciate the cross-disciplinary approach to this study. It’s not often that scholars of the sciences bother to find any professional intellectual curiosity in the dusty corners of the humanities. The humanities have been crossing over to the sciences for quite a while, though medical humanities, investigative journalism, science writing, science fiction, and more. But to go in the other direction is still a rarity. So, I commend the authors of this article for reaching out to the other side of the campus.

However, the very nature of the question they are investigating is somewhat odd to me, and it carries with it some underlying assumptions that I think are contrary to the larger themes of Shelley’s work. (Again, bear with me since I haven’t read the study in its entirety yet.) The authors conclude that had the Monster have had a mate, they and their offspring would have driven humans to extinction within about 4,000 years, a principle described as “competitive exclusion.” This concept did not formally appear until the 1930s, so the authors determine that Shelley was herself quite a smartypants. (yes, THAT is what ensures Shelley’s genius for the ages)

First and foremost, the article assumes that the Monster (as well as his potential mate) has working reproductive capabilities, something not clearly delineating within the novel. When the Monster asks Victor for a female mate, he does not do so as a request to procreate, but merely as companionship. However, since this study also has to overcome the notable obstacle that Victor destroyed the female Monster before it could even meet his original creation, this is perhaps not the most difficult hurdle. So, the authors make two initial assumptions to get the ball rolling on their analysis.

However, the principle of competitive exclusion, which they are positing as central to their thesis about human extinction seems to also rest on an unstable set of assumptions. Competitive exclusion proposes that two species competing for the same sets of resources cannot grow and exist at equal levels. One species will have an advantage, and will thus dominate the other species, driving them toward extinction, assuming all other factors remain stable. Thus, by using models which predict competitive exclusion rates, the article’s authors determine a rate at which the Couple Frankenstein would procreate, utilize resources, and ultimately, end humanity as we know it.

My issue is not with the math or the concept of competitive exclusion–that is all stuff rather beyond my intellectual sphere. What I do take issue with is the point of even selecting Shelley’s novel as a starting point for such an exercise. The Monster himself, in his request to Victor, states that he and she will leave for the “wilds” of South America, where they will keep to themselves and subsist on acorns and berries, since he sees no need to eat animals the way humans do. This seems to me a crucial component of the Monster’s identity. As he observes humans in the society around him, he sees (and feels) their cruelty, and seeks to distance himself from their behavior. Going vegetarian is one way he expresses this distance.

A colleague of mine suggests something different, though, that the Monster was just a literary version of Shelley’s version of early humankind, and thus would possibly start eating meat and thus competing for more resources as he became more “corrupt.” This is a reasonable reading of the Monster, who, after all, become rather cruel himself in the way of Victor’s destruction of his mate. Yet it still represents a factor that the scientists’ model couldn’t account for–exactly when would the Monster become corrupt enough to affirm the exclusion model?

But this brings me to my larger concern about the foundation of the study. It seems like a perfectly interesting model and prediction to make, but it rests on so many particular assumptions about the novel and its characters that I wonder why the authors even bother to base the article on Frankenstein in the first place. Now, of course, they are allowed to do anything they like, and further notoriety for literature is fine by me. But what is the scholarly value of basing a study on a novel when you first have to bypass about 3 or 4 obstacles that would render the study moot in the first place? This might as well be random speculation about any novel or characters or time period.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. As a pure exercise in curiosity, anything goes, I would think. But I am often encouraging my students to find the “so what,” to justify why they are analyzing a particular text through a particular lens. So while this article does not run afoul of my scholarly sensibilities, I guess it mildly offends my literary ones.





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