The Mutant Paradox: On the (Sympatric) Origin of the Species

If you read my Top 5: Comic Book Half-Humans post yesterday and found yourself miffed at the inclusion of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, then this post is dedicated to you. If you didn’t read the post, click the link, or just let me get you up to speed. Basically I called Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch only half-human. I’ll admit this was slightly erroneous since they aren’t human at all, they’re mutants, specifically a subspecies of human known as Homo sapiens superior. For those not in the know, we humans are ourselves a subspecies called Homo sapiens sapiens. There have been other types of Homo sapiens, we just happen to be the sole surviving member of the group. So when mutants were introduced into Marvel comics there was actually a precedent for other types of “humans,” depending on how you define the word. Weird science culture note: hominids and the like are usually handled by anthropologists, not paleontologists. There’s a very fuzzy line for who studies what, but my point is if you expect me to be an expert on human origins I will disappoint you. However, what I am pretty good at is speciation, which happens to be the subject of this post.

Speciation is the process by which new species are formed. Hence my subtitle’s homage to Charles Darwin’s popular book of a similar name. Some people call this macroevolution. To be polite, I will simply say that those people are not evolutionary biologists. But the craziest part about all of this is that scientists don’t even agree how what a species actually is.

The problem is any definition of a species that one type of scientists come up with, like biologists, doesn’t work for certain other types of scientists, like paleontologists. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the most popular definition, or concept, of a species: The Biological Species Concept (BSC).

The BSC defines a species as any group of interbreeding or potentially interbreeding individuals capable of producing viable fertile offspring. That’s a mouthful for the uninitiated so I will simply it: If you can have sex, make a live baby, and that baby can have more babies, then you are the same species. This makes a lot of sense, and by all accounts is very good definition. Except is a definition that fails for two very important groups: asexual species and the extinct. How can a paleontologist test and make sure that triceratops weren’t mating with stegosaurs? (They didn’t live at the same time, that’s how, but it’s somewhat beside the point.) Thus, paleontologists have come up with their own species concept called the Morphological Species Concept (MSC) where if a pile of bones looks really similar to another pile of bones, then they are the same species (and yes, it’s a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea).

Even if we can’t define it, we still know that species are indeed a thing, and if you accept common descent, i.e. life originated at one point then diversified, it’s important to know how new species are formed. There are two theories, one well-established, and the other, in my humble opinion, still a bit wanting in terms of evidence.

The first is what’s called allopatric speciation. This type of speciation occurs when one homogenous population is separated by some sort of isolating mechanism. This isolation prevents breeding between the two groups. Over time, different selective pressures lead to different adaptations until the groups have diverged enough to be called two distinct species. I’ll give an example. Let’s say we have a large group of deer living in the forest, and one day the river nearby changes course cutting the population in half. On one side of the river the forest becomes grassland with predators that chase down the deer at high speed. On the other side of the river the habitat remains forest and the deer are hunted by ambush predators that hide then jump out at them from the last second. Over time these two groups are going to come up with different ways to survive. One the grassland side it might be the fastest deer that survive, whereas in the forest maybe it’s the individuals that have the best camouflage that manage to avoid being eaten. Given enough time, the river may change course again and the two species will be interacting but not breeding with each because they’d been separate for so long. Neat, right?

The second form of speciation (there are others but these are the proverbial “big 2” I’d say), sympatric speciation, is where things get a little fuzzy. This is a type of speciation where there is no separation within the group, yet one part of the group still diverges from the rest enough to be considered its own new species. I’ve read papers that argue this type of speciation has occurred but I’ve yet to be convinced. However, this has happened in the Marvel universe in the case of Homo sapiens superior, a new subspecies that has popped up within our own group of mere humans.

What makes mutants such a weird case though is that evolution in our world doesn’t happen within a species during its lifetime. Thus, an individual would be hard pressed to become a new species while alive. Mutants whose power manifest during puberty would seem to defy this idea, but as far as I understand they still carry the X-gene from birth is just doesn’t activate until a stressful situation, which is way more plausible. That means everyone who is a mutant is born a mutant, there’s not conversion from Homo sapiens sapiens to Homo sapiens superior just because you got a little freaked out.

This means that Magneto (father of Pietro and Wanda) never was human at any point in his life. The idea that two humans could give birth to a nonhuman is certainly very weird, but it is also a fundamental premise behind sympatric speciation. Thus, by the logic present here, Magneto is a mutant (not, nor ever having been human), and Magda is a human. Their progeny happened to be born mutants as well (must be a dominant gene?) but were still the end result of a mixture of half human DNA with half non-human DNA. For the ultra-pedant, I did define human yesterday specifically as the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.

