Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why I Hate the Mutant Gene

I hate the concept of the gene for mutant powers, or "X-gene", in X-Men comics. It's stupid and it leads to bad stories and muddled meanings, but I specifically hate it for four reasons. The first is scientific, the second semantic, and both are pretty petty and pedantic, but they tie into the third, substantive reason, so I'll try to get through them quickly to get to the fourth.

1. The Mutant Gene Doesn't Act Like a Gene.

A gene is a specific sequence of DNA that codes for a particular physical characteristic. A particular gene might determine whether your eyes are blue or black, but that same gene in another person won't give him stronger back muscles. Even taken to the exaggerated superhero level, the same gene can't give one guy the ability to fire lasers out his eyes and another guy fully functional wings!*

2. An X-Gene Means "Mutants" Aren't Mutants.

A mutation is a change in a gene, a mutant is a changed gene or organism arising from that changed gene. The key here is change. A mutated gene is one you did NOT get from your parents, that you have and your siblings don't. If the "mutant" gene is shared among individuals, if it is inherited, then it is, by definition, no longer a mutant, and a person who exhibits traits associated with that gene is not a mutant either.

But both of those complaints are really nerdy. After all, when you're dealing with pulp science fiction, you have to put up with some bad science and mangled language as plot devices. But the reason the "mutant" gene bothers much more than does its DC equivalent the "meta-gene" is because it's a plot device that hurts the plot it's try to support:

3. The Mutant Gene Undermines the Metaphorical Power of X-Men.

At its core, X-Men is about individuals, shunned and rejected by society at large, alienated from everyone, who come together to form a new family of choice in order to survive, thrive and relate back to the larger world. Now, whether that's an allegory for racial politics, homosexuality, or teenage rebellion in general, who better to play the role of the outcast than a LITERAL mutant, someone who, on a genetic level, is cut off from his own family? And that the X-Men don't share DNA in common, that they are connected by their otherness from everyone in the world, including each other, makes their new family bond all the more meaningful, a celebration of our shared humanity over our superficial differences.

If Marvel "mutants" are not literal mutants, however, if they inherited their power from some rare recessive gene, then they would still have a family connection. Maybe not their parents, but an aunt or distant cousin should be a "mutant" too. If there is a mutant gene, then it doesn't make sense for it NOT to run in families. And if their "mutant" gene connects them to their family rather than dividing from their family, then the power of the metaphor is severely weakened.**

And if "mutants" share a specific gene, then it seriously weakens the idea of the X-Men as a family of choice. "Mutants" are a lot closer to being a new species, united by their shared genetic identity, rather than simply humans who have happened to have the odd quirk in their genetic structure. You lose the sense of people defying their genes to find each other, and gain an unheroic doom of a group giving into it's collective genetic destiny.

And then there's the fact that:

4. The Mutant Gene is Completely Unnecessary to Explain the X-Men.

Mutation is REAL thing. Mutants happen all the time and in fact you almost certainly have a few mutant genes in you. But only a very small percentage of mutations have any noticeable effect on the body at all, and 99% of those that do cause cancer or are pre-natally fatal.

BUT... in the Marvel Universe, things that would cause cancer or instant death in our world, like MASSIVE DOSES OF RADIATION, instead grant superpowers. So superpowered mutants would be the natural byproduct of such a world. So instead of having a "mutant gene" which 1. doesn't make scientific sense, 2. is a contradiction in terms, and 3. undermines the story you are trying to tell, you could just leave it at "They're mutants," AND BE DONE WITH IT!

*And don't give me Byrne's "they all DO have the same power, to 'warp reality,' they just warp it differently," because that still doesn't answer WHY one warps reality by controlling the weather and the other warps reality by being really fat. *

**The worst was a line in X-Men 2, where Pyro tells Iceman's mother that the X-gene is carried by the father, not the mother. The only way that can happen is if the X-gene is on the Y chromosome. This is doubly stupid, because a) it means only people with Y chromosomes could have mutant powers, and Rogue is sitting right there! And b) the Y chromosome cannot carry a gene without expressing it, so Iceman's father and brother should be "mutants" too, and they aren't.**


Matthew E said...

