This is quite definitely the answer to the ultimate question. The problem, though, is that no one ever actually knew what the ultimate question was. As such, the next step for this research is to design an even more powerful computer, which can calculate the question to the ultimate answer.
Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books, London.
This is a little homage from the editors of the Journal of Geek Studies to Douglas Adams, one of the most influential authors in geekdom. This is the forty-second article in the history of the Journal, so this seemed rather appropriate. Don’t panic, and always know where your towel is.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deep Thought is the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space. After calculating the answer to the ultimate question for seven and a half million years, and designing the computer to find the ultimate question, it now spends its time watching television.
Blade Runner: 2049 (Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.) is the most archaeological film I have ever seen, and even though it features neither excavation nor rugged men in hats punching Nazis, it is possibly the most archaeological film ever made. Written by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (Warner Bros., 1982) embodies and explores archaeology, digital heritage, and heritage futurism in nearly each one of the film’s 164 minutes without appearing to do so consciously.
The traditional definition of “Archaeology” is that it is the study of human history through excavation and analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Blade Runner: 2049 does this on film. Humans are (arguably) defined by the things we use, which comprise our material culture. As we become increasingly digital and post-human, the archaeology of our things changes to accommodate for the synthetic and immaterial. What follows is an examination of the archaeology of Villeneuve’s film, what that means to a 2017 audience, and how we can plan for an archaeology of 2049 and beyond.
Blade Runner: 2049 is a film about (among many, many other things) memory and being remembered, a feat accomplished through materials, through things, and through how the characters interact with them. The appearance and usage of things are supplemented by action: forensic and archival research, radiation testing, and off-screen excavation. More generally the film succeeds in demonstrating how people and media-obsessed culture in the near future choose to recall the past, living in the present among discarded artifacts and landscapes of abandonment. Blade Runner: 2049 also recalls the original film through recycling symbols, creating a meta filmgoing experience where the viewer at times is watching both movies at once. In the interest of simplicity, I will review the archaeology of Blade Runner: 2049 in the order in which things appear as the film plays (I’d say “unspools”, but that would be an anachronism). Think of it more as a video game walkthrough, or an excavation of the film.
Blade Runner: 2049 opens on a tight shot of the eye of replicant blade runner “K” of the LAPD. Eyes feature heavily in both films, and become artifacts in each as proof of personal identity. We know from the original film that eyes are manufactured, bioengineered for both replicants as well as humans who desire body modification, a post-human trait. One minute into the film, ideas are already in play about accuracy and authenticity, especially when considering the reproduction of original things. Late in the film, original blade runner Rick Deckard meets a reproduction of his wife Rachael, but notes that his wife’s eyes were green. The reproduction’s are brown. While the replicant conveys authenticity, it is not 100% accurate. Archaeologists face this question when completing digital reconstructions of ancient structures. Where do we draw the line between authentic and accurate, and can something convey the feeling of authenticity without being completely faithful to the original? I can imagine that in the future archaeologists could attempt to recreate digitally not only structures, but also the people who inhabited them.
K’s first mission takes him to a farm run by bookish replicant Sapper Morton. The flight over Los Angeles and surrounding geometric farmlands reveals a world and a landscape in ruin and continued decline. However, the farmhouse occupied by Morton is clean and full of things hearkening back to the mid-20th century: a gas stove, a cast iron pot, simple, old furniture, an upright piano, and hardwood floors. We learn later that wood is a precious commodity, and becomes a symbol for the film. The things that are the most “real” to the characters are always made of wood. For Morton, it is his house and the tree outside, symbolizing a rich internal life, and a rich past. For K, it is his wooden toy horse. For the spiritual heir to replicant-creator Eldon Tyrell, Niander Wallace’s offices are paneled with rich wood. Wood has permanence; the digital is temporary. For the duration of the film, the loss of the digital is always either happening or is about to happen, without any way of retrieving what is lost. But this loss of digital things, as communicated by K’s digital companion Joi, makes things feel more real. Even though we live in a blended environment, our emotions remain real. Our attachment to digital things are quite real. And when real things cannot mitigate our loneliness, we turn to digital surrogates. We make these things to comfort ourselves, yet they continue to bring us pain. But that pain, as Wallace reminds Deckard later, proves to us that our happiness is real. These emotions throughout the film are governed by the presence and absence of things.
At the conclusion of the opening confrontation, K removes Morton’s eye; it becomes an artifact. It is used as proof-of-capture, but before that serves as a trigger for K’s melancholy. The presence of this thing — the eye — binds both replicants together with their shared experience, but K is a Nexus-9 replicant; Morton is a Nexus-8, an older model able to think and behave more freely. The newer generation must “retire” the old. We destroy our past in order to bury it. But burying it also serves as an act of preservation for the future. The buried must become “reactivated” through excavation and study, creating a new (or at least modified) history based on the presence of something newly discovered in the archaeological record.
K notices via a remote-sensing drone that something is buried at the base of Morton’s tree. It is a crate that holds the bones of what K will later learn might be his mother, a “miracle” of a sexually produced live birth of a replicant child with two replicant parents. We never learn how replicants are assembled under the skin, so the presence of DNA is assumed as part of the creation of a non-human workforce. And we never learn why replicants (at least by Tyrell Corporation) where given a functional reproductive system. What’s interesting is that when the bones are analyzed in the LAPD’s forensics lab, K discovers inscriptional evidence: a serial number inscribed on one of the bones. Archaeologists are always looking for inscriptions, and the presence of the inscription in the bone points to a thing that is made, not born.
In an interlude early in the film, K returns home, passing by biocentric, anti-replicant graffiti on his way to his quiet sanctuary. The humans who remain on Earth resent their non-human neighbors, and mark their environment accordingly. Even though he’s a replicant, K clearly has human — perhaps designed — needs, which are satisfied by things: cooking pots, a shower, entertainment, including paper books. The food is instant, practical, and disposable. The scene is driven by a dialogue with a woman off-screen, revealed over time to be an AI. K’s relationship with “Joi” helps him with his loneliness. He uses a thing as a human proxy, reminding viewers of Spike Jones’ AI film Her (Warner Bros., 2013). Joi is tied to K’s apartment via a hologram projector on the ceiling, and she appears to K in a variety of outfits conveying tropes about the women men theoretically want (at least as the media portrays them): 1950s housewife, 1990s manic pixie dream girl. Clothing serves as an icon communicating time as well as presumed values. The things K possesses help define his character: he is simple and practical, lonely, longing for conversation and meaningful interaction. I imagine he could have easily chosen a pornographic hologram to welcome him home, but instead he has selected a woman companion to keep his brain company, to make him feel welcome and appreciated, something or someone who remembers him.
At the conclusion of the scene, K gives Joi a gift, an anniversary present. It is a portable projector so Joi can travel with K. This device delights the AI, and gives K a mobile companion who not only is a friend, but who also looks out for him and seemingly feels for him. The film’s audience must remember that both of these characters are, at their simplest, robots, or at least synthetic people. They are both things that interact with each other and with other things (as well as people). The way humans interact with K (replicant) and Joi (portable AI) are reprehensible if one projects humanity onto the digital. It reflects the way modern humans treat their entertainment: disposable commodities that offer a brief reprieve from loneliness and boredom, yet will never be on equal footing with “authentic” experiences and relationships. To be a digital entity is to be abused. No wonder the Nexus-6s, 7s, and 8s rebelled against their creator and users. The fact that Nexus-9s (of which K is an example) were programmed for obedience confirms that humans are fully aware of how they treat their things, and that things are ultimately disposable. We throw everything away, and these things neither resist nor resent their disposal. Everything is rubbish, and is therefore archaeology.
Armed with the serial number from the bones buried under Morton’s tree, K travels to Wallace’s headquarters, which contain its corporate archives. K shares the number with the archivist who recognizes it as from a very old replicant dating to before the Blackout, which wiped everything stored digitally. As K and the archivist walk into the archives, the archivist quips about the only thing permanent is saved on paper. He reminds K that everything digital can be lost forever. The interesting thing about paper is that it is a product created from wood pulp, and we are back to the idea of the analogue nature of wood yielding the only things of reality and of permanence.
Wallace’s replicant-in-charge, Luv, finds K in the archives, and leads him into literal cold storage to listen to a digital audio recording maintained on a physical marble dropped into a reading device. Older media is read on older technology preserved in a cold, dark place. The more things change, the more they stay the same. K and Luv listen to a recording of Rachael (whose recovered bones contained her serial number) from the original Blade Runner. It is her interview with Deckard as he conducts his Voight-Kampff test on her to confirm if she is a replicant. This test recalls the Turing test for identifying AI. Future technologies are developed to satisfy the same needs of technologically enabled humans from 100 years ago. Although humanity’s needs and desires have not appreciably changed during the history of the human race, the things people invent to satisfy those fundamental needs continually appear, are updated, are replaced.
After the visit to the archives, K begins his search for Deckard in order to learn about Rachael, and finds himself interviewing Deckard’s associate from the first film, Gaff, who is able to connect the dots for K about what happened to Rachael and Deckard, the mystery that closed the original Blade Runner. Archaeologically, the most interesting thing from the brief interview between K and Gaff is the origami sheep Gaff creates. The figure recalls the origami unicorns Gaff made and left in locations throughout the original film. It also recalls the eponymous sheep Deckard was saving to buy for his wife in Philip K. Dick’s source story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” What we see in the new origami figure is an example of material memory, but for the viewer. The presence of the origami animal in the new film reminds us of what we saw and felt in the old film. The audience continues to experience the sequel in a meta way. Also, origami is a paper art, a medium that communicates something real. It separates Gaff, a human, from his replicant counterparts. At the same time, the origami sheep is a facsimile, drawing a further distinction between real and virtual.
As the interview happens, Luv meets with Wallace as he prepares to witness the “birth” of a new replicant model. Wallace is blind (possibly intentionally), his “eyes” being six Bluetooth drones, which allow him to see in a more holistic way than a two-eyed person. Body modification continues to be a trope shared by humans of the future as we physically merge with digital technology, becoming post-human. Luv carries a box of computer chips with her, but only one is used to activate the eye-drones. As we saw in the first film and at the beginning of the sequel, eyes remain key to what is human, and what is “other.”
The birthing scene merges the organic with the synthetic. A replicant in the form of a naked adult female tumbles out of a clear plastic sac, covered in gel. She is clearly cold and afraid, and Wallace takes the opportunity to demonstrate how precious life is, even to something that is literally born digital. The newborn replicant’s near-immediate death at the hands of Wallace (who uses an analog blade, something else conveying the meaning of “reality”) shows again how humans treat their things, even their own creations. We make. We discard. The death of the nameless newborn contrasts with the tenderness taken to bury Rachael. In the latter case, replicants observed care in the afterlife of one of their own. For humans, replicants remain as objects. In fact, as we see later in the film, the whole of Earth has been abandoned by those humans who can afford to make the voyage, leaving a planet that exists as a global rubbish heap. We have thrown our own planet away, and it remains as one giant archaeological site. Wallace wants humanity to conquer the universe, to control everything natural, and to do so he needs to create replicants who can replicate each other through procreation. Humans, to Wallace, need a slave-labor replicant force to support their conquest of the stars. He must learn Tyrell’s secret of live birth, but these records (along with all other digital records) were wiped out in the Blackout of 2021. Compare this to all of the science that was likely lost when the Library of Alexandria burned in 48 BCE and again in 270 CE and what needed to be rediscovered over the next 2,000 years.
