X-Men: Days of Future Past is now in cinemas, billed as the most action packed and ambitious film in the X-Men saga. What better time to use the classic, long-running comic series as inspiration for a post about mutations whilst taking a look at some of the other aspects that make these superheroes more than just men in tights.
Before we go any further: what exactly is mutation and how does it happen? Joel Carlin explains:
Mutation is a change in the sequence of an organism’s DNA. Mutations can be caused by high-energy sources such as radiation or by chemicals in the environment. They can also appear spontaneously during the replication of DNA.
It is this latter method that the writers of the X-Men comics employ as an explanation for their superhuman characters’ astonishing abilities. In real life, as in the comics, mutations can be expressed in a range of ways: sometimes they are harmful and sometimes they have little (or even no) effect. Very rarely, though, the altered DNA may turn out to benefit the organism in some way.
Heralded as the next step in human evolution by some and an abomination by the rest , X-Men presents the arrival of these mutations among a small percentage of the population (mutants) as a polarising event in society. Taking inspiration from real-world social issues (such as anti-Semitism, diversity, LGBT issues, religion and subculture) and exploring heavy themes (from discrimination and persecution to revolution and equality), X-Men is more than just superhuman characters in impossible outfits showcasing their extraordinary abilities. Although this mix of the political, social and incredible is undoubtedly part of the series’ enduring popularity, it is arguably the characters and their unique skills which have truly captured people’s imaginations.
These abilities vary hugely across the series in terms of their nature, as well as their believability. From weather manipulation or teleportation to becoming intangible or running at the speed of sound; from accelerated healing or shapeshifting to freezing solid or astounding strength. Some of these exist in nature already (click the preceding links to find out more).
Biotechnology, another theme explored in X-Men, already allows scientists to imbue one organism with the “powers” of another, from transgenic goats that excrete spider silk protein in their milk to glow in the dark kittens. It doesn’t seem that far fetched to consider future applications of biotechnology including enhancing human beings with abilities of other organisms.
Of course, rapid changes to our genome may not be driven by science alone. Although many species have been affected gradually by smaller mutations, sometimes evolution works more rapidly:
Several types of organisms have an ancestor that failed to undergo meiosis correctly prior to sexual reproduction, resulting in a total duplication of every chromosome pair. Such a process created an instant speciation event in the gray treefrog of North America. (Carlin, 2011)
Could an “instant speciation” event occur among humans and, if it did, what form might it take? It’s tempting to imagine people of the future being able to emit concussive blasts from their eyes or manipulate metal with their mind, although not very realistic. X-Men first appeared in 1963 (partially inspired by the African-American civil rights movement) and the powers imagined for X-Men’s mutants are very much a product of 20th century minds. What, then, would the mutants have been like had they been dreamt up a little bit earlier?
Delving into the Wellcome Library and Images yields many examples of mutants and mutations throughout history, offering a glimpse into what was capturing people’s imaginations hundreds of years ago. During the 1500s and 1600s, “monsters” seemed to be everywhere: collected by royalty, catalogued by naturalists and even used as a means of religious indoctrination.
In Armand Marie Leroi’s book, Mutants, he writes about the Monster of Ravenna:
…a monster had been born at Ravenna; it had a horn on its head, straight up like a sword, and instead of arms it had two wings like a bat’s, and the height of its breasts it had a fio [Y-shaped mark] on one side and a cross on the other, and lower down at the waist, two serpents, and it was a hermaphrodite, and on the right knee it had an eye, and its left foot was like an eagle.
Ravenna fell to French troops shortly after its monster’s birth; a causal link was identified by some at the time with Italians taking it to symbolise the horrors of war. The French, on the other hand, interpreted it as a symbol of Italian vices.
Several ornate and beautiful works were produced to document the occurrence of these monsters. From the Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (1557) in Germany, to the Histoires prodigieuses (1560-82) in France and De monstrorum natura caussis et differentiis (1616) in Italy. Originally considered a sign of divine disapproval or a portent of doom, religious factions used these deformities in propaganda and vitriol directed at others, citing them as symbols of corruption.
In the case of conjoined twins, such as those featured in Histoires prodigieuses, many saw their arrival as a sign of political union, but others saw them as signs of God’s omnipotence (as opposed to any opinion He may have on our affairs). Or was it just a chance happening? La querelle des monsters (the quarrel of the monsters) described this conflict between the different positions: deformity as devine design and deformity as accident.
Below are a few more examples of these “monsters”. Or, rather, individuals who have been affected by mutations which in one way or another set them apart. Instead of portents of doom, religious signs or sideshow freaks, can you better imagine them as part of a team of crime fighting superheroes? Or, even better, as people?
Born in Poland in 1890 as Stephan Bibrowsky, “Lionel the Lion Faced Boy” suffered from hypertrichosis. This postcard would probably have been sold as a souvenir at places where Lionel was exhibited as part of a freak or variety show.
The Selenetidae women, contrary to the nature of other women, give birth to eggs, from which emerge five year old men, ten times bigger than us.
In 77CE Pliny the Elder documented the incredible races of people to be found in India and Ethiopia: monopods; dog-headed Cynocephali, people without heads but with eyes between their shoulder blades; people with many more digits on fingers hands and feet; people who lived for over a thousand years; and the Cyclops.
The public have been and always will be curious about difference. The enduring popularity of places like Wellcome Collection or Morbid Anatomy and the obsession with extreme human body documentaries would seem to confirm this. Whether “mutants” are celebrated or targeted, it gives us a way to reflect upon our own nature.
Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.