Two days before the release of 2021’s most highly anticipated grudge match, Godzilla vs. King Kong, there’s a much smaller battle taking place across my screen. Nathaniel J. Dominy and Ryan Calsbeek share much in common—they’re colleagues, scientists, Dartmouth professors—but their areas of expertise weren’t an existential threat to their friendship until recently. One of them (Nathaniel) studies primates, the other (Ryan) reptiles and amphibians.
In 2019 over coffee, the two professors forged a bond when they realized they could write a paper examining Godzilla’s evolutionary growth in cinema dating back to the 1954 original. They each grew up with the original versions of the characters. Ryan watched the black-and-white Godzilla movies as a kid on Saturdays, while Nathaniel saw them as a teenager while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. But there’s a difference between collaborating on a piece solely about Godzilla and weighing in on a battle royale between lizards and apes. So when the two logged onto Zoom, a conversation ostensibly about using science to settle a decades-long debate quickly became a way for each to hash out their relationships with the iconic monsters.
Nathaniel and Ryan looked at three main areas that would impact a fight between Godzilla and Kong: anatomy, geography, and intelligence. (Previous matchups between the two titans were used as evidence since the latest movie wasn’t yet released during the time of the interview.) We’ll try our best to avoid spoilers, at least until the end.
In Nathaniel and Ryan’s paper, “Godzilla’s Extraordinary Growth Over Time Mirrors an Increase in Anthropocene Angst,” they describe the titular character as a “ceratosaurid dinosaur and Lazarus taxon.” In comparison, King Kong is just a big gorilla, albeit very anatomically similar to his non–Skull Island brethren.
“A gorilla has really long arms, whereas Godzilla has relatively short and stumpy arms,” Nathaniel begins in our interview. “So I think that’s one of the biggest advantages that King Kong has over Godzilla. Now, if you’ve seen the original 1963 movie [Godzilla vs. King Kong], King Kong lands some punches, but a gorilla cannot form a fist in the same way that we humans can because its fingers are too long. So I imagine King Kong doing some head slaps, right? If this was some kind of MMA cage fight, I think King Kong definitely has the advantage because of the reach.”
“In the original film, there is some punching. And unrealistic though that may be, Godzilla is counterattacking with his tail,” Ryan says. “So the reach advantage, he loses that if Godzilla can use these spin moves and swing that massive tail.”
Ryan begins to describe the energy and fat reserves reptiles store in their tails. Then moments later, Nate describes how primates’ bilaterally compressed claws evolved into fingernails, which aren’t as fatal as claws. Much of the back-and-forth between Nathaniel and Ryan unfolds this way, with emotional defenses leading to scientific explanations. It becomes clear that judging the two beasts based on their anatomy alone won’t provide a satisfactory answer.
The two scientists’ main point of contention deals with the geographical location that will host the fight. Using 1963’s King Kong vs. Godzilla as a reference point, specifically the film’s conclusion, where the monsters battle in the Pacific Ocean, the colleagues think whoever is more suited to water will inevitably reign supreme.
“I think the advantage goes to Kong because as an endotherm, he’s going to have a greater heat reserve before he loses all his energy to the cold water in the ocean,” Ryan says. “Whereas Godzilla, being an ectotherm, I think will dump body heat almost immediately and be rendered essentially immobile.”
“I would disagree,” Nathaniel counters. “The problem with being in the water for King Kong is that his muscle density is too high. A gorilla has a muscle density that’s four times greater than a human being. No great ape has ever figured out how to swim. Once he’s on the water, I think he’s in trouble.”
If Godzilla is closer in biology to a marine iguana, he might fare better, Ryan admits. Since these types of iguanas can emerge from freezing water, bask in the sun, and raise their body temperature, they can survive in water when many reptiles can’t. But there’s one final factor that might give the edge to Godzilla. “Godzilla also has this potentially internal heat source in the presence of this thermonuclear reactor in his body,” Ryan says. “So it’s hard to say for sure.”
Besides Godzilla and King Kong’s physical characteristics, their defining traits are the way they respond to humans. In most depictions, Godzilla has the emotional and mental acuity of a hurricane. By comparison, Kong is often horny for blonde women and makes friends with very young humans. Of all the topics discussed, Godzilla and Kong’s intelligence was the rare topic where both scientists agreed.
“In what we would call the statistical relationship or the linear regression between brain size and body mass—so how big is your brain relative to your body size—King Kong is going to have a huge advantage,” Nathaniel admits. “The reptilian brain is not only small per unit body size, but they lack a highly convoluted prefrontal cortex. They’re not doing a lot of abstract thinking. I’m trying to avoid saying that reptiles are stupid, but they are quite dumb.”
“Yeah,” Ryan says in agreement.
As a result of Kong’s superior brain, he’s the MacGyver of very large monsters, with the ability to repurpose whatever’s around him into weapons (buildings, trees, planes, etc.). This trait is something that scientists observe in real gorillas.
“In the wild, we’ve seen gorillas using sticks to probe water, to assess the depth of water before they wade in very carefully, and never over their head,” Nathaniel continues. “So we know that gorillas will use sticks and that they have the potential to use tools in captivity. We can train gorillas to use them. That’s definitely a check in the King Kong column, is his ability to use external devices to battle a Godzilla.”
Who Will Win
After much back and forth and deferring, the two pick who they think will emerge victorious from the fight.
“My personal view is that Godzilla is going to win this fight,” Ryan says. “My scientific view is that Kong should have the advantage, but I think that the forces are going to mount in Godzilla’s favor.”
“King Kong, for sure,” Nate responds.
Before the two depart, I ask the second-most important question of the day: “Depending upon who wins and loses, will this affect your professional or personal relationship?”
“Definitely,” Ryan says.
In an effort to bring a definitive conclusion to this debate, I brought in C. M. Kosemen, an artist and researcher who specializes in speculative evolution. Alongside John Conway and Darren Naish, he released the 2012 book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, which sought to challenge the way dinosaurs have been illustrated for decades. “I invent drawings in which I try to imagine how life would evolve under other circumstances,” he says over Zoom. When I approached Kosemen with the same question posed to Nathaniel and Ryan, he offered two traits that give Kong the advantage: family structure and intelligence.
In a real-world setting, the first benefit for Kong is the size of a primate’s family, according to Koseman. If this were the real world, Kong would have an extended family ready to give Godzilla the hands and outsmart him at every turn. “Primates always come with family structures,” Koseman says. “So in a kind of even setting, King Kong would have, like, two of his sons and his brother and maybe his uncle’s sons. They would be a whole clan and they would be jumping up and down on Godzilla until he didn’t move anymore.”
But the real death blow for Godzilla goes back to his dumb lizard brain. In terms of intelligence, the big dinosaur has very little chance of outsmarting the big gorilla.
“King Kong’s primate instincts give him an edge because primates are adaptable,” Kosemen says. “Maybe Kong would take in a punch or two or he would be wounded, but then very quickly he would learn how he could duck behind the Chrysler Building or punch through another skyscraper to hit him. I mean, he could just simply run and hide until Godzilla tires himself out and at night pounce on him and be done with it.”
The Winner: King Kong
After much controversy and debate, science has ruled that King Kong would be the winner. Despite the primate’s lackluster performance in Adam Wingard’s movie, Kong has the intelligence, athleticism, and physical traits necessary to take down the world’s most famous giant reptile. But sometimes corporate machinations and atomic breath are enough to thwart even the most gifted scientific minds. Kong bows to no one, except when a billion-dollar kaiju’s reputation is on the line.