Jumping back into the main mission of the film’s narrative, K is ordered by his LAPD superior to return to Morton’s farm to destroy everything. This is a kind of damnatio memoriae, a destruction of memory, a phenomenon familiar to Egyptologists and Roman archaeologists. Before he torches the house, K finds a baby sock hidden in a small box in the analog upright piano. The sock is a human thing, with its own material memory, kept because its owners saw it as precious. K’s supervisor would later dismiss is as “just a sock,” but it clearly had meaning to the replicants present at the live birth at Morton’s farmhouse.
As with other historic buildings lost in history, the farmhouse then burns. K preserves the tree, however, the base of which contains another inscription written at the bottom of the trunk: 6.10.21. It’s a date, likely a birthday, and is tied to the burial nearby. K literally finds his roots and returns to them. It’s a human thing to do, to be curious about our parents, about previous generations. This is communicated in the landscape, but also in the objects with which we become connected. Seeing the date triggers a memory for K: as a young boy he was chased by other boys who wanted his toy wooden horse. Carved into the base of the horse is the date 6.10.21. We have inscriptional evidence tying the thing (wooden horse) to the tree. It is like finding a join between two pieces of pottery found far apart. They connect, yet come from different contexts.
K visits a human archives to search for DNA with Joi’s assistance. Here the synthetic being researches the natural, discovering that two people (impossibly) share the same DNA, a boy and a girl. As opposed to the Wallace corporate archives where research is done digitally, K conducts his human archival research through a fiche-reader, something analog. Yet again, the analog is treated as real in the film. According to the archives, the girl died of a genetic defect, but the boy survived and was placed in an orphanage. K is playing the role of an archaeologist throughout this film, conducting research prior to heading back out into the field to find material remains.
As K approaches the ruins of San Diego, which has been turned into a gigantic disposal center for technology, he is shot down in his Peugeot police prowler. Scavengers attempt to kill him and seize the remains of his Spinner (flying car), but they are killed via a rocket-firing drone controlled by Luv from Wallace HQ as she gets her nails done: animated, luminescent cartoon figures. Looters are punished by death in order for K to track down the boy. This is not too far from modern history where in areas in Syria controlled by ISIS/ISIL, looters are killed if they do not turn in their finds to local antiquities processing centers, or if they are caught stealing antiquities to sell themselves. K enters a metal hut, and discovers that the orphanage contains hundreds of children tasked with recycling digital materials, something currently happening in modern-day Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. Humans continue to recycle and repurpose things for other purposes. In this case it is digital spolia.
The records K consults at the orphanage are kept in bound, printed volumes, pointing to the reality of what once was. The pages he needs are gone, ripped out of the book. K’s dismay at losing physical evidence is heartbreaking, and it is as if that history is now lost forever. Before he leaves, K wanders through the remains of a factory attached to the orphanage. His presence within this architecture reminds him of the memory triggered by the date on the tree, and he finds his toy horse hidden where he left it 30 years ago. His material memory runs full-circle as he is reunited with his toy. It proves his memories are real, and he makes the connection that he was the boy who was born, and that Rachael and Deckard are his parents. The combination of landscape and artifact recalled history that K believed to be implanted. He acknowledges that in his time it is nearly impossible to determine what is “real”, but as a cop, his appreciation of material evidence and the location in which it is found gives him the proof he needs.
Through an interlude with Joi, K comes to terms with his near-humanity, perhaps made more human because of his birth, birth imbuing the child with a “soul.” Regardless of what your opinion is on the “miracle” of birth or the absence or presence of souls in people, the film gets at the question of what makes humans human, and how are they different from the things that they create. Humans make tools, and replicants are the superior tool, human-like but not human. One wonders how humans could identify their own humanity if there were no things at all. Joi gives K his birth name, “Joe.” K, skeptical of memories, decides to visit Wallace’s chief memory-maker, Ana Stelline, to determine if his memory of the horse is true and not an implant.
In 2017 we already know that digital media can be faked, and that the real can be enhanced. We know that human memory is unreliable. When K visits Stelline, she uses a camera-like tool with analog controls to manipulate the appearance of a digital insect, and later of a child’s birthday party, the notion of a birthday hinting at K’s origins. Humans speak through symbols and images, and it’s as if Stelline knows something about K that he himself does not. They discuss the difference between real and manufactured memories. Real memories are messy; the synthetic is too detailed. Compare this to digital archaeological reconstructions of structures, and we return to the idea of authentic versus accurate. The absence of things in the archaeological record makes for incomplete reconstructions that the archaeologist must fill in (or choose to leave as a void). The memory-maker is engaged with this kind of recreation, making conscious decisions about what to omit, what to leave messy to lend authenticity to the memory. She herself is a formation process, with the brain as an archaeological site.
K returns home to process what he’s learned, and is met by both the holographic Joi and the real prostitute Mariette. They merge, the digital woman overlaying the real, turning a synthetic sexual encounter into a “real” one, merging the digital mind and desire of Joi with the physical surrogate of Mariette. As we’ve seen earlier, the digital is in control of the situation, manipulating the human to do something, in this case to have sex with a replicant. This is perhaps commentary on how our digital things control our lives (or at least our actions) instead of humans having the illusion of control. Wallace realizes this in his Nexus creations, but general consumers do not. We have stopped being able to make our own conscious decisions, and instead elect to purchase things, giving them license to have power over us. We have abdicated our freewill to the things we make.
In two scenes in the film, K must undergo a “baseline test” after a traumatic LAPD service event. He easily passes his first test after retiring Morton. He completely fails his second test after learning about his past. The phrases repeated in the baseline test come from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which itself is a tricky piece of meta fiction and poetry that can be read in both a linear and nonlinear fashion. It is a reflection of the film (albeit from 1962), and the presence of the book in K’s apartment, and the presence of its text in the baseline test, makes for another meta event in the film, bringing the film world and the real world together. The book is a clue about what is happening in the action of the film, the clue being given by the presence of a thing in its context. What is this book to K, and why won’t he read it to Joi when she asks?
Returning to more traditional archaeology, K brings his wooden horse to an antiquarian, Doc Badger, who runs a radiation test in order to source the material. Instead of being from the tree on Morton’s farm, the tritium signature points to Las Vegas. Doc Badger also notes the value of such a small piece of pre-Blackout wood, saying he could trade it in for a real horse, and that K could become a rich man. K won’t part with his toy, speaking to the nostalgia we have for the things we each cherish. Our things possess our memories, or at least trigger them. Possession of things makes access to these memories easier.
The Las Vegas K visits is radioactive, vacant of people, dust-covered, with abandoned casinos and ruined sculptures. The colossal sculptures ruined in the dust recall Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” but in a perverse way. In the poem, the ruler Ozymandias laments what has become of his empire. In Las Vegas, the broken statues of objectified naked women mock Las Vegas and its permissiveness towards instant gratification of humanity’s basic needs. This empire of entertainment has also fallen. K finds Deckard in the Vintage Casino, a place that recalls an idealized mid-20th century America where he lives with his dog. “Is he real?” K asks. “I don’t know,” Deckard replies. “Why don’t you ask him?” K and Deckard’s introduction to one another comes by way of a fight in an empty cabaret where a glitched recording of Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds” plays on stage, occasionally interrupted by a moving image of Marilyn Monroe. We see what is already the future of entertainment, with dead entertainers (e.g., Tupac Shakur) appearing digitally in front of a live audience, a technology being developed now by Japan’s Crypton Future Media. We see a futuristic jukebox in Deckard’s bar playing a Frank Sinatra tune while appearing as a 3D black-and-white hologram atop the player. Our analog musical heritage has become digital.
Deckard and K have an uneasy conversation about Rachael, tying up more loose ends from the first film. K also notices several hand-carved wooden sculptures of animals on the bar, matching the size and style of his own toy horse. Luv arrives at the casino in order to kill K and to kidnap Deckard so that Wallace can interview him about the live birth event. Luv destroys the device K uses to take Joi with him; she is lost forever. Left for dead, K is rescued by a group of rebellious replicants who want K to help them find Deckard and Rachaels’ daughter, confusing him. His memory was manipulated by Selline to protect the identity and location of the daughter, proving that memory is always fallible no matter how true the possessor might find that memory. K returns to Los Angeles where he is approached by a colossal advertisement of a Joi model who says he looks nice but lonely, a good “Joe.” The AI was just an AI after all. It can be replaced and retaught.
As K returns home, Deckard sits in Wallace’s office with Luv and watches as a facsimile of Rachael enters the room. Deckard detects the difference in the eyes (a human trait and additional evidence of reality), and Luv executes the replicant, leaving Deckard shocked in the midst of his nostalgia, a thing-as-person (or person-as-thing) disposed of without hint of love or care. He sentences this Rachael to destruction by calling it a fake. Humans crave the real, the original, the first edition. Any copy is of lesser value, something that is evidenced in the antiquities marketplace.
After a fight in which Luv is killed and Deckard rescued by K, who has somehow learned that Deckard is being transported to the Off-World Colonies. K and Deckard return to the offices of Selline, who lives and works in a sealed environment because of her genetic condition. Selline is the true replicant child of Deckard and Rachael. Replicant meets replicant, a reunion of “soulless” things that are somehow no longer things, reconnected by love and memory, separated by a screen.
As the replicant (and real child) Selline works on a memory of snowfall inside her creative space, the replicant K bleeds out on the steps to the office, catching real snowflakes in his hand. The snow itself is a metaphor for humanity, unique to one another, yet of the same shared materials, left to occupy the ground, resting atop each other over time, ultimately disappearing, ignorant of what came before and what will come after. It is no different that the pottery dumps at any number of archaeological excavations, where sherds are collected, counted, and weighed, then thrown away after yielding their data.
One wonders then what Ridley Scott thought after releasing the final edition of his Blade Runner film in 2007, 25 years after its initial theatrical release, if it would produce a sequel that shared the same DNA with his film. As already described above, watching Villeneuve’s interpretation of the world and its characters proves to be a meta experience, seeing at once the original, analogue film overlaid with what was filmed and projected digitally. Both films are real, but are produced in two separate worlds. Blade Runner: 2049 uses many visual and audible cues to recall its parent, ranging from Gaff’s origami to Vangelis’ “Tears in the Rain” from the original soundtrack. The ambient noise in K’s apartment is re-used audio from Scott’s 1979 film Alien. The clear raincoat Joi wears when leaving K’s apartment for the first time recalls that of Pris in the first film. Deckard’s original Spinner car from the first film makes a brief appearance in the casino where Deckard currently lives. Even the first scene where K confronts Morton was written for the first film (but not used), and instead introduces the second movie, old words in a new environment. This is a kind of archaeology of film, making connections between the things shared between original and sequel, actual props created for one and re-used in the other. It’s recycled media in the service of a new story.
The archaeology of Blade Runner: 2049 is complex and present throughout the film, focusing on materials and memory, about how people and things interact with each other, and about what separates humans from the things they create. We confront the traps of nostalgia. We recycle materials and memory. We occupy landscapes that affect our behavior. And we let our things determine our actions. As we look ahead to 2049 and after, we must consider the presence of our digital selves, how they manifest, and how they can be preserved, and what happens when our digital lives are lost. It’s an attempt to communicate the new idea of heritage futurism, and serves as a cautionary tale for 21st-century archaeology and beyond.
Dick, P.K. (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, New York.
Jonez, S. [director] (2013) Her. Warner Bros.
Nabokov, V. (1962) Pale Fire. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
Scott, R. [director] (1979) Alien. 20th Century Fox.
Scott, R. [director] (1982) Blade Runner. Warner Bros.
Shelley, P.B. (1818) Ozymandias. The Examiner 524: 24.
