Science! Why Beast Makes Sense… Sort Of

Swinging at your face, fighting for your rights.

As a storytelling concept, the X-Men make an uncanny amount of sense. No longer would Stan Lee and his cohorts be forced to come up with elaborate scenarios to give each and every character their powers. Now, a simple trick of genes and evolution left one primed and ready to join Homo superior, with whatever power set could be imagined. But what does science say on the subject?

 
I think it’s safe to say that we all know it’s a far-fetched idea, which is one of the things that make it so much fun, but at the same time science-fiction has been right about the future before. There’s a book out called The Science of the X-Men which I have read and enjoyed but the subject of that book is how the powers would work once they were established, not the prior plausibility, aka the likelihood, of those powers occurring in the first place. With that in mind I’d like to take a crack at the X-Man I feel has the best chance of actually being born with the potential for the powers they later develop in full: The Beast.
 
Before I delve into the details, we should establish just who Hank McCoy, The Beast, is and what he can do. Initially Beast’s powers were pretty simple. He was an ape-like human with larger than usual hands and feet, increased strength and agility, above average intelligence (unclear if that’s a mutation or just Hank, himself) and increased manual/pedal dexterity; which means he can do a lot of stuff with his hands and feet that normal people can only dream of. This final bit may sound like a trivial power, but think how much more productive you could be if you could type with your toes while painting a portrait with your right hand and taking notes on the latest scientific publication with your left hand. You’d put Leonardi DaVinci, who was famously ambidextrous, to shame regardless of how cool Jonathan Hickman says he was
 

Ouch, that's gonna leave a mark.But unlike many of the first generation X-men, who seem to have completely internalized their mutations and powers, the story of Hank McCoy begins with his father, Norton. He worked in a nuclear power plant before his son’s conception, even coming into contact with “intense radiation,” which in my mind makes him the Homer Simpson of the 616. Speculation aside, the conception is what really matters since that’s the point at which a father and mother give their genetic material to the child.  The supposition is that the radiation Norton was exposed to could have affected Hank’s DNA, and that’s entirely possible. The basics go something like this: radiation damages DNA, the body repairs DNA, sometimes the body screws up the repairs, and you’re left with a mutation. Gonads are especially susceptible so the odds of a mutation being seen in the offspring of the irradiated is somewhat increased. The idea of radiation modifying DNA is explored more fully in Episode 19 of my podcast Science… sort of where I and my other Paleopals interview RyanLipscomb, a medical physicist, on the subject of radiation and how it can damage human tissue. I even bring up the issue of Norton McCoy and the legitimacy of the idea that working in a nuclear power plant could yield a mutated offspring. I doubt it’s the kind of question a medical physicist is often asked, but that’s just how darn tenacious we are when it comes to exploring the “sort of” side of science.

 
The other thing I’d really like to know, but haven’t been able to find, is how old Norton and Edna were when they had Hank. Age matters, the older a father or mother is, the more likely they are to contribute damaged genetic material. It’s no longer the cultural norm in the USA but you really are in your baby making prime in your late teens to early twenties. As a man in that range it’s a sobering truth to bear but that’s the biology. So let’s assume that his parents are between 35 and 45; in the world of modern medicine that would be considered a “high risk pregnancy” due to the likelihood of detrimental mutation (the fact that most mutations are detrimental is a topic for another article). This age may seem old by the standards of the time but remember, we’re trying to birth a mutated freak here, and we need all the genetic damage we can get.
 
