Science Meets Fantasy: Wheel of Time genetics

I’m beginning to understand why someone would jump out of a bathtub and go streaking through the streets with a fantastic new idea. Recently, in the shower, my brain decided it wanted to write a graphic novel. The day after, it worked out a genetic explanation of channeling in the Wheel of Time universe. If you haven’t read any Robert Jordan, or if you don’t know basic genetics, this won’t make a huge lot of sense. If you’ve read some but not all, be warned that this explanation contains information you may not have reached. None of it is serious, but if you’re a fanatic about not being spoiled, watch out. I’ll break the article before I get into speculation that people might not have heard or want to hear.

Here’s my model. There are three factors controlling channeling ability: whether you can do it, whether you have the spark or can learn, and how strong you are. Strength and sparkiness don’t seem to be related, and neither seems to be related to sex. What I propose is that basic channeling ability is a recessive, sex-linked trait. There are variations of a gene on both the X and Y chromosomes, X’ and Y’ to borrow from Katherine Kurtz, that enable awareness of, respectively, saidar and saidin. In order to channel, someone has to have this variation on both their sex chromosomes. So an X’Y male can’t channel, but an X’Y’ can. X’X women and X’Y or XY’ men can’t even sense the Source. The elegant part of this is that it explains why men who can channel or learn can sense when a woman is channeling: they have the X’. It also explains why channeling-capable men can only tell other men can channel when they do it, while women have an easy time telling when other women can channel (sensing other Aes Sedai, seeing the glow, knowing who’s sparky), since they have double sensitivity to saidar.

Sparkiness is easy compared to that. It seems to be a simple dominant-recessive or absent-present allele situation. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say there are two possible places on non-X-or-Y chromosomes that the allele (call it “spontaneity,” S for absent and s for present) can appear. If someone has one, and all other genetic markers are in order, he/she is a learner; two means he/she has the spark. This makes for a very easy Punnett square giving about twice as many sul’dam as damane.

I won’t address strength, since it’s not a black-and-white issue and probably involves a lot of genes that most people just don’t use, not having the right matchups in spontaneity or sensitivity. However, I do want to look at what happens when you examine a few special families….

The al’Veres are very normal and very explainable. They have several daughters, only one of whom is a channeler, and she’s a spark to boot. Therefore it is most likely that each of them carries an X’, and they must each have at least one s allele. If they each have exactly one, then one of Egwene’s sisters might be an sS learner, or might have an X’X’ genotype, but also be SS–not a channeler.

The Cauthons, on the other hand, present an intriguing question. Mat, on several occasions, has demonstrated sensitivity to women’s channeling without or in spite of the foxhead. (I can’t seem to remember or pinpoint any of them, but I know I wouldn’t be thinking this way if I hadn’t read some evidence at least as hard as, say, a Hershey bar. It’s 1 a.m. on a work night and I’m giving up. If anyone can shed light on this, please do.) This has led many fans to believe that he is a learner. Under this model, he would be X’Y’, which would mean his father must be at least XY’ and his mother must be at least XX’. But his sister Bode is a spark, meaning that if Mat truly is a learner, Abell must also be a learner! Maybe it’s a good thing Tam was the one to work with the Flame and the Void….

And we can’t forget the Dragonspawn. Under this model, since Rand is a spark, any children Elayne or Aviendha have with him are guaranteed to have channeling ability, and, barring really weird stuff, Avi’s quads are all guaranteed sparks. There aren’t any guarantees about Min, but it remains to be seen whether she’ll be a mom. She’s as much as said she wants to, and we haven’t heard anything about her and actually drinking heartleaf tea, but nothing seems to be happening on that front. It also remains to be seen whether channeling ability will have any importance in the Fourth
Age.

Lastly, under this model, one interesting fact emerges: X’Y’ learners have largely been responsible for keeping channeling ability in the world since the Breaking. Aes Sedai, Kin, and damane don’t generally have children, and sparky men tend to either go mad or get executed before they get to breed, so the richest sources of genes controlling channeling are eliminated from the genepool on one whole continent and a good chunk of a second. That leaves the Windfinders, the Wise Ones, and the Ayyad. We don’t know what the Sea Folk do with their male sparks (possibly drop them off on the Isle of the Madmen), but Aiel sparky men go to the Blight, and the Ayyad keep theirs as breeding stock. Three guesses which society has more and stronger channelers. Not that their way is better, just more productive.

Makes me wonder just how big a shakeup Mat is going to be to the Seanchan.

4 thoughts on “Science Meets Fantasy: Wheel of Time genetics

  1. vinayak varma

    Brilliant, A+ on that one. Almost wish i’d thought of it first. I’m currently reading the 7th book in the series, and your observations on Mat are still more than a little perplexing, hope to crack that soon. This is the first i’ve seen of any learned explanations on the strange phenomena present in the Wheel of Time. Do you have any idea where i can find more such literature? And WOT comics? Can you email me on this?

    Reply
  2. Kaela

    Holy crud. That makes so much sense. Allow me to say “Wow.” x.x My brain is like, this close to exploding after that. @.@ Beyond the fact that I’m an avid WoT freak, I’m a wee bit psycho on my genetics. Which frightens me, needlessly said. But. Wow. Awesome.

    Reply
  3. Lori

    Just wanted to give you a quote from RJ to help with your theory – which btw I really like but…

    Q: Back on Mat again. Could you comment on whether or not he may be able to channel?

    RJ: Nope. Not a chance. Can’t do it. He can get anyone in the world to dance with him just about but he can’t channel worth a darn note.

    Q: He’s still young enough for it not to show up, right?

    RJ: No he’s not going to be… He can’t channel. But if you approach him the right way he will come to your birthday party on a Harley.

    (This website has several spoilers up to and including the latest book).

    http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dcjspjqg_70dtxtgjg6

    Reply
    1. Katie

      Heh, I should’ve known there’d be Word of God on this. So that’d make Abell X’Y and Natti X’X, with each having at least one spontaneity allele, same as the al’Veres.

      Maybe I ought to be looking at the Andor Damodreds instead…

      Reply

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