Villeneuve, D. [director] (2017) Blade Runner: 2049. Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Reinhard is a PhD student at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, part of the Department of Archaeology, and he is also the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society. In 2014 he led the team of archaeologists who excavated the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He runs the Archaeogaming blog (https://archaeo gaming.com/) and Twitter (@archaeogaming). His book, Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in (and of) Video Games, will be published in May 2018 by Berghahn Books, and he has even recorded a song inspired by Blade Runner: 2049 (https://soundcloud.com/andrew-reinhard-798315768/2049a). Despite his obsession with science fiction and horror films and video games, he’d rather be outside before the fallout-crazed zombies arrive.
The modern vampire is often portrayed as a human transformed into a vampire due to a bloodthirsty spirit, demons, viruses and other pathogens, magic or some unknown reason. Neither fiction nor more realistic accounts have shed light on the precise molecular mechanisms of how the transformation happens until the novel trilogy and TV series called The Strain (Fig. 1) introduced some ways as to how the transformation could happen. In The Strain, parasitic worms carry a virus that causes the vampiric changes to happen through a modification in the expression of genes. This change even creates new organs such as the stinger.
For obvious reasons, no actual experimental studies have been conducted with vampires and so the exact origin and evolution of vampirism remains unknown. A full genome-wide association study or transcriptome analysis would be preferred to recognize the exact genes behind the vampiric traits, but getting enough samples from vampires will most likely be difficult. Thus, the “candidate gene” approach might be the best method for reaching some conclusions or, if there is enough material, a whole genome sequencing and comparison to human genomes.
In this article I will explore some thoughts on how we could make a vampire in the lab and which part of the genome we would need to alter in order to see the necessary changes. Imagine if genetic engineering would be so advanced that when you tweak little bits of the human genome here and there, you could make whatever traits, even vampiric ones, appear (or disappear) any way you like. Unfortunately, reality is seldom as easy, as it has been shown in movies such as Gattaca (Columbia Pictures, 1997), Splice (Warner Bros., 2009) and the X-Men series (20th Century Fox, 2000–2017), although the genome editing method CRISPR (Cong et al., 2013; Hsu et al., 2014) has lifted genomic modification to a completely new level and has already been used in removing diseases in humans (Ma et al., 2017). Alternatively, what if vampires already existed and we could get our hands on their genome sequence? Which genes would be affected by the transformation? Intriguingly, there are real life examples of species and conditions that could be thought of as vampiric and we can find potential candidate genes for vampirism from these traits. These “vampire building blocks” could then be used in constructing a lab vampire (at least hypothetically).
The myth of vampires has been around for thousands of years and the descriptions of vampirism vary between times and cultures. The vampires we know today date back to the 17th century and they have been covered by every platform in our popular culture. A good summary of the evolution of vampire myths can be found in Harris (2001).
The exact way in which humans transform into vampires depends on the source of the story you are reading and it often remains a mystery. In the extensive study of the science of vampirism, Dr. Pecos and Dr. Lomax (2001–2017) from the late Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency (FVZA) suspected that it is a human vampirism virus (HVV) that causes the transformation. The origin of the virus is suspected to be the vampire bats and their fleas, which sounds very plausible since bats are known to be carriers of many diseases such SARS, ebola and rabies (Biek et al., 2006; Smith & Wang, 2013), and it was also suggested in the movies Daybreakers and the Underworld series. Furthermore, rabies has been suggested to be the actual origin of the modern vampire myth (Gomez-Alonso, 1998).
In this article, I will present real life examples of vampiric traits and hypothesize possible molecular mechanisms and candidate genes that could be mutated after the transformation. I will concentrate on the following three vampiric traits that are common to many descriptions of vampires:
Hematophagy (that is, feeding on blood)
For many people, bloodsucking is the first vampiric trait that comes to mind. Blood is a nutritious fluid tissue, full of proteins and lipids and it is easy to consume. In nature, blood consumption has evolved in several unrelated species throughout the animal kingdom. Among invertebrates, leeches, mosquitos and fleas are the best known examples, and some fish (lampreys) are also known to feed on blood. There are several bird species that practice hematophagy, such as the oxpeckers, hood mockingbirds and vampire finches. Among mammals, the best known hematophagic species are the vampire bats.
Several changes in the genome are needed in order for animals to survive exclusively on blood. One of the key features is to prevent the victim’s blood from coagulating while feeding. In vampire bats the plasminogen activator (PA) genes have gone through gene duplication, domain loss and sequence evolution (Tellgren-Roth et al., 2009). These genes are expressed in the saliva glands of vampire bats and the proteins they produce help to process the blood of birds and mammals. In humans, these genes protect against heart attacks by producing proteins that clear the blood vessels by degrading blood clots. The hairy-legged vampire bat’s (Diphylla ecaudata) PA genes resemble the PA genes of the closely related non-blood feeding bat species. These bats feed on the blood of birds and it seems that the activation of PA in saliva glands is enough to keep the bird blood flowing. However, in the two bat species that feed on mammal blood, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and white-winged vampire bats (Diaemus youngi, which also feed on birds), the PA genes have gone through more extensive modifications in order to better tackle the natural inhibitors of PA proteins in mammal blood. A transcriptome and proteome study of common vampire bats found additional genes expressed in the salivary glands (Francischetti et al., 2013). Furthermore, by comparing vampire bats and leeches to non-blood feeding species, Phillips & Baker (2015) found additional genes related to blood feeding, such as ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase-1 (ENTPD1), which has not before been linked to secretory expression. They also suggest that alternative splicing of genes has been an important mechanism for these species to rapidly evolve to feeding on blood.
In addition to blood coagulation, the vampire bats needed to overcome the bitter taste of blood. Bitterness in nature often means that the substance is poisonous and should be avoided. However, in all of the three vampire bat species there is a greater percentage of non-functioning DNA in the bitter taste receptor genes than in other bat species. These results suggest that these genes have been relaxed from selective constraint in vampire bats, which has led to a reduction of bitter taste function (Hong & Zhao, 2014).
Lastly, the problem with consuming blood is the ratio between amount of nutrition needed and the liquid consumed. A typical vampire bat can consume half of its weight in blood in one feeding. The blood is then rapidly processed and the excess liquids are urinated within two minutes of feeding in order for the bat to take flight. Conceivably, the same effect would not be very convenient for vampires. If the vampire weighed for example 70 kg, it would need to consume 35 kg of blood in one feeding and urinate the excess liquid almost immediately, because the bladder can only hold about half litre of liquids. Furthermore, humans have about 5 kg of blood on average, so vampires would need to suck dry about seven people per night and urinate between victims, something that has not been discussed or shown in vampire stories, except in The Strain, where vampires defecate the blood while drinking. To compensate for the low intake of nutrients, vampires might slow down their metabolism and go to a hibernation mode and thus avoid the need to suck several litres of blood in one go. It would also enable fasting through hard times. In many stories, vampires have managed to survive without blood for days (see below).
Vampires are often regarded as undead; they are dead but behave like living beings, which in turn gives them eternal “life”. In this paper, I am not going to discuss whether vampires have a heartbeat or if they breathe (for that we would need actual vampire specimens); I will instead concentrate on how actual immortality could be achieved by giving real life examples.
First, we need to define what immortality is. The concept of biological immortality means that there is no mortality from senescence, which is biological aging. This of course means that the organism is not truly immortal, it can die through injury or disease. Vampires are often presented as highly resilient beings who can survive disease and injuries, but there are things that still kill them, like sunlight, a wooden stake through the heart, fire or beheading.
What is then the ultimate cause of senescence? It is still unclear how the process of senescence happens exactly, since it is a very complex phenomenon. This subject is under heavy research, especially in regard to how we could slow down or even reverse aging (de Keizer, 2017; see movies Self/less [Focus Features, 2015] and Mr. Nobody [Wild Bunch, 2009] for further thoughts). The research has been concentrating on gene expression changes, chemical and DNA damage, and telomere shortening. Telomeres are repetitive regions at the end of chromosomes. Every time cells divide, the ends of the chromosomes are progressively clipped in the replication process. Because the repetitive sequences in the telomeres are not protein coding, the clipping does not affect cell functions. When the telomeres are gone after a certain number of divisions, the cells stop dividing (Hornsby, 2007). However, cells have ways of replenishing the telomeres with an enzyme called “telomerase reverse transcriptase”. The drawback is that the majority of adult somatic (that is, non-reproductive) cells do not express telomerase, but it can be found for example in embryonic stem cells, male sperm cells, epidermal cells and in most cancer cells. In vampires, this enzyme might be active also in the adult somatic cells but this might pose an increased cancer risk. However, vampires might have ways to avoid cancer, as discussed below.
The way senescence happens is not universal; there are species where aging is negligible or cannot even be detected. There are two well-known examples of truly immortal species, the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) and the animals from the Hydra genus. The immortal jellyfish, originally from the Caribbean Sea and now spread around the world, can use the process known as transdifferentiation to rejuvenate itself from its sexually mature free-swimming medusa form to sessile polyp form when the conditions turn harsh for the animal. When conditions are suitable again, the immortal jellyfish again transforms to its medusa form. This cycle can in theory continue forever, making the species immortal in the biological sense. However, this does not save the jellyfish from predators and diseases. The immortal jellyfish also appeared in the TV series Blacklist (Sony Pictures Television, 2013–present), where its cells were injected into humans in order to generate immortality. In the real world, science is not that advanced yet and it is also highly unlikely that it would be this easy to achieve immortality.
Hydras have been under more research than the immortal jellyfish. Hydras are simple freshwater animals (also cnidarians, like the immortal jellyfish) whose cells can continually divide and not undergo senescence. One gene, “Forkhead box O” (FOXO) has been extensively studied in hydras (and also in other species, like the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, mice and humans) (Boehm et al., 2012; Martins et al., 2016). In hydras, this gene is the main player behind the renewal of the cells. In other species, this gene has been linked to aging and longevity in many studies. In an essay by Schaible & Sussman (2013), the authors suggested that during the evolution of the FOXO gene, its function changed from Hydra’s life span extending role to many other pathways related to maintenance, which altered the gene’s rejuvenating functions in multicellular eukaryotes such as humans. Thus it might be that in vampires this gene (or actually all the FOXO genes – mammals have four of these genes) have retained the original function of FOXOs.
In the mammalian world, naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) and Brandt’s bats (Myotis brandtii) are exceptionally long-lived compared to other small sized mammals. Naked mole rats are known for some very peculiar characteristics. They can survive anoxic conditions, they have delayed ageing and live up to 32 years, and the species is highly resistant to cancer, among other things, making them a very interesting species for scientists to study. In studies of the longevity and cancer resistance of this species, scientists found that a gene called INK4, which is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancer, produced a new product through alternative splicing. This protein isoform (that is, protein variant), called pALT(INK4a/b), prevented the mutated cells from clustering together and thus made the naked mole rats more resilient to cancer (Tian et al., 2015). In another study by the same group, extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronic acid was found in naked mole rat fibroblasts (the most common cells in the connective tissue of animals). The molecular weight was over five times larger than that of human or mouse hyaluronic acid. It was speculated that a higher concentration of hyaluronic acid evolved to keep the skin elastic in underground tunnels. In addition to skin elasticity, long hyaluronic acid molecules wrap around cells tightly, preventing tumor cells from replicating (Tian et al., 2013). Whole genome sequencing revealed additional genes that could be linked to longevity in this species (Kim et al., 2011).
