Genetics and George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”

It is easy to understand why Preston Jacobs thinks that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is science fiction given the tremendous amount of genetics laden material throughout the story. As Jacobs pointed out, there is a character named Jeyne Poole (Gene Pool) in the books. But, that is just one indicator that genetics plays an incredibly important part in “A Song of Ice and Fire” even if you reject the idea that it is science fiction, as I do.


First and foremost, there is the massive role of genetics in the plot of the books. Ned/Eddard Stark only finds definitive proof of the Cersei/Jaime incest when he reads that all Baratheons are dark of hair. For those of us who remember high school or middle school biology, we conclude that dark hair must be a dominant trait. If we are really good, we remember that blonde hair is a recessive trait. Therefore, only two blondes could produce blonde children and no other kind. The rather stunning implication of this observation is that Tyrion must have had a different father contributor than Tywin to have a half a head of dark hair in addition to his light blonde. His two different hair colors and eye colors also suggest he is a biological chimera – two embryos fused into one. With Joanna’s first children fraternal twins, it is entirely possible she had another set of fraternal twins only with Aerys the male contributor to one of the embryos and not the other.


The theory R + L = J is also backed up by genetics. Arya looks like Lyanna and Jon is said to resemble Arya. By the transitive property, Jon takes after Lyanna. Ned brings back Jon after the Tower of Joy confrontation where Lyanna died. Therefore, Jon is probably the son of Lyanna and Rhaegar, not Ned and some other woman than his wife, Catelyn. Similarly, the Stark children are probably skin-changers because of their mother’s Whent inheritance rather than their Stark background.


Then there are the Targaryens and Valyrians who keep their “blood pure” by marrying incestuously. The frequent birth defects of stillborn births – the babies have dragon features like tails and scales – is a likely by-product of this practice. We suspect that skin-changing is an X-linked gene, as a result more likely to come from the mother. Jacobs has shown the incredibly likelihood that hatching dragons is a double-X linked trait. In all probability, Daenerys was hatching the eggs with her continued contact with them rather than the blood sacrifice of Drogo’s corpse, his horse, and Mirri Maz Duur. For example, the eggs were warming before the funeral pyre.

Then there is the curious case of the Others or white walkers who steal children and sleep with human women fathering monsters. The Wildlings are despised because they are believed to have mated with the White Walkers. Craster offers his male newborns to the Others and is left alone. There are indications that the Black Gate with the heartwood face in the Night Fort and the Snow Gate were for offerings of “Snows” or bastards of the North to the Others, a practice associated with the Right of the First Night. This appears to be some kind of genetics infertility and gene mutation situation. Therefore, although widely misinterpreted as Martin endorsing feudal systems, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is actually a study in human genetics.


The fascination with genetics is likely from two but related sources. The first part is the noted discoveries of DNA by a group of scientists including James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and the underappreciated Rosalind Franklin. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their work in 1962 and Watson wrote a best-selling book about the effort, The Double Helix in 1968 with Franklin largely uncredited in both venues, due to her death probably from the X-rays in her research in the former, a personality conflict and misunderstanding with Watson in the latter. Mendelian genetics gained prominence in school classrooms both primary and secondary. New avenues opened up for research. And, a debate erupted between those who argued nurture was more important in human destiny, and those who favored genetics. It was a debate that dated from the beginning of Western civilization and continued through the middle ages and the modern period in various forms. For example, H. P. Lovecraft, one of Martin’s favorite authors when Martin was a child, believed in eugenics and the teachings of William Graham Sumner, in effect that the poor and inbred were genetically deficient.


The other influence was comic books, in particular the Marvel heroes whose failings and very human problems made them instantaneously relatable to baby boomers like Martin. The Fantastic Four were genetically altered by cosmic rays. Peter Parker became Spider-man after being bitten by a radioactive spider. The newfound effects of nuclear weapons and genetic mutation created a superhero universe unlike any other. Before expanding his reading list to novels of every genre (with the exception of romances), Martin consumed comic books, especially Marvel. One can see the impact of all of this on his work.