Nine months pass after the aforementioned conception and tiny Hank is born. Even at an early age he looks weird, long arms, big hands and big feet. There actually is a word for this in evolutionary and developmental biology: peramorphosis. This is a condition where species “mature past adulthood.” Hank isn’t a perfect example of this and it’s a hard concept to grip mostly because it’s a rare thing to have happen, but it is possible. The opposite of this is called pedomorphosis, and it’s a bit easier to explain. Pedomorphosis, also called neotony, is when an animal fails to develop a full complement of adult traits. For example: an adult dog is more like a baby wolf than an adult wolf. Some people argue neotony is what happened to Hank but I disagree because at birth he’s more like an adult gorilla than a baby human. He’s a sort of evolutionary throwback with a jumpstart on his own maturation allowing him to become a much bigger stronger and yes, even smarter, adult, if only by virtue of having more initial muscle mass and brain matter to work with than your average human.
It should all be clear now.
 
Like most mutants in the Marvel Universe, his powers manifest, or in his case manifest more, sometime during puberty. From a scientific perspective this is pretty reasonable, contrary to what may be common sense, genes turn on and off all the time in the human body. The reason everyone can process lactose as a baby but some adults are lactose intolerant is because the gene needed to process lactose just turns off in those people and not in others. But this type of pubescent transformation seems to apply to all of mutant-kind, what’s makes Beast so special?
 
I literally have no idea who this is.In a word: plausibility. Shooting beams out of your eyes, controlling the fundamental forces of the Universe, or turning into metal are all super cool and (sometimes) lead to great stories, but these all bend or break the laws of physics. Not Beast though, he’s just a dude who’s a little stronger, a little faster and a little deformed. It’s a basic, no frills, and reasonable set of abilities.
 
This seems fitting. I like that the one guy with one of the best understandings of genetics in the Marvel Universe is also the one who has broken the rules the least amount. It may make him a tad underpowered relative to some of the real brawlers but it also gives Hank nobility that not all others share. Kurt was all too eager to wear a gizmo that hid his appearance, but Hank always seemed to own it. Embracing what could have been a derogatory nickname and calling himself The Beast. In that way he’s a lot like us comic book fans, we can hide our passion behind a metaphorical hologram, or embrace it and promote it regardless of stigma. And like Beast, it won’t always work out for us the way we want, but I say it’s worth the risk to just be who we are and share what we love with the world at large. The contrast of his bestial appearance and kind heart should be an example to us all, especially given his down to the earth reliability and tenacious humanity.
 
What’s that you say internet? He’s blue now? And more like a cat? So I should have kept reading comics after 1972? Tell me more, dear readers…
 
 

Ryan Haupt has yet to realize that not everyone cares as much about science as he does. Thus he continues undaunted writing about comics & science, plus hosting the podcast Science… sort of available wherever fine podcasts are sold (for free). He hopes you've learned something, but if not he'll try again next time.

Comments

  1. This is an awesome concept for weekly articles and so well done. Great job Ryan I look forward to reading more in the future.

  2. Beast’s metamorphous from monkey dude to blue cat could make sense too. It might be analogous to patients going through a sex change, where they would take hormones to increase/decrease the appropriate level of hormones. As far as I know, none of Beasts abilities have changed, he is still the smart buff gymnast. The only thing that has changed is his outer appearance.
     
    Great article Ryan, looking forward to more articles from you.

  3. Are these the kind of articles we can expect from now on?

    ‘Cuz if they are… awesome. I love those shows on the History Channel where they try to explain the science behind people’s powers… and I don’t even like science 

  4. No joke, I woke up this morning with an explanation for how he could go from grey fur to blue fur and kicked myself for not including it. Guess they’ll have to be a sequel.

    AmirCat: That could explain a lot of that hair, not so sure about the teeth and claws though.

    deezer: Yes. 

  5. Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I had no idea gonads were so prone.

  6. Great piece, Ryan! I guess from a storytelling perscpective, it’s almost inevitable that Beast would end up Blue and Furry to make him more dynamic in fitting in with all the other crazy physics-defying powers out there, so this was a nice reminder that Beast’s origin was actually fairly simple and somewhat believable. thanks, man, and I’m looking forward to more of these!

    (also: your Iron Man piece on Marvel.com was pretty cool, too!)

