There are many different forms of media that present a “new race of humanity” coming to save the world with mutant powers. The most prominent of these series is Marvel’s X-Men, another is the Heroes TV show, first airing in 2006, which I have a much deeper knowledge of than X-Men. That being said, I will be focusing on Heroes in this case, but I believe my analysis here will easily apply to X-Men and other science fiction narratives. In this post I’m going to refer to people with powers as Specials. I will also discuss Specials and Humans as though they were already two separate species. So while reading understand that Humans are Homo sapiens and Specials are Homo specialus (or are they? Hopefully we’ll know by the end of this).
The biological species concept is probably the definition of a species that most people know and learned in school. It says that a species is a population of organisms that interbreed or could possibly interbreed and produce fertile offspring . This definition has issues, such as what does “could possibly interbreed” even mean? If there is one group of cats on one side of a river and one group on the other could they still interbreed, even though there’s rushing water that’s impossible for them to cross in the way? Basically, it quickly becomes complicated.
There is another flaw in the biological species concept that is pretty large. Some animals can produce hybrids. A hybrid is an organism that has parents from two different species. The most well known example is that a horse and a donkey can have offspring, a mule. Mules are infertile so that isn’t a too complicated of problem, there will never be a mule that can mate with an other mule. . But some hybrids are fertile and can produce fertile offspring if they mate with one of the parent species . Yet their parents are still considered two separate species.
There are other ways to define a species, such as the phylogenetic species concept, in which a species is the smallest grouping of organisms with a common ancestor . However, this gets into questions on how you build a phylogenetic tree, what traits do you sort it by? One was to build a tree is to use DNA, and since we are talking about fictional hominids, DNA can’t be analyzed. So, despite its flaws, the biological species concept is going to have to do.
’m sure you’re confused and want to bash you head against the keyboard right now. Don’t worry. So do biologists.
So when putting Specials under the biological species concept several things come to light. First off Specials look like Humans; there is no physical way to tell them apart. This doesn’t mean they’re the same species but it’s important to note. So do Specials interbreed or have the possibility to interbreed? The answer is obviously “yes”. In Heroes: Micah, Peter, Nathan, and Claire are all offspring to two Specials. We don’t know if Micah, Peter, or Claire are fertile because they don’t have children (also Claire’s ability might affect her fertility). But Nathan has children so that means Specials are genetically stable enough to produce fertile offspring. Matt’s father is a Special but as far as the show has to say is mother was not, and he has a son, and he is obviously fertile. This means that if Specials are a separate species the event that caused the two groups to split genetically occurred fairly recently (more on this later).
A speciation event is an event that causes the two groups of organisms to not be able to interbreed anymore, for them to become two separate species. This can happen through several different methods.
- Allopatric: two populations are geographically isolated from each other by something like a mountain range or a river. These two groups cannot mate because there’s a freaking mountain in the way and over time they get different mutations and become different species.
- Peripatric: A small population is cut off from the larger population. This is also called “the bottle neck effect”. Usually some disaster like a flood happens and a very small isolated group survives. Because the population is so small when these few individuals mate some rare traits are expressed that weren’t in the original large population. These unique recessive traits build up and they become a separate species.
- Parapatric: A species has a large range to the point that the populations on one end of the range have no contact with those on the other end. Over time the two groups on the extreme sides of the range become increasingly different and then become separate species.
- Sympatric: There is no geographic definition between the two groups when the speciation event happens. This is extremely rare. An example is when Apple trees came to North America a small group of Maggot Flies, which normally live and mate in the Hawthorn plant, switched over to apples. The two trees grew next to each other and the Maggot Flies could move between plants. But over time those that lived on the apples became a separate species because they would only mate on apples, and the original species exclusively mated on hawthorns.
At the end of the day what is really important out of these four methods is that there is reproductive isolation. Group A cannot mate with Group B so they can become more and more different and then become two separate species. This can be achieved by the two groups having different mating rituals or mate at different times of the day or year so they just don’t see each other, the two groups have sex organs that physically don’t fit, or the offspring of the two groups is infertile.
So looking at these methods have Specials and Humans actually experienced a Speciation event? Well Allopatric Speciation can be ruled out, Specials are found all over the world from Japan to New York so there is no magical valley that they all come from. There also hasn’t been a catastrophe that caused a Peritatric speciation. Unless of course it happened before the show, however that seems unlikely. Parapatric also seems unlikely because then it would be more likely that an ability would also be tied with a location, such as “every Special in Japan is a time traveler and every Special in New York has Empathic Mimicry”, which is not the case. That leaves Sympatric speciation.
So then if there is a Sympatric speciation event (and there might not be) are the two groups sexually separated? Well Humans and Specials appear to have similar mating rituals. There is no reason to think they don’t. And Humans and Specials have sex organs that fit, there are several couples in the show where a Special and a Human have biologically related children. Finally the children of a Special and a Human is fertile (Matt is an example of this).
This means that there is no sexual separation between the two groups. At all. The sexual separation is extremely important, without it the group expressing the mutations (the Specials) will be reabsorbed back into the main group since the genes of the main group are most likely dominate over the smaller group that is branching off to form a new species. So for Specials to be their own species they would have to have no sexual interaction with Humans or their offspring with Humans would have to be infertile. Neither is the case.
So are Specials and Humans two separate species? Most likely no. There is no evidence of a speciation event and there is absolutely no sexual separation of the groups. However over a longer period of time, particularly if more and more Specials choose to have Special partners, they could become two separate species.