Phew, that all felt good to get off my chest. Whether you agree with my defense and logic regarding mutant parentage, I hope you at least learned something from the process of me explaining myself.


 


Ryan Haupt has been a Homo sapiens sapiens his entire life, regardless of stress. Hear him try to de-stress on his podcast Science… sort of.

Comments

  1. DuncanIdunno DuncanIdunno says:

    So by definition, a Mule is not a species?
    Could be a nice new derogatory to throw around the Marvel universe.

  2. Ryan Haupt Haupt (@haupt) says:

    @DuncanIdunno All mules are sterile, therefore incapable of mating so an argument can be made based on the BSC. But if all we had were horse, donkey and mule fossils they could very well have been named as three separate things.

  3. i’ve always thought of mutants as being “one-shot” accidents. Correct me if i’m wrong but even in the Xmen universe even if two mutants have a kid, there is no guarantee that kid will assume those powers? 

    There is so much variety within the mutants, its hard to lump them all together as a singular “race”. Maybe do it like Star Trek and label them as “humanoids” i.e different races and species that all share human characteristics but are different.

  4. WeaklyRoll WeaklyRoll says:

    I asked this yesterday, but if it is alright, i’d like to move it to this thread, as i don’t beleive it was answered there and would be better suited here any wyas.

    Are mutants Mutants because of DNA or because of thier Genes, or are genes part of our DNA. (I can’t remember this, its been awhile since i took biology). Also, if mutants are born mutants, and the mutant gene is the dominant gene, would a human not have to carry a mutant gene in order to pass it on. If that’s the case, would a humans be the result of two recessive genes and a mutant be the result of at least on dominant. fianlly if humans do carry a mutant gene, because they carry it are they mutant, and if everyones a mutant, aren’t we all human’s then anyway, and would mutants then be considered a seperate species?

    I think i confused myself.

  5. WeaklyRoll WeaklyRoll says:

    @wally, totally forgot about mutants having “human” children; graydon creed obviously jumps to mind, and may support my hypothesis (which is probably very weas).

  6. Gerry Lopez nudebuddha says:

    @WeaklyRoll  DNA is made of all our genes. When you look at the helix model, each little conector is a gene. Each gene controls certain aspects of your make up, such as hair color, eye color, etc. Exactly what genes control, I believe is not entirely known at this point. Also, I believe the combinations also influence other aspects what make you you, indirectly.

  7. Gerry Lopez nudebuddha says:

    @wallythegreenmonster  Yeah, I think I agree with you. I’m not sure if it’s ever been scientifally proven in any way within the Marvel U that Mutants actually are seperate species. I could see if, say, all the Mutants with fire powers were one species, all the telepaths were one, etc. But the way it’s laid out doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Perhaps, this is because I’m thinking of it in terms of Allopatric as Ryan explaine above. In any case, this is a great topic. Love it.

  8. Baldrick says:

    Great article Ryan!
    Please keep more coming like this.

    Thanks 

  9. ActualButt ActualButt says:

    I don’t see mutants as a species in the comics, more like a genetic defect. Probably functions more like Down Syndrome or something like that where it can be passed on, skipped, etc. but the likelihood increases if both parents are afflicted.

  10. ActualButt ActualButt says:

    Also, if humans and mutants were actually different species, they wouldn’t be able to mate. And since they can, they must be the same species.

  11. Brandino says:

    Most mutants are the results of humans with damaged DNA, with the result that the damaged gene is “corrected” into the x-gene. There are obvious examples of this with non-superhuman parents (Hank McCoy’s father was exposed to nuclear radiation. He wasn’t visibly changed but the damaged x-gene was passed on to his son.) and superhuman parents (both Reed and Sue Richards were exposed to cosmic energies that greatly changed their physicality including their genes. This genetic change was passed on to their son Franklin).

    Either way, the x-gene is a mutated gene that is a result of mistranslation or damage that results in (mostly) positive attributes. But these people are still human,  and the x-gene is like any other positive or negative gene mutation that has happened over the course of human history such as the trait for sickle cell, which is common in sub-Saharan Africa and is a mutation of the normal red blood cell genes. Mutants are evolutionary any different than humans, which is made apparent by the fact that they can produce offspring with human, that in turn can produce offspring. Mutants can breed with other mutants and produce “human” offspring.