Ever read the Wild Cards shared-world novels? It's about a world in which an alien gene-bomb was set off over Manhattan in 1946, giving a lot of people superpowers and other inconveniences. I bring it up because it's a little similar to the X-gene (and to the metagene that DC introduced in Invasion, and which I'm convinced was stolen from Wild Cards), except they work the science out much more tightly.

Dr Obvious said...

Clearly, this is all more friends of humanity propaganda... :E

One of the major problems is that each writer seems to have his own idea about what makes a mutant a mutant. During Stan Lee's run, mutants actually were mutants in the correct scientific sense. There was no correlation between family and mutations, and he came out and specifically said it. IIRC, Havoc was the first to break that rule, and he was created by Roy Thomas and Neil Adams, according to wikipedia.

Steven said...

Matthew, the timing just works for Invasion! to be rip-off of Wild Cards, but both ("all superpowers derive from one, alien source") seem based on Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe.

Wild Cards does sound interesting. I particularly like the very high mortality rate and the concept of Deuces. I wish we saw more useless superpowers in X-Men and superhero stories as well.

Dr. O, it's odd that writers vary so much on what makes a mutant when the origin of a mutant is so simple ("due to a gene mutation, Kurt was born blue"). Maybe the problem is that some writers think it's TOO simple and want to explain why the mutations are so dramatic and varied (which the X-gene doesn't explain). Or maybe writers feel the need to explain how Cerebro can differentiate between a pre-conception mutant like Wolverine, a post-birth mutant like Spider-Man, and someone with Down Syndrome (which really is caused by mutation).

And y'know, I don't have a problem with the Summers Brothers both being mutants. Mutation is often caused by environmental factors, so depending on how irradiated Mr. and Mrs. Summers were, it's even LIKELY that have more than one mutant child, and that the children would have very different powers. That still works for me because they remain literal mutants with very different genes from their parents and from each other.

What I don't like is the idea that Scott and Alex's very different powers come from the same exact GENE which they got from one or both of their parents, and yet neither parent is a "mutant." That doesn't make sense scientifically, semantically, or story-wise, especially when there is a simpler, better explaination just sitting there.

Matthew E said...

Matthew, the timing just works for Invasion! to be rip-off of Wild Cards, but both ("all superpowers derive from one, alien source") seem based on Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe.

I hadn't thought the timing was that close; in my mind Wild Cards had been out for years before Invasion.

But I wouldn't say that Farmer was a major influence on Wild Cards (although the writers were almost certainly familiar with his stuff). They seemed to be taking their cues right from comics (and superhero role-playing games), but with the sensible single-source element for the superpowers, which any world-builder would automatically think of.

Mostly I think the Wold Newton stuff just feels too different from Wild Cards. Wold Newton is Farmer's cheap trick for enabling him to play with all the old pulp stuff at once. Wild Cards is a way to put a bunch of superheroes and monsters in the world fast.

Bully said...

The first Wild Cards novel came out in 1987. (Bully's pal John was workin' in a bookstore in Albany, NY when it did, and the Bantam sales rep cannily sold it to him as "for fans of the X-Men.")

Invasion! came out in late 1988, according to Wikipedia ("The Encyclopedia You Can Scribble In!")

All this talk of X-genes and mutations, though? In the words of Mister Wolfe, pfui. Clearly thje explanation is: midichlorians.

Anonymous said...

J. Michael Straczynki's _Rising Stars_ could be tiresome at times, but I did like how he handled this issue. The superpowers were a teratogenic effect and couldn't be inherited at all.

Anonymous said...

while I don't have a lot of knowledge about x-men lore couldn't a possible solution to your poroblem is to say that the x-gene isn't actually a gene, but rather a designation for the gene that mutated.
so while cyclops and magneto both have an x-gene they wouldn't have the same x-gene.

Tom Foss said...

Here, let me apply for a No-Prize. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the X-Gene's use is far from encyclopedic.