For example, genetics is the main topic of all of the Tuf Voyaging stories in which Tuf’s ship, the Ark, is very much the science fiction equivalent of its biblical namesake. But, even if it is not the centerpiece, in all of the stories in Martin’s 1000 Worlds universe, genetics plays a key role. The Earth Engineering Corps, which specialized in bio-warfare, was the old Federal Earth Empire’s – a USA stand-in like in Star Trek – answer to the Hrangans’ nuclear weapon armed hive-minded Soviet Union stand-ins and the Hrangan slave races. Then, we have the different races that inhabit these many worlds, who are a study in genetic diversity and evolution, and so forth. While love lost, explorations, and questions about religion and who should lead are also present, genetics is too prevalent for it to be just a topic Martin considered in younger days. It has deep, continuing meaning for him, a theme, if you will, in which he explores moral quandaries.


These questions are significant in other ways as well. For example, in addition to the separate, but related issue of identity, Martin poses the dilemma of parent-child relationships when there are questionable biological ties. Eddard claims to be Jon’s father. Does that make him so? Jon believes Eddard to be his father and acts accordingly. Many of Jon’s actions are attempts to follow in Eddard’s footsteps including he who passes the sentence must swing the sword. But what about Jon’s mother? He claims and probably believes that he has had no mother and, yet, he exhibits affinities, Oedipus style, for a certain type: headstrong, assertive, intelligent, independent, and slender. There is only one woman in Jon’s life who has all of these characteristics and fits the maternal role for Jon: Catelyn. That Jon’s stepmother hates and resents him is an important aspect of Jon’s life, character, and issues with women. Tyrion’s paternal relationships are also fraught with the nature v. nurture problems as are Theon’s, Samwell Tarly’s, Quentyn’s, Jamie’s, Cersei’s, Brienne’s, and Sandor’s, just to name a few. The nurture v. nature discussion is a way to examine these relationships.


Last, and certainly not least, genetics, genetic engineering, and parent-child dynamics present various topics concerning good government. Remembering Varys’ riddle about who has the power: the swordsman, the High Septon, the king, or the merchant, we have a similar discussion about those who have genetic gifts, the impact of their upbringing, and their natures as people. “A Song of Ice and Fire” like the Tuf Voyaging story, “The Plague Star”, is therefore simultaneously an enquiry into who should govern and why along the lines of Plato’s Republic. The warrior should not because a leader needs to be more than an effective military leader. The High Septon should not because a preoccupation with the spiritual neglects the material. The merchant should not because what serves the wealth-holders does not necessarily benefit the society. If that leaves the king, is the only proper governance the philosopher-king Varys and Illyrio are trying to place on the Iron Throne? But even with their best efforts, Aegon is ill-tempered, arrogant, and naïve. After all, Tyrion beats him at cyvasse and tries to teach him a lesson about conserving the dragon piece (probably the equivalent of the queen in chess) to no avail. In a highly symbolic and predictive manner, Aegon commands Tyrion pick up the pieces including the white dragon, which he holds in his hand.


The rest of the cast of characters are similarly unfit in their own way. Littlefinger is a sociopath. Daenerys is laughably bad at governance while unparalleled in making conquests. Cersie is still exercising her demons instead of trying to govern wisely. Euron is a psychopath. The only decent leader is Jon, and he is unable to see and prepare for conspiracies, hardly good ruler material. While the people suffer, the nobles play their game of thrones. While a threat gathers in the north, the great houses fight over the Iron Throne. All seek to rule, but none have any worthy ideas of how to govern.


However, while Martin’s rather nasty critique of feudalism is abundantly clear, it still does not provide a solution about how the genetically gifted are to use those gifts. Sansa uses hers for survival and a chivalric quest. Arya uses hers for revenge. Tyrion wants to work out his issues and find his bliss. (“Where do whores go?”) Daenerys wants restitution. Oberyn and Doran Nymeros-Martell want justice and the Iron Throne. What does Jon Snow want? To live honorably, to serve a purpose, and to prove he is a worthy son of Eddard and Catelyn. For while genetics is important, Martin is arguing it is not destiny. We have choice. We should choose well.






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