Are Ewoks Teacup Wookies?: Genetics in Sci-Fi Settings

Photo by Trish Barnaby
Photo by Trish Barnaby

On Sunday afternoon at the Hilton, Bethany Brookshire (@scicurious), Eric Spana (@ericspana), Tina Saey (@thsaey), and Gregory Pence with moderator Yin-Yin Wong took on the topic of genetics in different science fiction worlds. The first arena they entered was the Canadian TV series Orphan Black about a woman whose life is on the skids so she takes the identity of a suicide victim who looks just like her. Apparently, that doesn’t work out so well for her. Eventually, she finds out they’re clones.

First, how does cloning work? Saey explains that essentially the nucleus of a cell is implanted into a fertilized egg and that cell grows into a person. In Orphan Black, the original person from whom the clones were made was a hermaphrodite so some of the clones are from the male genome and some from the female genome. The female clones were raised separately by surrogate parents and became completely different people with the same face. The male clones were raised in a militaristic setting giving them more of a group identity. These distinctions give rise to a great debate between nature vs nurture. If they all have the same genetic make-up but different environments—what are their similarities and differences, and what causes those differences? With the different environments, can epigenetics be a factor? Have any of their genetic specifics changed as a result of their habitats?

The next universe they tackled was Pokémon. Now, I’ll admit, I know nothing about Pokémon but Brookshire seems to be an expert as she held up her notebook with an entire Phylogenetic tree. Pokémon look different, they have different characteristics. When you breed them together, their traits pass down to the progeny—but are they all the same species? She explains that other scientists have classified Pokémon by their habitat, but their logic doesn’t work for her. It would be like saying because ducks and fish are both in water, they’re related. Instead, she started by using radial and bilateral symmetry. Radial symmetry would be something like a jellyfish or starfish while humans have bilateral symmetry and moved each little creature into a classification.

The talk then moved into questions about Harry Potter because Spana gives an amazing talk on the genetics of Harry Potter for the con. They discuss how epigenetics (the idea that genetics are changed by environment) may have played a role in Arianna Dumbledore’s misfiring magic. Her trauma at the hands of the muggle boys certainly played a role, but on an emotional or genetic level, no one knows for sure.

Spana then explains that the magic gene must be dominant, because nothing else could explain Hagrid being half-giant and having at least some magical ability. The magic gene does have a counterpart Spana calls the “squib” gene which inhibits the magic gene, causing a person with no magical ability. Brookshire goes on to explain about a paper she found in the British Journal of Medicine called Origins of Magic: review of genetic and epigenetic effects, which discusses mutations of the magic gene that account for abilities like speaking parseltongue or being a metamorphmagus. The pair then theorized about the strength of magical ability to which Spana concludes “genetics makes you seven feet tall, but it won’t give you the ability to play basketball.”

Finally, the group discussed X-Men and the X gene, which Saey theorizes is pleiotrophic because it’s one gene that has many different effects. Since most mutants have a single ability, however, the group concludes that super-mutant Jean Grey must have multiple X genes. As to the idea that the X gene is the next step in human evolution, Spana explains that it must be a mutator strain that mutates other genes. In that case, it can work more quickly than a natural course of evolution.

Finally—the question that wasn’t answered—are Ewoks just little tea-cup Wookies? There’s not enough evidence on either side of the argument to make that determination.

Author of the article

JP Barnaby, an award-winning gay romance novelist, is the author of over two dozen books, including Aaron and Painting Fire on the Air. When she's not hanging out with porn stars or being spanked by hot guys in leather, she binge watches shows like Daredevil and Agents of Shield. A physics geek, she likes the science side of Sci-Fi, and wants to grow up to be Reed Richards.