Brandt’s bats are known to live for over 40 years, making it the most long-lived mammal of its size. In the whole genome study of the species, Seim et al. (2013) suggested that a combination of different adaptive characteristics such as hibernation, low reproductive rate, cave roosting and an altered growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor 1 axis could extend the Brandt’s bat’s lifespan. Furthermore, FOXO1 gene was expressed in high levels in Brandt’s bat suggesting a possible role also in the longevity of this species. Hibernation in general has been linked to survival of different species allowing them to withstand extreme conditions (Turbill et al., 2011; Wu & Storey, 2016). The molecular difference between hibernators and non-hibernators seems to be in gene regulation rather than a difference in the DNA sequence itself. Differential expression was detected in the genes that were involved in metabolic pathways, feeding behavior, and circadian rhythms (Faherty et al., 2016). Hibernation or some other kind of dormant state seems to be present in vampires as well, helping them to get through tough times. In the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, the vampires go to a hibernation-related state to cope with changing times. In the Underworld movies, two of the elders are kept in hibernation while a third reigns over the vampires. The reign goes in cycles, each of elders having their turn over the vampires and slave lycans. This cycle has social reasons, but it also gives rest for the elders from their immortal life.
Vampires are creatures of the night and sunlight is often regarded as deadly to them; in many occasions, they burst into flames whenever in contact with sunlight. It is an adverse trait for vampires and most probably emerged through pleiotropism. Pleiotropism is a phenomenon where one gene affects two or more unrelated traits (Paaby & Rockman, 2013). Mutations in genes causing immortality or blood consumption could also cause death by sunlight (antagonistic pleiotropy). Real life examples of bursting into flames due to sunlight are obviously not found, but sun can cause problems to people with certain conditions. Sunlight can cause severe allergic reactions, people can suffer from blood disease called porphyria, or have a rare recessive genetic disorder called “xeroderma pigmentosum”.
“Sun allergy” is an umbrella term for a number of conditions where rash and blisters occur on skin that has been exposed to sunlight. Some people have a hereditary type of sun allergy, such as hereditary polymorphous light eruption, others a non-heritable type, such as solar urticaria. In some cases, symptoms only occur when triggered by another factor, such as certain medications or skin exposure to certain plants. The allergic reaction to sunlight occurs in the same way as in any other allergic reaction, although it is still not clear what the triggering component is. Somehow, the immune system recognizes the sun-altered skin as foreign to the body, which in turn activates the immune defences against it. If vampires suffer from sun allergy, could strong antihistamines and a high sun protection factor sunscreen help them survive under the sunlight, in the same way as people with sun allergies? As death is a very severe reaction to sunlight, it is likely that vampires do not suffer from a sun allergy but from something more serious.
Porphyria, a group of blood diseases, have been suggested as a possible explanation for vampire myths but these ideas have been rejected in later papers (Winkler & Anderson, 1990). However, the mechanism behind porphyria could still shed light on why sunlight would be poisonous for modern vampires. In the cutaneous forms of porphyria where the skin is mostly affected, sunlight can cause pain, blisters or open sores to the patients. The disease is often hereditary due to a mutation in one of the genes that make the heme molecule (a component of hemoglobin, the red pigment in our blood): ALAD, ALAS2, CPOX, FECH, HMBS, PPOX, UROD, or UROS (Badminton & Elder, 2005). These genes could also be suitable candidates for vampire sunlight avoidance.
There is an even more severe sunlight sensitivity illness, the rare hereditary condition called “xeroderma pigmentosum” (XP). In extreme cases, the patients need to avoid all exposure to sunlight as it can cause severe sunburn with redness and blistering. If not protected from the sun, people with XP have a high risk of developing skin cancer. XP patients’ eyes are also very sensitive to sunlight and some of the patients have neurological problems such as seizures and hearing loss. The condition is caused by mutations in the genes that repair DNA damage. This causes a deficiency in DNA repair after ultraviolet damage to cells, which in turn accumulates abnormalities to the DNA causing the cell to become cancerous or die. In most of XP cases, mutations occur in these four nucleotide excision repair related genes: POLH, XPA, XPC or ERCC2 (Schubert et al., 2014). In addition to porphyria genes, these are also potential candidates for vampires’ adverse reactions to sunlight.
Obviously, the transformation from human to vampire would affect many genes, some of the changes being bigger than others, which makes the genetic modification of human to vampire even more difficult. From the real life examples, the PA (blood coagulation) and FOXO (immortality) genes seem to be strong candidates. Furthermore, it is also possible to find more suitable genes to test and to investigate interactions between hematophagy, immortality and sun avoidance genes by using network analysis such as Genemania (Warde-Farley et al., 2010). For example, when inserting the human ortholog (roughly put, the equivalent gene) of bat PA gene, the plasminogen activator, tissue type (PLAT), the FOXO genes FOXO1 and FOXO3, and the four XP genes, POLH, XPA, XPC and ERCC2 to Genemania, it is possible to see how the genes are linked and what additional genes might be involved (Fig. 2).
In many of the traits mentioned above, we assumed that mutations in these candidate genes would be the cause of the vampiric traits. However, mutations are not the only possible cause. Epigenetic changes are functional changes in the genome that do not involve modifications in the DNA. Such mechanisms are, for example, DNA methylation and histone modification. External or environmental effects can cause DNA methylation and change gene expression. In vampires, both mutations and epigenetics could be possible players, causing changes and vampiric traits. Furthermore, if vampirism is caused by a virus or a parasite, we need to take into consideration the possible ways the pathogen could affect the human cells, which is a topic of its own.
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I would like to thank Dr. Olaf Thalmann and Angela Boeijen for insightful comments and Nina Haglund for language revision.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Veronika Laine is a molecular biologist working currently with the great tit and she is especially interested in behavior, genes, pleiotropism, bats, kittens and vampires, especially Eric Northman. She plays too much video games.
Belonging to the family Formicidae (order Hymenoptera), ants are cosmopolitan insects, inhabiting all kinds of terrestrial environments, except the arctic, with nearly 10,000 known species. Ants are also social animals, interacting inside their nests within each caste and each role. These worldwide animals are abundant and dominant in each habitat and niche (Hölldobler & Wilson, 1990), being responsible for a huge nectar consumption (amongst other substances acquired from plants), decomposing organic matter (hence helping with the ecological recycling of nutrients), as well as gathering and transporting seeds (thus helping plant dispersion) (Levey & Byrne, 1993). Artificial systems, such as urban centers, can be colonized and exploited by a variety of ant species. Overall, around 1% of the species could have a huge impact into anthropogenic activities (Zuben et al., 2004).
Ants, among all known insects, are quite prominent within our cultural practices, being frequently named and personified in fables, tales, movies, cartoons and even in more conventional works of art (Doré, 1968; Pérez & Almeralla, 2006; Souza, 2009; Castanheira et al., 2015). The prominent Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, for example, had a notorious passion for ants, which are well characterized in his paintings. Ants are likewise prominent in cartoons, such as Atom Ant (Hanna-Barbera Productions, 1965–1968) and The Ant and The Aardvark (United Artists, 1969–1971), and films, like A Bug’s Life (Pixar Animation Studios, 1998) and Antz (DreamWorks Pictures, 1998). More importantly for us, ants are featured even in superhero comics and films.
In the present article, we list all the ant species shown in the Ant-Man movie (Marvel Studios, 2015) and present notes on their biology and distribution. In order to do so, the Blu-ray version of the movie was meticulously watched, observing features such as morphology and behavior, which were then compared to scientific records.
At least three different characters wore the Ant-Man suit in the Marvel Universe, all of them somehow connected to the famous super hero team, The Avengers. Two of these characters, Hank Pym and Scott Lang, appeared in the 2015 movie. The hero’s power comes from the so-called Pym particles, a fictional substance that allows him to change and manipulate his size and strengthen his muscles, and a helmet that gives him full control of (and communication with) insects, especially ants.
Doctor Henry “Hank” Pym was the first Ant-Man, the inventor of the Pym particles, and one of the founders of The Avengers team, alongside Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Wasp (Fig. 1). Scott Lang was the second man to wear the suit, at first only to save his daughter Cassie Lang from a kidnapper, but afterwards becoming a hero in his own right. The third Ant-Man was Eric O’Grady, an official from the group called S.H.I.E.L.D. (DeFalco et al., 2009).
Ant-Man is an American movie based on the comics, where Scott Lang receives a special suit that allows him to change the size of matter by manipulating the distance between atoms. It is the 12th movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Starring Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne and Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, the movie was directed by Peyton Reed and a tremendous success, grossing over 500 million dollars.
Four species are featured in the movie (Fig. 3): the crazy ant (Paratrechina longicornis); the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata); the carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus); and the fire ant (Solenopsis geminata). These species are presented below in the typical manner of formal biological classification, with comments telling a little more about their biology and discussing how they are depicted in the movie.
Family Formicidae Subfamily Formicinae Tribe Plagiolepidini
Paratrechina longicornis are pantropical insects (that is, distributed across the tropics), also present in urban areas and a remarkable agricultural pest (Witte et al., 2007; Ward, 2013). Its common name, crazy ant, is due to its swiftness and agitated behavior. Because of their opportunistic behavior, they are present in degraded areas, sometimes being dominant in this habitat (Wetterer et al., 1999). The movie mentions their well-known swiftness and dexterity, besides the fact that they can conduct electricity. We could not find anything proving the veracity about electrical conductivity in these ants (at least, nothing that would set them apart from all other animals), however, there are records of ants that are so attracted by electricity that they can damage wiring and electronic devices, such as computers and televisions (Slowik et al., 1996; Ball, 2008; Readhead, 2014).
Family Formicidae Subfamily Formicinae Tribe Camponotini
Genus Camponotus Mayr, 1861 Camponotus pennsylvanicus (De Geer, 1773)
(Figs. 5, 9B)
Species of the genus Camponotus are cosmopolitan and habitat-dominant organisms (Hölldobler & Wilson, 1990), being the most representative group inside their subfamily. Carpenter ants construct their nests in wood, such as hollow trees, stumps, logs, posts, landscaping timbers, and the lumber used in buildings. This is likely the root of their common name. Nests are usually built in rotten, decayed wood, although some nests may extend into sound heartwood in the center of the tree (ISU Extension and Outreach, 2017).
Camponotus pennylvanicus is widely distributed along the Nearctic region (the region from Greenland to the Mexican highlands), with a few records from the Neotropical region (the remainder of the Americas), setting up the canopy mosaic due to its twig-nesting behavior (Ward, 2013). In the movie, it is mentioned that carpenter ants have good movement and flight capacity.
Family Formicidae Subfamily Myrmicinae Tribe Solenopsidini
Ants of the genus Solenopsis are commonly named fire ants due to their painful sting. They are also considered a cosmopolitan insect pest in urban areas and the countryside, foraging and nesting on the ground (Wetterer, 2011; Ward, 2013). The species is identified in the movie as S. mandibularis Westwood, 1840, which is presently considered a synonym of another species S. germinata (Ghosh et al., 2005).
However, it is notoriously difficult to differentiate species within the genus Solenopsis (Cuezzo & Fernández, 2015). As such, it is possible that the species shown in the movie could be S. invicta Buren, 1972, an exotic species introduced in North-American territory. This species originally inhabits flooding grounds of the Amazon biome, where the colony can aggregate in a boat-shaped way and migrate to other areas through the water, like a rafting boat (Haight, 2006). In the movie, it is said that fire ants are excellent builders, showing the boat-shaped aggregation (Fig. 7).
Family Formicidae Subfamily Paraponerinae Tribe Paraponerini
Genus Paraponera F. Smith, 1858 Paraponera clavata (Fabricius, 1775)
(Figs. 8, 9D)
This species is also known as the bullet ant due to its strong and painful sting. They are arboreal (but ground-nesting), medium-sized ants with variable behavior depending on the habitat they live in (they are spread all around the Neotropical region). There are several studies about their omnivorous feeding behavior, foraging throughout the canopy (Fewell et al., 1996; Ward, 2013). They feed on nectar, however, they prefer animal resources, specially other insects, when available (Fewell et al., 1996). Brazilian indigenous peoples use these ants in rites of passage for teenage boys, who are submitted to the ants’ bites (Costa Neto, 2005). In the movie, they mention that the bullet ant sting is one of the most painful there is.
