ABC Family's Kyle XY is one of those shows that sounds interesting, but I've never quite gotten around to actually watching. Maybe it's because ABC Family isn't one of the stations that's on my schedule radar, or maybe it's because the teen angst aspect of the show makes it less appealing than the other shows in its time slot. In any case, the new season starts Monday, and I thought it was high time that I looked at a bit of the biology behind the show. Forgive me (and feel free to leave a comment) if I get part of the storyline wrong .
Here's the general premise of the show: Hunky 26-year old Matt Dallas plays teenager Kyle, who one day wakes up naked and belly button-less in the forest with no memory of his childhood. He's an innocent who needs to learn to learn everything: from learning to speak to simple social interactions, all while trying to discover who he is. Of course it helps that has superior mental and physical skills.
During the first two seasons, Kyle's origins are revealed: he's a clone - subject 781227 - who is part of an experimental program funded by the Zzyzx Corporation to develop super soldiers. At this summer's Comic-Con, io9 interviewed Matt Davis about the show. He talks a bit about Kyle's origins, and suggests that Season 3 (which premiers Monday) will delve heavily into science.
So what sets Kyle apart from your usual supergenius clone? It all started with Albert Einstein. You see, Einstein supposedly spend an extra three weeks in the womb, which allowed his brain to develop further in utero than usual. The result was that he became a physics genius - and started a research program to create others like him. Kyle is one of the latest results of that many-decade long research project. He actually spent 16 years in an artificial womb which allowed him to develop high intelligence, telepathy and other mental skills. It also explains his lack of a belly button.
Now is this based on real science? Not really, as far as I can tell.
- Did Einstein spend an extra 3 weeks in the womb?
I couldn't find any mention of anything unusual about Einstein's birth in any of the biographies I browsed online or on Google Books. It's possible that his birth was later than expected, but I would think that even in the 19th century a pregnancy three weeks past its due date would have been a serious cause for concern. The doctor or midwife attending Einstein's mother would likely have tried to induce childbirth before that time. Today doctors usually induce labor when pregnancy continues two weeks beyond the due date.
- Was Einstein's brain special?
As a boy, Einstein excelled at mathematics, solving problems far above his grade level. However, that aptitude didn't extend to every subject. Einstein's parents supposedly consulted a doctor about his slow verbal development. Even at the age of nine he had difficultly speaking. That may have made him seem slow to his teachers and family. It doesn't seem that anyone expected him to end up an icon of scientific genius.
We actually know a lot about Einstein's brain. Since his death in 1955 it has been analyzed by a number of neuroanatomists. While we still don't understand what made Einstein a genius, it appears that his brain differed from the average in several ways:
- In the early 1980s Marian Diamond examined the ratio of glial cells to neurons in Einstein's brain. In she found that Einstein had a higher than average number of glial cells per neuron in one region of the left inferior parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex which is involved in language and similar functions (see Diamond et al (1985) for details). The significance of these results are unclear and the methodology Diamond used has come under fire.
- A 1996 study showed that Einstein's cerebral cortex had the average number of cells, but was thinner than the control brains. That meant that the neurons were packed more densely in that region. (see Anderson & Harvey (1996)).
- A 1999 study showed that the pattern of grooves in Einstein's parietal lobes wasn't quite normal: the groove called the lateral sulcus or Sylvian fissure was shorter than normal and the inferior parietal lobe, a region of the brain responsible for mathematical thought and the manipulation of objects, was 15% wider than average (see Witelson et al. (1999)).
One thing is clear: Einstein's brain doesn't appear to have developed more than usual, just differently from average.
- So could extended development in the womb increase intelligence?
Einstein is really only a small part of the Kyle XY mythos. The real biological claim is that Kyle has extraordinary abilities because he remained the equivalent of "in utero" for sixteen years. Is that possible? I don't think so. Human intelligence is determined by a complex set of factors, including genetics, nutrition, and other environmental factors. The connections between neurons in our brain are set in response to training and education, particularly during childhood. That means that it's unlikely that Kyle would develop into a genius would develop without some sort of outside stimulation. And if Kyle wasn't exposed to language in the early years of his life, it's unlikely that he would be able to learn to speak normally at all.
I'd be interested in hearing from any of you readers that have seen the show about what Kyle's development was actually supposed to be like. Was he really isolated in an artifical womb? or was he actually allowed to grow up in some sort of accelerated learning environment? Perhaps that's what will be shown in the show's upcoming season.
Season 3 premieres on Monday, January 12. Or, if you can't wait, you can watch the opening episode right now.
I've only seen the 10 minutes, but it looks like it'll be good entertainment if you are in the mood for teen angst (prom night!) mixed with your SF. You can see full episodes from the first two seasons on the ABC Family web site. (Note: as of 2012 the free episodes of Kyle XY are unfortunately no longer available.)
(I was going to discuss Kyle's missing belly button, but this post is long enough already. Maybe I'll get to it later in the season.)