  7. Great first article Ryan. Another thing that could have contributed to his mutation and this is a stretch (but hey it’s comics) is that depending on Hanks phenotypic plasticity the environment could influence his gene expression and thus his appearance. This could lead to a good reason for the rise of mutants in a the modern age given that humans have changed the environment so much that some factor that kept mutation down is no longer present and so mutants appear more often. 

  8. To me, comics are about excess and so I embrace every form of it wherever found such as the severe unlikelihood of someone walking around with optic beams beneath their eyes. It’s escapism at its finest, away from the cruel realm we know as reality.

  9. Great article but one factual thing. 

    You said that most mutations are detrimental while really they are likely to have no effect at all.  With so much genetic material made up of stuff that never gets coded for (introns for the curious) and the redundancy in the coding process they usally will have no effect at all.

     That book sounds pretty cool, how do they explain Cyclops in it?

  10. SCIENCE FIGHT!

  11. Great article, I find this stuff fascinating!

  12. @Josh – I’d be disappointed if someone didn’t try to pick this all apart. That’s science, baby. No holds barred battle to the truth.

    @English – I like your thoughts about phenotypic plasticity but unfortunately with a sample size of 1 it’s hard to say how a different environment might have lead to a different Hank McCoy. Maybe we can argue that since Dark Beast seems to have similar mutations plasticity isn’t an issue, thoughts?

    @Spoons – You’re right that many mutations are "neutral" or "silent" if they don’t change any gene expression or occur in noncoding portions of the DNA but for purposes of applied genetics those are generally just ignored unless you’re using them as the basis for a molecular clock. Any expressed mutation can’t by definition be neutral or silent, and most of them are detrimental enough to be selected out of the population. And it’s been awhile since I read the book so I don’t remember if Cyclops is covered or not, but I have my own thoughts on him that may come up in a future article. Thanks for bringing up some good points!

  13. @Haupt Thanks for the response.  I have always thought of Beast as the most plausible of the X-Men.  More like a half step back then the leap forward of the others.  The result of some shifted promoters or something.

  14. I love science and I love it when someone who knows his stuff (as @Haupt obviously does) applies it to something nontraditional.  I also love well written, interesting articles.  Excellent article.  Keep ’em coming.

  15. @Haupt I guess what you could do is expand your view out to the multiverse and examine the changes in each Hank McCoy. That would increase your sample size and a variety of environments. Although would it be a independent selection if someone from the 616 had already visited that alternate universe?

  16. @Stulach – Thanks man. I will do my best to continue the quality.

    @English – If there are infinite universes then there are infinite Hank McCoy’s and a sample size of infinity is also useless. Even if not every universe has an Hank McCoy: Infinity – A Bunch = Infinity. The best would be to clone him a bunch and raise them all differently but I think his use the serum is a enough of a confounding factor that this would all be moot, too much work, and unethical to try. 

  17. Sir you are brilliant. Science and comics combined.

  18. The difference between Kurt and Hank is that Kurt was almost murdered by his hometown for the way he looked when he was born. Hank didn’t get blue and hairy until he was an adult and he did it to himself.

     

  19. Comment deleted. No politics, no religion. Check the Terms of Service.

  20. Cool article!

    If you’re up for it, how about an article on the X-Men and Evolution.  One of the complaints about the X-Men is they further the idea that evolution is this linear path of development and improvement for a species – in the X-Men comics the mutant’s are the "Homo Superior"s, the next step in evolution.  But as I understand it (and don’t want to claim a lot of knowledge here either), evolution works based upon environmental forced/needs/pressures. So the nature of change and go in basically any direction, such as reversing itself.  I remember Stephen Jay Gould‘s research on snails showed how populations could favor certain traits and the population would change/"evolve" in that direction; and then later environmental circumstances would changed favoring the traits which had been previously "abandoned", thus these snail populations could go through a circular sort of evolutionary path.

    So since you’re the iFanboy Science-Hero-Writer, consider an article on something like this.  I would love to be straighten out on this topic.