Godzilla — the famous radiation-altered dinosaur from Japanese film — has evolved 30 times faster than real-world creatures since its first film appearance in 1954.
Researchers compared the so-called ‘King of the Monsters’ rate of evolution with that of 2,500 animals.
When Godzilla first rampaged through Tokyo it was only 164 feet high (50m), but has reached 393 feet (120m) tall in ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’, released on May 31, 2019.
The fictional beast, researchers argue, has grown alongside our increasing collective fears over topics from nuclear war to environmental destruction.
Godzilla first roared onto our screens in October 1954, when he was woken from his slumber and given terrible power through exposure to a nuclear bomb test.
The then 164 feet (50 metres) tall beast served as a cautionary metaphor against the indiscriminate destructive power of nuclear weapons and a symbol of nuclear holocaust from a Japanese perspective.
Eight months before Godzilla premiered, a US nuke test on Bikini Atoll released dangerous levels of fallout over hundreds of miles, causing acute radiation sickness on a Japanese trawler and tainted tuna that reached Japanese homes.
It is noticeable that the prehistoric behemoth has almost consistently been growing in size across the subsequent 34 films in the Godzilla franchise.
The Godzilla of the eighties movies had grown to 262 feet (80 metres), for example, and by the recently-released film ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ the giant beast had reached 393 feet (119.8 meters) tall.
Comparing the rate of Godzilla’s apparent growth over the last 65 years, anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy and biologist Ryan Calsbeek of Dartmouth College, Hanover, calculated that the monster has evolved 30 times faster than real-life animals.
If, as described on-screen, Godzilla were a ceratosaurid dinosaur from over 145 million years ago then the monster ‘represents a sensational example of evolutionary stasis, second only to coelacanths among vertebrates’, the researchers said.
Like Godzilla in the first movie, coelacanths were once though extinct before being found alive, almost unchanged from their prehistoric form.
Unlike the real-life prehistoric fish, however, the fictional creature has undergone dramatic changes since its initial appearance.
‘Godzilla has doubled in size since 1954,’ Professors Dominy and Calsbeek said.
‘This rate of increase far exceeds that of ceratosaurids during the Jurassic, which was exceptional,’ they added.
‘The rate of change rules out genetic drift as the primary cause. It is more consistent with strong natural selection.’
The researchers calculated the evolutionary pressure on Godzilla based on existing genetic studies into the evolution of lizards, comparing the result with the average rate of evolution seen in an analysis of 2,500 wild animals in the present day.
‘It would be a mistake to dismiss Godzilla: King of the Monsters as mindless pap or escapist fantasy,’ Professors Dominy and Calsbeek write in their paper.
‘It is the 35th film in a series stretching to 1954, easily the longest in world cinema history,’ they add.
‘Icons are always a reflection of their times, and few have enjoyed such longevity.’
For the authors, the franchise’s enduring success is a testament not just to the peculiar beauty of the destruction Godzilla causes, but also for the ever-changing metaphor that the king of the monsters has become.
‘What began as a pointed anti-nuclear fable has since evolved into a broader allegory for human folly and our reckless disregard for the natural environment,’ they added.
Using the United States’ military spending as proxy for humanity’s global anxieties, the researchers found a strong correlation between our growing collective fears and the increase in Godzilla’s body size between 1954 and 2019.
‘Whether reacting to geopolitical instability, a perceived threat from terrorists, or simply fear of “the other,” many democracies are electing nationalist leaders, strengthening borders, and bolstering their military presence around the world,’ the researchers said.
‘We suggest that Godzilla is evolving in response to a spike in humanity’s collective anxiety,’ they added.
‘The monster is more than a metaphor. It is a fable with a lesson for our times,’ Professors Dominy and Calsbeek conclude.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Science.