The Ant-Man movie shows quite a few interesting set of elements, which could be appreciated by the scientific community, entomologists and, especially, myrmecologists (researchers who study ants). Ants have a key role in the plot, being active and helping the leading figure in most situations. For example, Ant-thony, the carpenter-ant named by Scott Lang, is used as a mount throughout the film in order to get the hero to his destination. Such alliance, undoubtedly, allowed for a closer and more humanized relationship with the ants, that were previously addressed to by numbers by the first Ant-Man (and Lang’s mentor), Hank Pym.
Another interesting fact, in terms of science, is that all of the ants shown in the movie do behave differently, resulting in different strategies used by Lang depending on the encounter. In the battle taking place at Yellow Jacket’s facility, fire-ants conducted Ant-Man through the plumbing, the crazy-ants were responsible for damaging the electronic circuit, the bullet-ants attacked Yellow Jacket’s thugs and the carpenter-ants provided air support. In addition, the respective size of the ants was well demonstrated in the movie, which can be observed comparing different species sharing the same scene. Such comparison is also possible using Lang as a reference when he shrinks to the insects’ size. In addition, some information regarding the lifestyle of ants are slightly approached in the plot. The capacity that these bugs have to endure and carry extremely heavy objects (in proportion to their own body mass) is mentioned, as well as the “selfless” act of sacrifice in favor of the colony’s well-being, typical of social insects. Ant-Man himself benefits from this kind of behavior.
It seems clear that the whole crew of the movie had a competent advisor about ant biology. However, specific details, such as Solenopsis mandibularis being a synonym and the possible mistake regarding Solenopsis identification show that, if any entomologist was consulted, probably he/she was not a Formicidae specialist. It was not mentioned during the credits any sort of consulting, although John (2015) revealed that the quantum physicist Dr. Spiros Michalakis (California Institute of Technology) was the scientific consultant. Additionally, some blogs (e.g., Cambridge, 2015; Lobato, 2016) identify the crazy-ant as Nylanderia fulva Mayr, 1862; however, we did not find any reason to doubt the identification given in the movie.
All of the aspects presented here can be used in science outreach efforts, including teaching (Da-Silva et al., 2014a; Wolpert-Gawron, 2015; Da-Silva, 2016). With proper adjustment to a classroom setting, this content could be used as a tool to introduce students (middle school, high school and even college) to science in a much more fun way. For instance, some species mentioned in the plot are urban pests and can impact our quality of life. Paraponera clavata does not occur in the Nearctic region, which could be used as a stepping-stone to the subject of introduced fauna. The worldwide genus Paratrechina also counts with invasive species, which spread around the world through trade routes and impact society due to hospital and school infestations (Solis et al., 2007).
In terms of science communication and popularization, movies like Ant-Man could also strongly contribute to demystify insects as “harmful animals”, a non-scientific statement that unfortunately is still common in textbooks and that helps to form the public’s negative image of such an important animal group (Da-Silva et al., 2014b). A more humanized treatment towards these (and other) animals in popular culture could be an alternative and suitable way to raise the public’s awareness for the conservation of natural resources in our planet.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Elidiomar R. Da-Silva has a PhD in Zoology by the Museu Nacional (Rio de Janeiro) and is Professor of Biological Sciences at UNIRIO since 1994. A pop culture fan, especially of everything related to superheroes, it does not matter for him if it is Marvel or DC – he likes them both.
Thiago R. M. de Campos has a master’s degree in Neotropical Biodiversity by UNIRIO (Rio de Janeiro) and is currently a high school teacher at Colégio dos Santos Anjos. Also a pop culture fan of every media, but especially games.
 This article stems from an original presentation as a poster during the I Colóquio de Zoologia Cultural (2016; Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil) and its abstract, published on the event’s proceedings (Coelho & Da-Silva, 2016).
In January 2018, it will be two hundred years ago that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus was first published. However, international commemorations have already started and the so-called Frankenstein Bicentennial Project has been launched by Arizona State University. Instead of awaiting the bicentenary of the first publication, meetings have been organized to celebrate the famous occasion on which the idea of the novel was first conceived by Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin). That was during a memorable nightmare in the early hours of June 16, 1816, while she was staying in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. In mid-June 2016, therefore, an international workshop entitled ‘Frankenstein’s Shadow’ was held in Geneva to commemorate this event and to determine the contemporary relevance of Mary’s novel for understanding and assessing new developments in the modern life sciences. After all, in many contemporary debates references to her horror story are still routinely being made. Genetically modified crops, for instance, are often condemned as ‘Frankenfoods’ and life science researchers are frequently accused of hubris or attempting to play God, just as Mary’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein supposedly did. Indeed, the mere mentioning of his name readily brings to mind such associations among laypersons, or as Marilyn Butler writes, “Readers, filmgoers, people who are neither, take the very word Frankenstein to convey an awful warning: don’t usurp God’s prerogative in the Creation-game, or don’t get too clever with technology” (Butler 1993: 302).
A WET, UNGENIAL SUMMER
The circumstances in which Mary first conceived the idea of her novel may help to illuminate the significance and meaning of her literary creation. In the late spring of 1816 a remarkable entourage, next to Mary Godwin, assembled on the shores of Lake Geneva: the romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (Mary’s lover and later husband), Mary’s step-sister Claire and doctor John William Polidori. The then 28-year-old Byron was the oldest of the company; Mary was still only 18, but had already lost her first child as an unmarried teenage mother. It was a time, just after Napoleon’s defeat, that British citizens could again freely travel through Europe. Each of the participants had their own reasons to flee from the United Kingdom. Byron was haunted by creditors and scandals. Percy Shelley had abandoned his wife and child and made himself unpopular through his overt atheism. Claire had persuaded Percy and Mary to follow Byron in his travels, because she had a crush on the noble poet (her attempt to win his love would however be in vain). Young doctor Polidori had been recruited by Byron to be his travel companion and private physician, but also cherished literary ambitions himself (in 1819 Polidori would publish The Vampyre: A Tale, another product of the Geneva 1816 summer and a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The choice of Geneva as the place to stay had been partly inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the proud “citizen of Geneva”. In the footsteps of their romantic precursor, Byron and Percy Shelley wanted to experience the majestic sublimity of the natural landscape around Geneva. In the nearby hamlet of Cologny, Byron had rented a spacious residence, Villa Diodati; Percy and Mary stayed with Claire at a more modest dwelling in the neighbourhood, but regularly visited Byron to spend days and evenings at his villa.
Figure 1. Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. Painted by Jean Dubois. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
It appeared as if the summer of 1816 did not want to become a real summer. In the introduction to the revised 1831 edition of her novel, Mary looked back: “But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” (Shelley, 2003 : 6–7). Incidentally, this was not a purely local weather condition. In North America, the year 1816 would even go down in history as “the year without summer”. We know now that these meteorological abnormalities had to do with the most violent volcanic eruption of the last one thousand years, to wit, the eruption of the Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in April 1815. The enormous amounts of volcanic ash spread throughout the earthly atmosphere massively reflected sunlight and disturbed global weather processes for three years in a row (D’Arcy Wood, 2014).
Figure 2. Possible depiction of the eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa in 1815. Author unknown; image extracted from Scientific American Blog Network (2012).
Confined by incessant bad weather and illuminated by candlelight, Byron and his guests at Villa Diodati tried to keep boredom at bay by reading ghost stories to each other. At some moment Byron proposed a kind of contest in which each of the participants had to come up with a ghost story of their own. Mary accepted the challenge, but was not immediately able to think of a suitable story. A few days later she eagerly eavesdropped on an exciting discussion between Byron and Percy about the nature of the principle of life and the possibility of artificially creating life, until she finally went to sleep in the small hours of the night. In bed, she lost herself in a dream. This was to become one of the most famous nightmares in the history of literature and must have occurred in the early hours of June 16, 1816. In the 1831 introduction, Mary described her nightly vision thus:
“I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would run away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken”
―Shelley, 2003 : 9.
Figure 3. The ‘Monster’; frontispiece of the revised 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Theodor von Holst (1831); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
ELECTRICITY AND THE MYSTERY OF LIFE
So Mary finally had her ghost story. On Percy’s instigation, she would elaborate and rework the story during the following months and years into a full-fledged novel. On the precise way the “thing” was brought to life, the book remains understandably somewhat vague. But there is a strong suggestion that electricity played an indispensable role in infusing the spark of life into the lifeless thing. In the 1831 introduction Mary referred to so-called ‘galvanism’, which enjoyed much interest at the time. At the beginning of the 19th century several sensational experiments had been made before public audiences with the newly developed Voltaic battery, showing that electric currents could be used to arouse muscular contractions and thereby to call forth motions of the body parts of dead animals or even human cadavers. It seemed as if those body parts could be “reanimated” in this way. In one notorious demonstration performed in 1803 before a London audience, Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini administered an electric current to the face of a freshly executed murderer, whereupon “the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened” (London Morning Post, January 1803, quoted in Lederer, 2002: 14). It was not too far-fetched, therefore, to think that the mysterious principle of life had something to do with electricity. At any rate, electricity in the guise of lightning plays a major role in the depiction of the ambient atmosphere of the novel. Thus, after receiving the news about the death of his younger brother, Victor Frankenstein witnessed a ”beautiful yet terrific” thunderstorm spectacle with dazzling flashes of lightning going to and fro above the Alps, the Jura and Lake Geneva (Shelley, 2003 : 77). The electrically charged atmosphere provided a fitting background to the vicissitudes in which Frankenstein and his creature got embroiled. Mary had derived this element of the novel from the exceptional weather conditions she actually experienced in Geneva. As she wrote in a letter to her half-sister in England: “The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before” (Mary’s letter to her half-sister Fanny Imlay, dated 1 June 1816; see Shelley, 1993 : 174).
Figure 4. ‘Galvanic’ experiments on executed criminals performed by Dr. Giovanni Aldini (1804). Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
It is not difficult to associate electricity with fire through lightning and heavenly fire. In the title of her novel Mary alluded to the Greek myth about Prometheus, the Titan who had stolen fire from the gods to give it to humankind and who was severely punished for this act. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein brought disaster upon himself and his loved ones by indulging in the “unhallowed arts” of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” and by creating a human-like being. He aspired “to become greater than his nature [would] allow” (Shelley, 2003 : 54), or in other words, to play God. For Byron and Percy, however, Prometheus was also the iconic rebel hero who dared to defy the existing divine order in the name of promoting human happiness. In their eyes this endeavour should not even stop short of attempting to overcome death. Mary was apparently less enamoured by the Greek demigod celebrated by her romantic companions and was acutely aware of the possible downsides of “Promethean” ambitions. Or at least she was more ambivalent. As the biographer and historian Richard Holmes noted, the romantic generation of the Age of Wonder (1770–1830) had to discover both “the beauty and terror of science” (Holmes, 2009). Mary portrayed Victor Frankenstein as an investigator who is so much obsessed by his research project that he completely neglects his social obligations vis-à-vis his family, his friends and his fiancée. For her, the outstanding example of a passionately obsessed researcher was the English chemist Humphry Davy, whose main achievements were in the domain of electrochemistry (another connection with electricity and ‘galvanism’!). In the first decade of the 19th century, Davy isolated new chemical elements like sodium and potassium with the help of the Voltaic battery. In his public lectures he also sketched an enticing prospect of the endless possibilities of chemical research that would bestow on man “powers which may be almost called creative” (Davy, 1802: 319). From reading these lectures Mary had concluded that scientists might at times be driven by a truly obsessive preoccupation. In this respect, Davy set the example for Victor Frankenstein: “So much has been done […] – more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, 2003 : 49) ‒ this was how Victor Frankenstein described his new ambition after a university professor had pointed out the virtually unlimited possibilities of modern chemistry to him.