So, one option is that the X-Gene is a gene carried by all people, or most people, but is generally mundane, perhaps even difficult to detect. What makes it the "X-Gene" is a mutation in that particular gene. The unique way the gene mutates determines how the mutation will be expressed phenotypically. While the child of someone with a mutated X-Gene may have a higher propensity to being a mutant, it is no guarantee (see: Graydon Creed), and particular mutations are not necessarily hereditary.

Another option is that the term "X-Gene" is a generalized term for a specific sort of mutation, which is only semi-hereditary and usually causes major changes in the phenotype. The "X-Gene" may be a mutated form of any number of genes, and which gene and what sort of mutation determines the way it is expressed.

I think this could solve several of the problems, though I can't say with certainty whether or not it contradicts continuity. Then again, it's X-Men, so the contradiction should be right at home.

Steven said...

ah, but Bully, midichlorians, at least, ran in families and always expressed as the same trait (more or less).

The real problem with midichlorians as a story concept is that they were a scientific explanation (sort of) for what had been a strictly religious phenomenon (sort of). I wonder, did fundamentalist Jedi oppose the teaching of midichlorians in Coruscant academies?

Elaine (aka Anon 2) and Tom: I rather like the idea of “X-gene” being a designation for a type or level of mutation rather than rather than a specific gene. It allows for a diverse set of powers, AND a variety of mutations and has literal mutation as part of its definition. “X-gene” is still a misnomer, it would have to be “X-mutation,” but that’s a very petty quibble.

Things like Cerebro, which rely on detecting the X-gene, would be useless, because there would be no ONE gene to detect, but I don’t like Cerebro anyway, so that’s cool.

I have trouble accepting any explanation that has one gene account for all of the X-Men’s powers, I REFUSE to accept one gene that causes mutancy. That just means nothing.

Anonymous said...

The Mutant Gene/X-Factor/Gen Factor/Metgene has always bothered me as well. From the X-Men point of view, but also from some of the recent scenes in 52 (where apparently you can choose which power is expressed).

A couple of points:
First, mutant genes are inheritable, so you might have gotten one from a parent. This is one of the bases of evolution. Look at Hemoglobin S, it's a mutant form of Hemoglobin A that causes Sickle Cell Trait or Disease and it's inherited. (So you could inherit the mutant gene or have a "spontaneous mutation" of your own). Admittedly, this applies to real world "mutant" genes and not Marvel's Mutant Gene, but there's no reason it shouldn't be inherited.

Sticking with the hemoglobin example, there are multiple hemoglobin A mutations that exist. Sickle Cell, Thalassemia, Hemoglobin C are each different conditions caused by mutations of the same gene so a similar condition could apply to a greater extent with the Mutant Gene (as another commentor has already pointed out).

Finally, there are also characteristics of certain genes known as Penetrance and Expression. Penetrance means that not every person with a particular gene expresses it (Graydon Creed, maybe). And Expression means that the same gene doesn't always show up the same way in different people.

I agree that the science is bad, but probably not quite as bad as you think -- though your other points remain perfectly valid.

Steven said...

Thanks Scott, I was waiting for you to weigh in!

And you're right, of course. Mutant genes are inheritable. I simply meant that if someone inherits a gene, they are not a mutant. And from a story point of view, it's kind of important that Jean Grey doesn't share that gene with her parents.

And good points about the multiple Hemoglobin A mutations, Expression and Penetrance. If all mutants had variations on the same power THEN I could accept that one gene is responsible for all "mutants." In fact, it seems like a lot of X-Men fall into one of two categories, psychic ability (Professor X, Jean Grey, and Magneto) or meta-morphology (fully expressed in Mystique, and partially expressed in Wolverine and Colossus), so maybe there could be TWO X-Genes. (Emma Frost currently exhibits both traits!) They still wouldn't be literal mutants, but still...

Anonymous said...

I like that two gene idea. It makes sense...maybe too much sense.

Did you ever read Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince series? She has it set up so that magical ability is an inherited trait and explains how one type is autosomal dominant and the other autosomal recessive. Interesting stuff (and the series is a good read as well).