    This kind of adds irony to both the causes of people like Apocalypse, Magneto, and Cameron Hodge: there is no real distinction between mutants and there campaigns are more about their own inner demons than any nature force at work.

  12. DuncanIdunno DuncanIdunno says:

    @Haupt  - I was curious about the taxonomy of the Mule, and while it is grouped in the Genus “Equus”, its not even afforded a species name just for the sake of nomenclature…that’s pretty weak!
    Oh well – they’re still good eatin’ – science be damned!

  13. TopGun TopGun says:

    LOVE the discussion in here

    @nudebuddha – just adding to what you closed your first post with. The combination of genes does have a big effect on how you (or any living thing) comes out. i was watching a show that was talking about genetic experiments with food. They were talking about the dangers because they could change the genetic makeup to make crops grow faster but there could be numerous negative and unforseen changes in the end product.

    awesome post by @Brandino. never thought of the x-gene as a damaged>fixed gene. really interesing

  14. WacoKid says:

     @Haupt:  Great article.  As an evolutionary biologist myself I really enjoy thinking about the mutant idea as it’s presented in the Marvel U.  

    One thing I have to ask about though is your stating that it’s a stressful situation that leads to the x-gene being activated.  Has this ever been stated to definitely be the activator?  I’ve always assumed that mutants first show their powers during puberty because the x-gene is somehow connected to the same hormones that cause the development of secondary sexual characteristics (you know girls’ chests getting bigger and hair growing in weird places, that sort of stuff).  

    I was going to write something now about how the x-gene may not be a typical dominant/recessive gene, using Graydon Creed (Sabertooth and Mystique’s son I believe) but the more I thought about it I realized I was wrong.  They each could be Xx (X being X-gene, x being whatever the Homo sapiens sapiens equivalent gene is) and could have just by chance both passed on their recessive gene.  Though that would then mean that all mutants born of 2 human parents must be the result of straight up mutations. 

  15. Kodaiji Kodaiji says:

    @wallythegreenmonster  - Originally, mutants could have non-mutant children, and even if they had children, their power set wouldn’t mimic the parents’. But then we got Syrin and Polaris who can do what their fathers do. And now we have Daken. Also, Cyclops and Havok’s parents weren’t mutants. I liked back in the day when it was more random instead of absolute. 

    While I’m on the subject of mutant pet peeves, I really hate those mutants whose power is to have all the powers like flight, strength, healing factro, telekinesis, telapathy, etc. Exodus comes to mind.

    @Ryan – Can you do an article explaining how after M-Day decimating the population, you still can’t swing a dead cat in the Marvel U without hitting a mutant? 

  16. Ryan Haupt Haupt (@haupt) says:

    This is all making me think I need to do a followup to this followup. Anyone up for a bit more in a week?

  17. WeaklyRoll WeaklyRoll says:

    @Haupt I would be!

  18. WacoKid says:

    I’m always up for discussing weird biology in fictional universes.

  19. TopGun TopGun says:

    definitely down for more in a week. i usually dont get involved in discussion threads but this one is really really intriuging and would love to see more posts like this, with this kind of discussion

  20. jackarandos says:

    In order for a gene to function properly – both parent must have it one would just have a siffrent allele which means the gene doest have the same affect: in this case a mutant power. So by this logic all humans have the gene just only mutants have an allele that causes a mutant power. Also it is very possible and, in this case (due to the low number percentage of mutants) very likely, that an allele of a gene is recessive rather than dominant even if only one parent shows evidence of the allele – I wont go into specifics.

    Sorry for the over-geeky corrections but it just annoys me when people talk about dominant genes since no gene is either dominant or reccesive.

  21. ARead ARead says:

    @wacokid  in regards to non-mutants having mutant kids….  what if the x-gene is x-linked? (hehehe)  but seriously, in this case women could be carriers of a recessive ‘mutant’ gene without displaying the phenotype (Xx thus H. sapiens sapiens) and could have kids that are mutants if they get down with a male mutant(Yx)….  In this case all daughters would be either carriers (Xx) or mutants (xx), and all sons would be mutants (Yx). 

    @jackarandos  I could be wrong, but I believe that there are many genes on the X chromosome that do not have complementary alleles on their chromosome partner (Y)  I’m also pretty sure that you can get gene duplications or other events that lead to an unpaired alleles on other chromosomes…..