Friday, July 20, 2007

Biology of Harry Potter

It is now past midnight London time, and to great excitement the final Harry Potter book has gone on sale. Of course the Potter books are fantasy, not science fiction, but that doesn't mean they can't be a launching pad for a biology discussion.

Back in 2005 British geneticists Jeffrey M Craig, Renee Dow, and Mary Ann Aitken wrote a letter to Nature (reprinted by the Panda's Thumb) suggesting that the inheritance of wizarding abilities might be a good way to introduce kids to basic ideas in genetics.
Wizards or witches can be of any race, and may be the offspring of a wizard and a witch, the offspring of two muggles (‘muggle-born’), or of mixed ancestry (‘half-blood’).

This suggests that wizarding ability is inherited in a mendelian fashion, with the wizard allele (W) being recessive to the muggle allele (M). According to this hypothesis, all wizards and witches therefore have two copies of the wizard allele (WW). Harry’s friends Ron Weasley and Neville Longbottom and his arch-enemy Draco Malfoy are ‘pure-blood’ wizards: WW with WW ancestors for generations back. Harry’s friend Hermione is a powerful muggle-born witch (WW with WM parents). Their classmate Seamus is a half-blood wizard, the son of a witch and a muggle (WW with one WW and one WM parent). Harry (WW with WW parents) is not considered a pure-blood, as his mother was muggle-born.

The commenters get into the discussion with proposals for how genetics might explain squibs and the variability in magical powers, even though those issues were also mentioned in a rebuttal letter.
There may even be examples of incomplete penetrance (Neville has poor wizarding skills) and possible mutations or questionable paternity: Filch, the caretaker, is a ‘squib’, someone born into a wizarding family but with no wizarding powers of their own.
Now Anne-Marie of Pondering Pikaia has written a fun series of posts on the details of biology in the Harry Potter universe:
She promises a few more articles in the series, so keep an eye on her blog!

Eva Amsen (aka easternblot) also has a series of updates on Harry Potter biology.
I'm sure that book #7 will have more biological mysteries, just itching to be explained.

Do you know a lover of the Harry Potter books that you'd like to introduce to science fiction? The readers of SF Signal have compiled a list of titles you can suggest.

(thanks to Coturnix for pointing out both series!)

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