Figure 5. Humphry Davy isolated sodium and potassium by using the Voltaic battery. Magazine engraving (19th century), colored; image extracted from fineartamerica.
A FAILURE OF CARE AND RESPONSIBILITY
For some commentators, Frankenstein’s moral transgression was not that he undertook the over-ambitious or hubristic attempt to bestow life on inanimate matter and thereby usurped the divine privilege. He must rather be blamed for the fact that, once his work finally met with success, he immediately ran away from “his odious handy-work”. He thereby left his creature, which he himself had brought into the world, to its own fate – devoid of any parental care. The middle part of the novel, which follows the creature’s life and vicissitudes, is a morality tale in its own right. From the outset, contrary to the portrayals in most movie versions, the creature is not a ruthless monster. It wants to do good and needs the company of fellow beings and their affection and recognition. However, the saying that when you do good, good things will happen to you did not apply to the creature. Due to its hideous appearance, it repeatedly met with rejection. Its attempt to remind Frankenstein of his parental duties was also to no avail. Only as a result of all these hostile responses did the creature become a monster, intent on revenging the injustices done to it with acts of violence. In an early review of the novel, Percy Shelley summarized the simple moral lesson thus: “Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked.” (Percy Shelley, 1993: 186). Seen in this light, Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he failed to assume responsibility for his own creature and to give it the care that it needed and deserved.
Figure 6. Another reading of the Frankenstein tale. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
The American philosopher of technology Langdon Winner was the first to use this interpretation of the Frankenstein novel as a clue for dealing more responsibly with new technologies in general: “the issue truly at stake in the whole of Frankenstein [is] the plight of things that have been created but not in a context of sufficient care” (Winner, 1977: 313). His generalized ethical message is therefore that researchers who develop new technologies must be willing to assume responsibility for the vicissitudes of their creations, help them to acquire a suitable role in society and provide adequate follow-up care if necessary. Their task is by no means completed once a new technological prototype leaves the laboratory. With so much emphasis nowadays on the necessity of responsible research and innovation, Winner’s message finds wide resonance. Similar interpretations of the Frankenstein tale have been propounded by Stephen Jay Gould (1996) and Bruno Latour (2012). Gould gives a pointed formulation of this new reading of Mary Shelley’s novel:
“Victor Frankenstein […] is guilty of a great moral failing […] but his crime is not technological transgression against a natural and divine order […] Victor’s sin does not lie in misuse of technology, or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s account. Victor failed because […] he did not take the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptability.”
―Gould, 1996: 61.
Gould’s flat denial that the themes of hubris in emulating God and transgression against a natural and divine order are nowhere to be found in Mary Shelley’s account is quite astonishing. Traditionally, for many readers her novel is precisely also about these themes: they are by no means a later invention of Hollywood adaptations. Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition directly contradicts Gould’s denial (see the passage quoted above). Thus the Dutch literary critic Pieter Steinz, for one, reaffirmed the traditional reading of Frankenstein: “The moral is clear, and it is more relevant than ever in the 21st century, which is dominated by the advancing genetic and bio-technologies: do not play God and beware of the dangers of technology” (Steinz 2002).
I therefore take it that the themes of hubris, transgression and playing God on the one hand and Victor’s moral failure to take responsibility and proper care for his creature on the other are both contained in the novel, so that there is no need to embrace one element and completely dismiss the other. A nuanced and balanced view, in which the two strands of interpretation are indeed combined, can be found in Mary Threapleton’s introduction to a 1963 pocket edition of Frankenstein:
“In the course of the story, Frankenstein is horribly punished for […] presuming to overstep man’s proper bounds. His brother, his best friend, and his bride all fall victim to the monster he has created. He is punished not only because he has dared to create it, but also because he fails to assume due responsibility for it. He gave the monster life, but he was too horrified to guide it, to make it into a power for good.”
―Threapleton, 1963 (emphasis mine).
THE NEW ORTHODOXY OF RESPONSIBLE INNOVATION
The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, set up by researchers from Arizona State University, nevertheless promotes a reading of Mary Shelley’s novel based one-sidedly on the interpretations of Winner, Gould, and Latour, while dismissing the traditional interpretation focusing on hubris and the dangers of playing God as singularly unhelpful. As some researchers affiliated with this project declare in a recent publication:
“The moral of Frankenstein is not a warning about ungodly technoscientific creation; it is a warning against taking a position that does not consider matters of care and concern for those technoscientific creations. […] Frankenstein’s failure to care for his creation is his downfall – not his act of technological innovation. […] The lack of care for new creations is what ultimately destroys us, not the creations themselves.”
―Halpern et al., 2016: 4, 6.
Although the authors admit that they read the Frankenstein novel “against the grain of many popular interpretations, which see it as a story about the abominations created when man decides to play God” (ibid., 4), they do not explain why they deem the common understanding incorrect as an interpretation of Mary Shelley’s story. However, the protagonists of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project may have good reasons for considering invocations of hubris and playing God “unhelpful tropes” for their own agenda of promoting responsible innovation, as these tropes tend to deny that “the human actors are responsible for their own decisions and for what they do with the fire of creativity” (ibid., 7). Indeed, one may readily admit that the standard objection of ‘playing God’, routinely raised against new developments in the modern life sciences, has been reduced to a facile journalistic cliché or an alarmist slogan, as I have argued myself in an earlier article (van den Belt, 2009). Still, this does not justify treating these themes as completely foreign to a proper understanding of Shelley’s gothic novel, the more so, as the latter’s use of the expression “unhallowed arts” clearly suggests that the very attempt to bestow life on lifeless matter may indeed be seen as “ungodly”. The real interpretative challenge is to explain how the two different readings of the novel (hubris and playing God versus Frankenstein’s moral failure to take care of his creature) can be reconciled, for there surely exists a tension between them.
If the goal is to promote responsible (research and) innovation – the underlying agenda of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project ‒ , it also will not do to declare public fears about hubris and playing God simply out of court. After all, an important part of the new agenda is to take public concerns about new technological developments seriously and to somehow address them in the further course of the innovation process. The general public may also be concerned, and rightly so, about the “Promethean” or “hubristic” projects often being contemplated by contemporary life scientists. However much people nowadays may admire their creativity and imagination, as Mary Shelley and her contemporaries did in an earlier age, they will also feel overwhelmed when the flights of the biotechnological imagination become a little too audacious. As Richard Holmes argues, it was Shelley’s romantic generation which first had to face the beauty and terror of science (Holmes, 2009). It seems that we are still their cultural heirs.
Thus the emphatic assertion that “[t]he lack of care for new creations is what ultimately destroys us, not the creations themselves” is rather unfortunate in that it arbitrarily restricts the scope of meaningful social debate. It suggests that the public should refrain from discussing the desirability of the many new “creations” technoscientists are about to bring into the world and only see to it that proper care is offered afterward once they have been introduced. If we think about some of the wild ideas that currently circulate among synthetic biologists (e.g., proposals to resurrect the woolly mammoth or Neanderthal man and schemes for “gene drives” or for changing the nucleotide ‘letters’ of the DNA alphabet), it immediately transpires that this is too narrow a view. Indeed, synthetic biologists and other life science researchers often set such bold targets that the audacity of the biotechnological imagination constitutes the contemporary equivalent of what was traditionally called hubris. Of course, their scientific and technological aims should not simply be rejected out of hand, but deserve to be seriously discussed – a discussion that might nonetheless be properly informed by cautionary tales about “Promethean” ambitions like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.
A final critical point about the interpretation endorsed by the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project is that their notion of responsibility vis-à-vis new technologies is largely modelled on the idea of care – the care Victor Frankenstein failed to bestow on his creature. Now we know fairly well what care means as long as we are talking about parental care towards children. So the creation of an artificial human being would presumably entail taking (parental) care for the new creature, however hideous it may look. But it is far less clear what the idea of care involves when we are talking about the creation of non-human life-forms; and even less so when talking about inanimate technologies. Bruno Latour’s call to “care for our technologies as we do for our children” (Latour, 2012) is simply begging the question. In sum, a proposed ethics of care for responsible innovation sounds nice, but also remains somewhat vague.
Figure 7. The monster demands a mate! Poster for the movie Bride of Frankenstein (Universal Pictures, 1935). Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’S REFUSAL TO CREATE A FEMALE COMPANION
There is one episode in Mary Shelley’s novel where Victor Frankenstein finally appears to become a responsible agent and to act responsibly, but this very episode is ignored and not discussed by the proponents of responsible innovation. I am alluding to the dramatic moment at a later stage in the novel when he is at first inclined to comply with his creature’s wish to have a female companion created for it, but then has second thoughts and refuses the request. He had already been working on the creation of a female being, but then decided to destroy her in her unfinished state rather than complete the job. The considerations that led him to this decision look very much like what today would be called an invocation of the Precautionary Principle. The creature had suggested that it might leave Europe and go with its female mate to an uninhabited part of South America, but Frankenstein pondered the possible long-term consequences with much anguish:
“Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of these sympathies for which the demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”
―Shelley, 2003 : 170–171.
Thus Frankenstein’s refusal to create a female mate can be seen as an act of responsibility after all, based on precautionary motives. As Leonard Isaacs writes, “Like most tragic protagonists Frankenstein has learned from his experience. With a painfully acquired sense of the wider consequences of his actions, he takes on the heavy responsibility of opposing the development of second-generation monsters” (Isaacs, 1987: 71; Isaacs draws an interesting parallel between Frankenstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who after the development of the atomic bomb was under pressure to develop a ‘second-generation’ nuclear bomb). The possibility of uncontrolled reproduction is a biological hazard that also has to be taken into account when we create transgenic and synthetic organisms today. Later on Frankenstein justified his decision on the basis of a kind of utilitarian reasoning in terms of the greatest happiness for the greatest number:
“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and wellbeing. That was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature.”
―Shelley, 2003 : 219–220.
Incidentally, this whole reasoning is of course predicated on the assumption that the artificial creature was not a member of the human species. From the very outset, its taxonomic status had been somewhat ambiguous. While Frankenstein’s intention had indeed been to create an artificial human being (Shelley, 2003 : 54), his initial speculations were also focused on creating a new species: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (ibid., 55). It is safe to conclude that the human status of the artificial creature has been problematic from the start.
From the viewpoint of an ethics of care one could argue that Frankenstein should have complied with the creature’s demand to have a female companion created for it, given his parental duty to assure its happiness and wellbeing and given that the creature after many attempts had failed to acquire a recognized place in human society. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there is also ethical merit in Frankenstein’s decision to decline the creature’s wish. At the very least, then, the whole episode could be an interesting test case for probing our moral intuitions about what would be truly responsible action in the given situation.
Two researchers recently formalized Victor Frankenstein’s reasoning by setting up mathematical models of species interaction, in particular modelling situations of “competitive exclusion” between two species. They conclude that “[Frankenstein’s] rationale for denying a mate to his male creation has empirical justification” and that “the central horror and genius of Mary Shelley’s novel lie in its early mastery of foundational concepts of ecology and evolution” (Dominy & Yeakel, 2016). This is a rather surprising new reading of the novel.
We may finally wonder why the proponents of responsible innovation have passed in silence over the entire episode of the novel. Perhaps it is because a (presumably) responsible decision not to create a new entity would not fit their presumption that is not the “new creations themselves”, but only our own lack of care for them that can bring us down.
