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Genetic Linkage

“The Power” – A Dystopian Novel That Turns Misogyny On Its Head, With a Little Help from Genetics

I was thrilled to see Naomi Alderman’s dystopian masterpiece, The Power," top Barack Obama’s list of his favorite books of 2017. OK, the #1 is because the list is alphabetical – but still.

Tables Turned

The multi-layered tale flips misogynistic practices culled from history – from killing female newborns, to rampant rape, to the merely maddening restrictions on driving, education, and working. One example of the turnaround: “curbing,” the ritualistic burning of selected nerve endings in the penis as a boy nears puberty.

It is not fun to be a man in Alderman’s imagined world. Sums up one woman to a journalist, “Now they will know that they are the ones who should not walk out of their houses alone at night. They are the ones who should be afraid.”

The ending is a twist even better than that of the original Planet of the Apes.

“Electrifying! Shocking! Will knock your socks off! Then you’ll think twice, about everything!” shouts Margaret Atwood of a< href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/">The Handmaid’s Tale fame, on the cover.

The saga of an inverted battle of the sexes was published October 10, 2017, just five days following the first salvo against Harvey Weinstein, in the New York Times. Writers dream of synchronicity like that! Alderman’s mirror image to Gilead of Handmaid’s Tale burst into literary life against the backdrop of “me too.” Yet two months later, paradoxically, some women still cast votes for men who at one time routinely used sexual threats and violence. (White women voted for Roy Moore rather than Doug Jones nearly 2:1.) Even the book’s title nails it. It’s all about power.

Much as I loved The Power, the science is, well, underdeveloped. It starts with an intriguing premise but then becoming mired in confusion between genetics (inheriting genes) and epigenetics (environmental influences on gene expression). It’s a common oversimplification in news reports that claim a particular effect is genetic (a "change in genes"), when it’s really epigenetic. Big difference.

An epigenetic change alters the small molecules that bind to DNA, affecting which genes are accessed to make proteins, but not the DNA’s base sequence itself. In some species and for some genes, epigenetic effects can linger for at most a few generations. It isn’t a lasting effect like a mutation is and the timescale in The Power is thousands of years. Nope.

But the details are fascinating.

A Sex-Limited Trait

In Alderman’s vision, girls on the brink of puberty suddenly become able to zing jolts of electricity from their palms. Their power emanates from ropy organs made of skeletal muscle, called skeins, which form along the collarbone.

The basis in electric eels seems sound – much of the animal’s body consists of cells, called electrocytes, gathered into 3 organs that are modified muscle. The flat cells form stacks and are powered by splitting ATP, as are most biological activities. With the help of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the cells pass along sodium and potassium ions, like a biological bucket brigade, much in the manner of what happens at neuromuscular junctions. A charge grows, in electric eels and teenage girls, and then passes from female to female. OK.

In humans, the trait of growing a skein is sex-limited, present in only one gender, like making milk or growing a beard. But the genes conferring a sex-limited trait are in everyone’s genome, and need not be on the sex chromosomes. The major casein protein in human milk, for example, is on chromosome 4, not the X, so menfolk have it too, although a man can’t nurse a baby. But a man has enough breast tissue to develop breast cancer.

The biological logic of The Power starts out convincing, but falters at the genetic explanation.

The catalyst to the domination of females was exposure during World War II to “Guardian Angel … the miracle cure that has kept allied forces safe from enemy attack by gas and is now being given to the general population.” Because Guardian Angel is an antidote to nerve gas, I suspect it blocked the enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine between nerve and muscle cells. Dial it down and zap! Action potentials run amok — but only in females, with their more robust skein precursors.

Manufactured in the US and UK, Guardian Angel infiltrated global water supplies, eventually hurling overgrown fishes ashore everywhere, which people ate. And in the girls, the tiny nubs on their collarbones bloomed into electrical organs. Explains Alderman:

"Any woman who was seven years old or younger during the Second World War may have skein buds on the points of her collarbones—although not all do; it will depend on what dose of Guardian Angel was received in early childhood, and on other genetic factors. These buds can be ‘activated’ by a controlled burst of electrostatic power by a younger woman. They are present in increasingly large proportions of women with every birth-year that passes. Women who were about thirteen or fourteen years old around the Day of the Girls almost invariably possess a full skein. Once the skein power has been activated, it cannot be taken away without tremendous danger to the woman’s life. … It is theorized that Guardian Angel merely amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome. It is possible that, in the past, more women possessed a skein but that this tendency was bred out over time."

So is it epigenetics or breeding? Again, not the same.

Rarely, males grow skeins, just like rarely, men develop breast cancer and women grow beards. Consider Ryan:

"He has a chromosomal irregularity; his parents have known about it since he was a few weeks old. Not all the boys like this grow skeins. Some of them died when their skeins tried to come in. Some of them have skeins that don’t work. In any case, they keep it to themselves; there have been boys who’ve been murdered for showing their skein in other, harder parts of the world."

Whoa! A chromosomal irregularity? What does that even mean? Which chromosome? Alas, this is genetic hand-waving – throw out a familiar scientific term and the reader will assume the mechanism is clear. But it’s not.

Consulting the electric eel genome sequence argues for an epigenetic effect. Myogenic electric organs have evolved 6 times. Although the endowed species are very different, they access similar sets of genes in similar organs resembling muscle to spark a shock. That’s altering gene expression through epigenetics, not inheriting mutant genes or irregular chromosomes.

Fortunately, the incomplete genetic reasoning behind The Power is okay, because of Isaac Asimov’s first law of science fiction: change only one thing. If you can get past the 2-page genetics explanation and its illogical conclusion, the rest makes sense. It isn’t the mechanism of the female electricity that drives the plot, but it’s existence.

A Dwindling Male Population

Parallel to the growing domination of women in Alderman’s world is the idea that only a few sperm donors are necessary to keep society going – something I’ve often pondered when watching movies dominated by the male of the species. That is, most movies.

Consider the numbers! A woman makes maybe a million mature eggs in a lifetime. A man can shoot out half a billion swimmers in a single ejaculate. There’s precedent: A single bull can release 5 to 10 billion sperm that are used to artificially inseminate 300 to 1000 cows!

Says Roxy, who has the strongest power known:

"How many men do we really need? Men are dangerous. Men commit the great majority of crimes. Men are less intelligent, less diligent, less hard-working, their brains are in their muscles and their pricks. Men are more likely to suffer from diseases and they are a drain on the resources of the country. Of course we need them to have babies, but how many do we need for that? Not as many as women. Good, clean, obedient men, of course there will always be a place for those. But how many is that? Maybe one in ten."

And the menfolk are scared, as they should be. "One genetically perfect man can sire a thousand—five thousand—children. And what do they need the rest of us for? They’re going to kill us all. Listen to me. Not one in a hundred will live. Perhaps not one in a thousand," laments one XY. Pity.

But humanity can restart without help from any male of the species at all, according to another novel, Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. After the moon destroys the earth, a few thousand folks survive in space, a fire burns up all the stored sperm, yet we begin again from only 7 surviving fertile females. Thankfully, one of the women is a geneticist and she cleverly deploys genome editing to fish out and activate the relevant male reproductive genes from the women’s genomes. It could happen.

I loved reading The Power as the anniversary of the women’s marches approaches. The imagined world seems more likely than our current president issuing an annual favorite book list, as Barack Obama continues to do. Truth today is why I need dystopian fiction. Next up: Year One, by Nora Roberts.

(This post first appeared at my DNA Science blog at Public Library of Science.)



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