Steven said...

Well, before you go running off with the two gene idea, realize I had to leave out A LOT of mutants that don't fit either category: Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Gambit, Jubilee... even if you add a gene for "blasters" and another for "animalism", you'd still have Nightcrawler, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch...

And I haven't read Dragon Prince, but I'll look for it now. Magic power as genetics has inspired another post, for another night.

Anonymous said...

Well, you made some points. But perhaps is better to read things on larger point of view.
First off , youì'll be surprised to know that there exist no humans in Marvel Universe comic world. One of the staple , never changed, basis of that universe is that alien omnipotent beings, the Celestials, came to earth and made experiments on hominid D.N.A., creating three species, the Eternals, Immortal god like beings, perhaps the entire so called gods race, the Deviants, monstrous being that eassentially mutate physiscally form each generation(read no one look like another) and the humankind ancestors, who posessed a particual genetic combination tha towuld allow them to develope whatever evolutionary pathway they could need, be it more toward the Eternal Type or more toward the animalistic deviant type, with everything in the middle. Is in shrot the gene responsible of ALL superpowers in the so called humankind of Marvel Universe, that could be active from early age, in the Wrongly called "mutants" whose name was given to make difference from "mutated" that get their gene activated artificially in their life due some external means (radiation, super soldier serum, demonic posession and so on), this gene allow succesful hybridation with other alien species who carry this same gene. Generating FERTILE hybrid.
That's all I wanted to add, oh also another thing.
IS JUST A COMIC BOOK! It does not have to make too much sense, no more than a a fairy tales, poetry or mythology tales!

Anonymous said...

I think Scott gave a very neate explanation and clarification of some of the points in the article. I agree that some of the science seems blurry to me, but being a plant geneticist that crashed by coincidence with the X-men story, I believe that the creators of the story did the homework and read some genetics (even tough some of the explanations we are giving here became clear in recent years). As Scott said, mutations can be inherited, so that argument against can be deleted. Second, mutation can occur in different genes and hence, different expressions can be observed. Third, some mutations can be inherited by the man only (see some examples in Drosophila flies).However, I agree with the argument that mutant genes produce super-powers; as a matter of fact, most of the expressed mutations are deletereous, or in other words, lethal or nocives. Besides of that, although I'm not a fan of the story, I seems to be a very original idea.

Steven said...

Oh, hello. Late comments.

Fez, there's a lot in your post, not all of it coherently written (is English your first language?), so I'll just address the point you shouted.

"IS JUST A COMIC BOOK! It does not have to make too much sense, no more than a a fairy tales, poetry or mythology tales!"

Uh, yeah, exactly. And a scientific explanation, PARTICULARLY the X-Gene or any explaination that says "Mutants" aren't really mutants, hinders the metaphoric power of the story.

But thanks for the wonderfully non-commital "Well, you made some points." I will be using that in the future.

And Anon: At least you numbered your points.

"mutations can be inherited, so that argument against can be deleted"

Yes, Scott already pointed that out, but as I said, a person who inherets an already mutated gene is NOT a mutant. See points #2 and #3.

"mutation can occur in different genes and hence, different expressions can be observed."

But the X-Gene is ONE gene that causes ALL mutant super powers, so, as a plant geneticist, you can see where I have a problem with that.

"some mutations can be inherited by the man only"

Right... but Rogue is a mutant and a woman, and SHE is sitting RIGHT THERE, so clearly that's NOT the case for the mutant gene.

Evan W Smith said...

A lot of this stuff was decided when people didn't generally know better, so it was believable at the time. Gamma Rays sounded like they could turn a person into the Hulk at the time, and the x-gene sounded like it explained stuff at the time. They should change it now, fix it so that it doesn't alenate more people from these comics as time goes on.

Quite possibly the funniest screw-up in comics though is the Atom shrinkin down to sub-atomic size with another dude, and then the other guy asks how they are breathing if they are smaller than oxygen molecules. Atom replies the only way he can, "I don't know." I aint sure which one it was, but I found it out while watching some comics physics thing on youtube. Wish I remember the name of it, but I'm sure anyone could find it by typing that in the search.