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Anyone would say that a world where brooms and carpets cross the skies, unicorns roam the forests and people depicted in portraits talk to you is wonderful, literally magical. However, not everything is as beautiful as it looks – just you wait for the effect of the polyjuice potion to wear off and you’ll see what is hidden behind the reality created by British author J.K. Rowling.
Spells can fix a pair of glasses, turn water into butterbeer, inflate boring aunts and even ignore the immutable law of Lavoisier, creating matter from nothing. However, spells can also be used in not-so-benign activities, as cursing people, destroying things, being inflated by rude nephews and even killing. So in the same way that our international conventions prohibit certain weapons from being used in wars (such as cluster bombs, and chemical/biological warfare; The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Database, 1925), so some charms (Imperius, Cruciatus and Avada Kedavra, collectively called “Unforgivable Curses”) are prohibited from being practiced (Rowling, 2000: ch. 14). As expected, in the same way that not all countries participate in our conventions, not all wizards follow such rules.
Let’s make a brief intermission now. It is true that wizard society has medieval features. However, since it has always been inserted within a community of non-wizards, it was expected to have incorporated the values that were gradually acquired by the international community. Moreover, there are some rights that are guaranteed to all persons, regardless of the country where they live on or its governmental system, which is called “customary law” (ICRC, 2015).
Now back to the spells. The lack of control over spells seen in the books, no matter the severity of the curse, is quite paradoxical, given the intense regulations over magic practiced by minors. Wizards under 17 years old are not allowed to use magic outside their school (unless facing exceptional circumstances), and a Trace Spell detects such activities. To give you an idea, a notification is sent almost immediately to the juvenile offender, which, depending on the gravity of the situation, must then go to the Ministry of Magic (Rowling, 1998: ch. 2; Rowling, 2003: ch. 2). In other words, we may conclude that there is the technical capability to perform this type of identification, namely the age of the offender, the spell used and location. But why the same technique is not used with the Unforgivable Curses is a mystery.
By the way “Mystery” is, incidentally, the name of one of the Ministry of Magic’s departments. An institution so lacking in transparency, and theoretically with such advanced surveillance capabilities of their society (a magic Orwellian Big Brother) is to raise all sorts of suspicions about it. Denying the return of Voldemort (a powerful evil wizard; Rowling, 2003: ch. 4), attempting to use a minor as a mascot in this conflict (Rowling, 2005: chs. 16 and 30), and protecting people who make large donations to them (Rowling, 2003: ch. 9), are just some examples of the Ministry’s flaws.
We could also bring up the prison system of the wizards. The main reference is the prison of Azkaban, which is guarded by creatures known as Dementors, whose ability is to absorb all the happiness of those who are around them, and whose “kiss” sucks a person’s soul, leaving her in an eternal lethargic state (Rowling, 1999: chs. 10 and 12). A fate, perhaps, even worse than death. Since the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, an important Italian criminal scholar, wrote on the humanity of penalties, their social function, and the necessary proportionality between crime and punishment (Beccaria, 1764). In this regard, we see that the world of Harry Potter is over 200 years late in comparison to the so-called “muggles” (the name given to non-wizards), which in 1789 had already promulgated the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen). So, because of their outdated and ineffective system (even innocents have been sent to Azkaban; Rowling, 1999: ch. 19), serious insecurities of the criminal point of view are raised, and the cruelty of sanctions hurts human dignity.
And talking about fundamental rights, we note that some of the creatures that inhabit this universe so fabulous end up enslaved (such as house-elves) or have suffered plenty of persecutions (such as goblins). Other creatures, like the centaurs, suffer severe prejudice. A considerable amount of wizards extends this prejudice to other creatures, like half-giants and werewolves, and in some cases even to wizards that are not “pure-blood”, resembling the most foul ideologies ever seen in our world.
In contrast, in our current legal system, other animals have been receiving a human-like treatment, as evidenced by the laws of countries like England (the first one to create animal protection rules; Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2013) and Argentina, where a court recently awarded human rights to an orangutan (BBC News, 21 December 2014).
As previously stated, there are exceptions in every group, and it could not be different for the wizards. Also, it is yet to be seen a government without any failures. So, dear reader, take lightly those critics of a muggle who is still waiting for his owl to arrive with his Hogwarts’ letter.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Database, The. (1925) Text of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Database. Available from: http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/sbtwc/keytext/genprot.htm (Date of access: 07/Dec/2015).
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. (2013) Keeping Farmed Animals: Guidance. Animal Welfare. Government Digital Service, UK. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/animal-welfare (Date of access: 07/Dec/2015).
Only about 5% of the total mass of the universe consists of ordinary matter (mostly protons, neutrons and electrons, which form atoms). The missing 95% divide into dark matter (ca. 25%) and dark energy (ca. 70%) (Planck Collaboration, 2013) – see Figure 1. In this study, I focus on the former one.
Figure 1. Approximated distribution of matter and energy within the universe.
The existence of dark matter is indicated by the effect of gravitational lenses and the orbital velocities in galaxy clusters as well as galaxy rotation curves (for more information see Carroll, 2007). Long story short, to explain some astronomic observations, there is mass missing, which is not visible to us. This missing mass is a result from the presence of dark matter. One candidate for dark matter are Weakly Interaction Massive Particles (so called WIMPs), which may be supersymmetric particles (Freund, 1988). However, experiments such as those of the Large Hadron Collider have not proven the existence of supersymmetry yet. I propose a different candidate for dark matter here.
Galaxies with rotation curves influenced by dark matter are usually far, far away. Due to the limited speed of light, the events in these galaxies we observe now on earth happened a long time ago.
Therefore, to find a new candidate for dark matter, let’s have a look at a place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away!
DARK MATTER MIDI-CHLORIANS
This far, far away galaxy, where the plot of Star Wars takes place, is characterized by slightly different physics compared to our own galaxy. The differences in physics may be a result of the presence of dark matter.
What are those differences? As long as they are not jumping into hyperspace and flying faster than light, space ships in Star Wars travel very slowly through space, similar to ships at sea (capital ships such as Star Destroyers) or planes (X-Wings or TIE-Fighters). They seem to be restricted by some medium, limiting their maximum speed. In addition, their engines emit sound waves, which propagate through the apparent vacuum, making, for instance, the characteristic noises of turbolasers and TIEs flying by (Lucasfilm, 1977). The corresponding sound waves have to travel through some medium filling the vacuum. This medium is our candidate for dark matter! In order to reveal its nature, let’s look at an additional characteristic of the Star Wars galaxy: the Force. The Force is an overall present force field in the galaxy, but it interacts only strongly with other atoms when used by a Jedi.
According to Lucasfilm (1999), the carriers of the Force field are particles called Midi-chlorians . Obi-Wan Kenobi states: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us.” Therefore, the Force seems to interact weakly enough to “penetrate us”, but interacts strongly with certain live beings (Jedi). Further, he says that “[it] binds the galaxy together”. The Force field has to interact gravitationally to achieve this, and, hence, its carrier particles  need to have mass. Like other force carriers (electrons, W- and Z-Bosons, Gluons for electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear interactions, respectively), Midi-chlorians should be particles with integer spin (Bosons). A Feynam diagram of a Force interaction is illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Jedi master Yoda levitating an X-Wing starfigher by the Force as seen in a Feynman diagram. Yoda exchanges Midi-chlorian particles with the X-Wing to lift it.
With the overall present, massive, but mostly weak interacting Midi-chlorians, we have our candidate for a dark matter particle. Figure 3 shows the particles of an extended Standard Model including the Force and its Midi-chlorian carrier particle.
Figure 3. Extended Standard Model including the Force. The yin-yang symbol represents two “flavors” of the Midi-chlorian particle: light side and dark side.
MIDI-CHLORIAN MASS AND PARTICLE DENSITY
Assuming the Star Wars galaxy is quite similar to our own Milky Way, I can estimate the mass density of dark matter in this far, far away place. The ordinary mass of the Milky Way is mmw = 4×1011 times the mass of our sun. Dark matter should be approximately five times this mass (25% compared to 5%).
The galaxy is approximate by a disk with a radius of rmw = 105 ly, its thickness is dmw = 3×103 ly (neglecting the bulge at the center). As a consequence, the mass density ρdm of dark matter in the Star Wars galaxy is:
ρdm ≈ 5mmw x (∏ rmw2dmw)-1 ≈ 5×10-20 kg m-3
As TIEs and X-Wings sound very similar in space and in a planet’s atmosphere (Lucasfilm, 1977; Lucasfilm Animation, 2014), I assume a similar particle density of dark matter Midi-chlorians in space and air in the lower planet’s atmosphere of ρMidi = 2.5×1013 m-3.
Comparing particle density and mass density allows me to calculate the mass of one single Midi-chlorian: mMidi = 2×10-33 kg, which corresponds to about 1 keV.
That is about factor 500 below the mass of an electron. Midi-chlorians seems to be very, very light weighted – which we would expect for a particle of the overall present invisible field of the Force.
DARTH VADER’S MIGHT
What does the parameters calculated above further tells us?
Let’s take into account the fact that Anakin Skywalker (when found by Qui-Gon Jinn), who became later the mighty and evil Darth Vader, has a concentration of 20,000 Midi-chlorians per cell of his body (Lucasfilm, 1999) – the highest measured value so far. Unfortunately, we have no information on the measurement’s method, which would allow to verify the theory of dark matter Midi-chlorians on Earth.
With 1014 cells in a human body, Anakin’s body contains 2×1018 Midi-chlorians. Anakin, or at least Darth Vader, is a big guy. I assume his value to be equal 0.1 m-3 (neglecting in this approximation, however, his loss of limbs after his fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi). This yields a density of 2×1019 Midi-chlorians per m3 for this user of the Force. That means Anakin’s Midi-chlorian density is larger than the galactic background by six orders of magnitude. This seems to be a reasonable value for the mightiest Sith Lord in history.
I proposed Midi-chlorians from the Star Wars galaxy as reasonable candidates for a dark matter particle, giving their mass as 2×10-33 kg (about 1 keV), and showing that Darth Vader has about one million times Force in him than the galactic background. To the best of our knowledge, no Jedi inhabits our Earth and our satellites and probes make no sound in space. As an unfortunate turn of events, we seem to live in a very Force-poor part of the universe – making it very hard to solve the riddle of dark matter on this planet.
Future studies will focus on dark energy and its relation to the dark side. In addition, it will be studied whether there is a yet unknown quantum number defining light side and dark side Midi-chlorians and their spontaneous symmetry breaking near Jedi and Sith.
Judith Vogt provided advice and a figure. Thanks also to Klaus Erkens und Marc Wolter for useful comments.
Ade, P.A.R. & Aghanim, N. & Armitage-Caplan, C. (Planck Collaboration) et al. (2013) Planck 2013 results I Overview of products and scientific results – Table 9. Astronomy and Astrophysic 1303: 5062.
Corroll, S. (2007) Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe. Guidebook, Part 2. The Teaching Company, Chantilly.
Freund, P. (1988) Introduction to Super-symmetry. University Press, Cambridge.
Lucasfilm. (1977) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 20th Century Fox, United States.
Lucasfilm. (1999) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. 20th Century Fox, United States.
Lucasfilm Animation. (2014) Star Wars Rebels. Disney–ABC Domestic Television, United States.
 As a fan of the old movies, it is quite hard for me to mention this topic. However, I will sacrifice true fandom for the sake of science.
 The Midi-chlorians are also referred to as lifeforms, living in creatures. However, Jedi use the force also on non-living objects. Therefore, the Force is not limited to interactions between microscopic lifeforms and has to be a fundamental nuclear interaction. Even if there actually is a microscopic lifeform with strong connection to the Force field or generation behavior for Force, I use the term “Midi-chlorian” here for the force carrier particle of the Force.
This particular British Secret Service agent is known worldwide through numerous books, comics, videogames and, of course, films. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming and the series now outlives its creator, continuing to grow on a somewhat constant rate. Fleming’s superspy character was based on many people he met during the time he spent serving in the British Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. In his own words, James Bond “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”.
But what few know is where the name comes from. Actually, it was not invented by Fleming for the character; instead, it was borrowed from a real person. So who was the original James Bond and how Fleming came to know him and to borrow his name?
LICENSE TO MAP
James Bond was born in Philadelphia on 4 January 1900. After his mother’s death during his teens, in 1914, he moved with his father to England, going to Cambridge University and receiving his degree in 1922. Back in Philadelphia, after less than three years working for a banking firm, his love of natural history led him to join an expedition of the ANSP (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) to the lower Amazon River in Brazil. His father, Francis E. Bond, who led an ANSP expedition (when James was 11) to the Orinoco Delta, perhaps influenced James’ decision, as well as his interest in the natural sciences.
After the expedition to the Amazon, James Bond became a true ornithologist (see Box 1 for a glossary) and curator of the ANSP and started to publish many scientific papers on the South American birds. Nevertheless, he soon decided that the focus of his studies would be the Caribbean birds and this became his life’s work. He spent the next decades travelling through the Caribbean islands and studying their avifauna. The main result of his work in the region was the book “Birds of the West Indies” (1936), containing a scientific account (with descriptions, habits, geographic distribution etc.) of all the known species from the islands. The book was renamed “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” on its second edition (1947), but reverted to the original name on the third edition (1961). Also, from the third edition onwards, the book featured color plates of the birds (by Don R. Eckelberry) and more simplified descriptions. This made the book more similar to modern field guides, making it a must for scientists and birdwatchers alike. After the final edition (1985), Bond kept the book updated via a series of 27 supplements. He finished revising a sixth edition shortly before his death (on 14 February 1989, after a years-long fight with cancer).
From all the islands that James Bond visited, perhaps the one that most fascinated him was Jamaica, where he realized that the native avifauna was derived from North America, and not from South America as was previously supposed. This kind of study is part of the discipline known as Biogeography and led Bond, in 1971, to establish a biogeographic boundary between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago. This line separates two zones, the West Indies and South America, each with its own type of avifauna. This later led David Lack to propose, in 1973, the name “Bond’s Line” for this boundary.
Besides the books, Bond published more than 100 scientific papers and was awarded many medals and honors throughout his career. He is known today as the father or Caribbean ornithology. What he did not expected though, was the other Bond, which appeared in Jamaica of all places, and caused him a certain deal of consternation.
It was only in 1960–1961 that Bond discovered his fictional namesake from Ian Fleming’s novels, after several novels had already been published (the first one, “Cassino Royale”, dates from 1953). This led his wife Mary to write the book “How 007 Got His Name” (published in 1966). In this book, she tells how she jokingly wrote a letter to Fleming saying that he had “brazenly taken the name of a real human being for your rascal!”
Fleming was a British novelist and spent a couple of months every year in his estate (named Goldeneye) on Oracabessa Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica. He was interested in the Jamaican wildlife and had a growing collection of book on shells, birds, fish and flora. Also, as any keen birdwatcher on the Caribbean, Fleming used the “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” (he had the 2nd edition, from 1947) and was thus very familiar with the name James Bond. On his reply to Mary’s letter, he explained that he “was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. (…) At this time one of my bibles was, and still is, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, and it struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born.” On a later interview, Fleming explained further his choice of name: “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”
On that letter to Mary, Fleming added that in return for using the name he could offer “your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” This never happened though. Finally, Fleming also invited the Bonds to visit him in Jamaica. This happened in 1964, when the Bonds were there researching and paid a surprise visit to Fleming. This was shortly before the novelist’s death six months later, and luckily, this one-time meeting was captured in video for a future documentary. At first, Fleming was suspicious of Bond’s identity and asked him to identify some birds. Bond, of course, passed the test with flying colors and Fleming had the happiest day of the rest of his life.
FROM JAMAICA WITH LOVE
Jamaica, despite being a rather small country, has a very diverse avifauna. There are circa 320 bird species living in Jamaica, including migrants. From these, 28 are endemic species, 12 are endangered and 14 are introduced. Some of these species have fascinated James Bond, Ian Fleming and countless other tourists and birdwatchers. Moreover, since Ian Fleming was such a keen birdwatcher, birds sometimes featured in his stories (and later in the films), and a collection of bird trivia can be found in Box 2 further below.
We will now briefly introduce some of the more interesting Jamaican birds and explore a little bit of their natural history and even folklore.
Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus)
The red-billed streamertail, also known as doctor bird or scissortail hummingbird, appears in Fleming’s short story “For Your Eyes Only” (1960). The first lines of the story are: “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.” It is very hard to crown a “most beautiful” bird, but the red-billed streamertail is indeed remarkable. The feathers on the male’s tail (the “streamers”) are longer than their actual body and make a humming sound during flight. James Bond (the ornithologist) seems to agree; well, partially, at least: his book says that the “adult male is the most spectacular West Indian hummingbird”.
This species is the most abundant and widespread bird in Jamaica and was actually selected as the country’s national bird. Frederic G. Cassidy (1962–2000), who studied the evolution of the English language in Jamaica, says that the name doctor bird comes from the way the animals spear the flowers with their beaks to feed. Still, the term “doctor” also carries a superstitious overtone (as in “witch-doctor”) and Cassidy notes that natives referred to these hummingbirds as “god birds”.
Jamaican Tody (Todus todus)
The todies belong to the order Coraciiformes, a group that also includes kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters. The Jamaican tody was at first believed to be a species of hummingbird. Later, it received the name of robin, due to its small size and round appearance. This early folk name still survives in Jamaica as robin red-breas’, an allusion to the bird’s red colored patch below the beak and a copy of the English name of another bird. Robin redbreast is the old name of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), a totally unrelated species.
The Jamaican tody is a tiny bird that feeds on insects and fruits, nesting in excavated burrows. James Bond was especially interested in the nesting behavior of birds and studied this topic at length. He chose the Jamaican tody as the cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies” (1936). It has a very small geographic distribution and its population seems to be steadily decreasing in the last decade.
Jamaican Poorwill (Siphonorhis americana)
Also known as Jamaican pauraque, this nocturnal bird is a species of nightjar, of the family Caprimulgidae. The family name comes from the Latin caprimulgus (goatsucker) and reflects the absurd folk “lore” that these birds sucked milk from goats.
Very little is known about the Jamaican poorwill – it had been extinct long before Bond’s studies, since 1859. It was driven to extinction by introduced rats and mongooses, alongside the usual human-caused habitat destruction. Since the birds nest on the ground, their eggs are easy prey for these introduced mammals. Nevertheless, there are some recent (1998) records of caprimulgids from the regions of the Milk River and the Hellshire Hills in the country, but they remain unconfirmed. Thus, a very small population of poorwills might still exist in these remote regions. Curiously, Bond had also previously alluded to the possibility of a surviving population of these birds on the semi-arid Hellshire Hills.
Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus)
The Jamaican blackbird (family Icteridae) is the only species in its genus and all of its names are rather misleading. Firstly, it is not an actual blackbird (Turdus merula, family Turdidae), which is a species of thrush. Nevertheless, the family Icteridae is popularly known as “New World blackbirds”, so we can let this one slip. As for the scientific name, the genus name comes from the Greek neso (island) and psar (starling) and, as one might guess, this bird is completely unrelated to true starlings (family Sturnidae). Finally, the specific epithet (see Salvador, 2014, for a crash course in species’ scientific names) means simply “very black”, which might not be so descriptive of a “blackbird” after all.
Nevertheless, a local Jamaican popular name for this bird is “wild-pine sergeant” and is more accurate than the other names. These birds feed on insects they find in tree bark or bromeliads (locally known as “wild-pines”) and are adapted to climbing trees, similar to woodpeckers. They inhabit the montane forests of Jamaica and are arranged in pairs of birds, each pair occupying a vast territory. The severe deforestation caused by mining, forestry, charcoal production and agriculture has led to an extreme habitat loss incompatible with the blackbirds’ large territories. The species is thus considered endangered, but only some very shy efforts have been made towards its preservation.
Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris)
The sad flycatcher (together with the lesser Antillean pewee, Contopus latirostris) is commonly called little Tom-fool by the Jamaican people, for its habit of refusing to fly away when threatened. This flycatcher species inhabits the forests of Jamaica and, as their name imply, feed on insects. In fact, the genus name comes from the Greek muia (fly) and archos (ruler), while the specific epithet refers to the presence of rictal bristles. These bristles are modified feathers (that look like mammals’ whiskers) projecting from the beak; they not only provide tactile feedback (as whiskers do), but also supposedly protect the birds’ eyes as they consumes their wriggly insect prey.
To avoid confusion, we must note here that the sad flycatcher is part of the group known as “New World flycatchers” or “tyrant flycatchers” (the family Tyrannidae). The “Old World flycatchers” belong to another family, Muscicapidae, which is only distantly related to the Tyrannidae.
Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis)
This bird is locally known as “jabbering crow” of “gabbling crow”, for it can produce a variety of jabbering sounds (besides the common “caw” of crows). Their incessant jabbering may also sound like indistinct human languages and, to the British, rather like Welsh people, which led to the birds being nicknamed “Welshmen” in a typical bout of Brit humor.
The Jamaican crows live mainly in the country’s uplands, but may come down to the lowlands during the dry season. They feed mainly on fruit and invertebrates, but may occasionally eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Bond’s work with the Caribbean avifauna set the basis for ornithology in the region and most of his insights have been continuously proved accurate. As such, his influence in science shall remain relevant for a long time to come. Well, at least until humans have extinguished all the bird species in the region – unfortunately, birds live only once and Jamaica has already lost three of its endemic species. Meanwhile, the other Bond also remain a relevant figure in popular culture and imagination, with his over-the-top stories, exotic locations, strange villains, Bond girls, fancy suits, weaponized cars and a number of crazy gadgets. James Bond has thus the (somewhat dubious) honor of having his name twice immortalized in History, as a brilliant ornithologist and as a womanizing superspy. (We believe the latter is better remembered than the former though.)
But for those of you thinking that a birder’s life is much duller than a spy’s life, some words from the naturalist and writer Alexander F. Skutch (1904–2004) might change your mind or at the very least make you revisit your beliefs: “our quest of them [birds] takes us to the fairest places; to find them and uncover some of their well-guarded secrets we exert ourselves greatly and live intensely.”
Bond, J. (1993) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
Bond, M.F.W.P. (1966) How 007 Got His Name. Collins, London.
Cassidy, F.G. (2006) Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. University of the West Indies Press, Kingston.
Clements, J.F.; Schulenberg, T.S.; Iliff, M.J.; Roberson, D.; Fredericks, T.A.; Sullivan, B.L.; Wood, C.L. (2014) The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world. Version 6.9. Available from: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/ (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).
Chancellor, H. (2005) James Bond: The Man and His World. John Murray, London.
Cruz, A. (1978) Adaptive evolution in the Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus. Ornis Scandinavia 9(2): 130–137.
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). (2014) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/ (Date of access: 03/Apr/2015).
Lederer, R. & Burr, C. (2014) Latin for Bird Lovers. Timber Press, New York.
MI6-HQ. (2015) MI6 – The Home of James Bond 007. Available from: http://www.mi6-hq.com/ (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).
Parker, M. (2015) Goldeneye. Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. Pegasus Publications, Winnipeg.
Parkes, K. (1989) In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106(4): 718–720.
Rothschild, W. (1907) Extinct Birds. An attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times – that is, within the last six or seven hundred years. To which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction. Hutchinson & Co., London.