Anonymous said...

Ok, you really should read X-men, the fact that they are called mutant is very simple, their "x-gene" lies dormant until the person suffers from extreme distress, why do you think that all the mutants gain their abilities at an early age. Later on in the series, they learn that the gene is a mutation, everyone has it, but only certain few actually allow it to fully mutate, for example, Bobby Drake does have a little brother, but only Bobby has mutant powers, neither his parents or brother, just him. You should really read the whole series before complaining about it.

Anonymous said...

You should really read the whole series before complaining about it.

Would that require every X-Men mini series and guest appearance for the last 40-odd years, or just the main X titles?

Wouldn't want to miss anything relevant before forming an opinion on it.

Anonymous said...

In House of M #2, Beast explains that it isn't just one gene, but a whole bunch of strands of DNA wrapped together. So the mainstream/616 explanation is that it is a polygene thing, not a single gene.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm currently writing a paper that involves the understanding of mutation in X-Men, and this is actually the first time I've seen anything about this in the comic books other than just treating each mutation as a separate and unrelated mutation. Other than the House of M #2 reference given by Dr. Archville, does anyone know of anything like that in the comic books? This makes some difference to what I'm going to write, but I stopped reading the comic books in the mid-90s and don't know how things have gone since then. It shocked me to see them in the movies treating different mutations as caused by one gene.

Also, I can't find my copy of X-Men 2. Does anyone trustworthy speak of just one gene there? Pyro says it to mess with someone, and his claim that it's carried by the father may be unreliable. Is there someone speaking more officially that we can trust who says anything about that? I know the third movie is clear that there's one gene, called Mutant-X. But is it so clear in the second film, or could it just be Pyro trying to mess with Bobby's father?

As for the issue toward the end of this comment thread, it's not actually consistent with the whole history of Marvel Comics' treatment of mutants to think mutant abilities arise only in stressful situations. The consistent explanation from early on is that mutant abilities manifest themselves at adolescence, because the body chemistry changes that result in sexual maturity also activate the mutant abilities.

It's generally not a good idea to be all high and mighty about others not understanding something and needing to do their homework, all the while not understanding it yourself and needing to do the homework for yourself.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you're coming from but you could say that the X gene does give the capacity to gain abilities but it is their minds, on a subconscious level that deceives what abilities they get and why. Each of them in some way were attached to their abilities long before they manifested. Storm for example in lived Africa. I know I if lived somewhere where its hot all the time I would wish for rain, this wish this yearning for relief might have swad her abilities to one side of the spectrum.

Mold Testing said...

Mutant genes are inheritable, so you might have one from one parent. This is one of the bases of evolution. Look at Hemoglobin S, it's a mutant form of Hemoglobin A that causes Sickle Cell Trait or Disease and it's inherited.

tokencylon said...

There is actually this thing called epigenetic inheritance. Genes are silenced by the addition of methyl groups to C5 in cytosine and recruitment of metyl binding domain proteins (MBDPs). The thing is that differential silencing of genes by epigenetic modification occurs defferentially between chromasomes inherited from the father and the mother. The same deletion on chromosome 15 leads to different diseases depending on whether its on the paternal or maternal chromosome (Prader Wili Syndrome if its on the paternal and Angelmans if its on the maternal chromosome. This could be used to explain how the "X-gene" is passed down the paternal line; it could be present in the maternal line but silenced. It could also mean that a mechanism could be used to activate mutant genes inherited from the mother..... =O

This can also be used to explain(in a round about way) how the same mutant gene gives different powers to people, but I'm bored after writing that first bit. Have a good'un!!

Anonymous said...

(yes, I am aware I'm responding to something a decade old. That's not going to stop me from sharing my thoughts.) The X-gene could also be a common destabilizing factor. A single gene that makes the entire genetic structure malleable to circumstance, and causes mutations by it's presence but remains distinct and detectable. I also vaguely recall that it was possible to detect mutants before they actually manifested any kind of power, which would support something similar.