An evolutionary biologist takes on the absurd bodies of superheroes
An interview with evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton.
Evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton loves reading comic books almost as much as he loves studying unusual animals. Now he’s combining his twin passions in a new podcast, The Biology of Superheroes, co-hosted by fellow geek Arien Darby. The podcast uses comic book characters to explore big ideas in science and technology. Campbell-Staton recently sat down with Nexus Media to talk about his new project, his favorite superheroes and his ongoing research into the ways climate change is driving evolution. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a podcast where you talk about the biology of superheroes. Which superheroes?
We try to take characters from the comic book universe, not just superheroes, but also other figures of science fiction — dinosaurs, robots, giant monsters. We use them as archetypes to explore the place where fact meets fiction.
Let’s talk about Spider-Man, the subject of your first two podcasts.
Arguably, the thing that separates Peter Parker from other superheroes in the comic book universe is that he uses these webs. These webs are a huge part of his persona. And Spider-Man doesn’t produce spider silk in the way that a spider would. He has to engineer it.
So, the first question in that scenario is, “What would he use as inspiration?” Obviously, there is a huge diversity of spiders in the world. If you’re trying to develop a tool, you want go out into the real world and see how animals have come up with extreme solutions to solve similar problems. This is a really valid and popular means for scientists to wrap their heads around problems that are presented in the real world. It’s called bio-inspired engineering.
When we’re considering Spider-Man, one question is, “Can spider webs actually accomplish what we see in the comic books?” If we look at the biomechanics of silks, the answer turns out to be “yes.” Spider silks are extremely strong and very versatile. The drag line of spider silk, pound for pound, is stronger than steel. If you scale that up to the size of the webs that Spider-Man is producing, they could very easily support his body weight and help him catch bad guys.
How about the Flash?
One of the central plot lines for the Flash is his ability to move between parallel universes. You have numerous parallel worlds that are vibrating at slightly different frequencies, and you have slightly different versions of superheroes and other characters in these different universes. They never meet each other and they never see each other because they are vibrating at different frequencies. The Flash is able to vibrate from one universe into another universe, allowing him to explore the entire DC Comics multiverse.
If we follow the Flash on his adventures, not only do you see the same species on most of these parallel Earths — you see humans, for instance — you also see different variations of the same individuals popping up across each of these Earths. Thinking about the multiverse invites the question, “If you have four and half billion years of evolution playing out independently on each of these Earths, and you get almost the exact same result each time, what does that say about the process of evolution?”
This is a classic question in evolutionary biology: if you replay the tape of evolution, do you get the same result over and over again? This is a question that people have been chasing for decades. In some cases, in the real world, we see that the answer is “yes.” If presented with the same environmental challenges, natural selection drives independently evolving lineages down very similar trajectories.
On the other hand, there are one-off events, oddities like the duck-billed platypus. It has a bill and a beaver tail it uses to navigate through the water and locate crayfish and crustaceans and things like that. There are a lot of animals that live in very similar habitats and have very similar lifestyles, but none of them look anything like the platypus.
The DC multiverse is the ultimate biology experiment.
Exactly. In the real world, we only have one Earth, but there are ways that scientists in the real world can study repeatability. In some cases, they study islands, which act as independent universes. In other cases, they look at bacteria evolving in petri dishes. A lab full of petri dishes represents a multiverse. You can give independently evolving lineages of bacteria the same challenge to see if they find the same solutions. It’s not as cool as traversing the DC multiverse like the Flash, but very similar techniques are being used to explore the repeatability of evolution in the real world.
How did you get into comic books?
I actually got into comic books pretty late in life, when I was a graduate student doing my PhD at Harvard. In the process of writing my dissertation, I started to get pretty stressed. I needed something that was intellectual candy, something to get my mind off the rigors of academia.
I remember I was walking through Harvard Square one evening, and I passed this underground comic book shop, and in the window, I saw this comic book. It was Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. It had this really big classic cover where Muhammad Ali was facing off with Superman, and they both had boxing gloves on, and I thought, “I have to see how this ends.” Superman and Muhammad Ali face off in a room that has red-sun radiation, which basically makes Superman human, and Muhammad Ali whips his butt really thoroughly. That was the first comic book I ever bought, and it got me hooked.
I went back to the store and got a few different comic books, and that was my guilty pleasure while writing my dissertation. As I was reading comic books, I started to come up with all these really weird questions. A certain scenario would present itself in a comic book, and I would wonder about the biology behind it. This became so persistent that I taught a small course at Harvard on the biology of superheroes. We talked about Batman. We talked about Ironman. We talked about zombies. We talked about the Flash and a few other comic book characters. A lot of the undergrads came away from that course having learned a lot of the classic ideas that they would have learned in an intro bio course. That’s what spawned the podcast.
I’ll be an assistant professor at UCLA starting in July, and that’s actually the first course that I’m going to be teaching at UCLA. We’re talking about everything from evolution and physiology to brain machine interfacing and artificial intelligence.
You study how animals adapt to climate change. Do you talk about climate change in your podcast?
In our last episode, we talked about Jurassic Park and resurrecting ancient species. Obviously, this is a really fun topic to talk about. I interviewed Beth Shapiro, a geneticist who focuses on conservation genetics and the genomes of ancient species, and we talked about whether it’s possible to get DNA from dinosaurs and how we go from getting genes from an extinct species to creating a living, breathing animal. That’s all really fun to think about, but the last question is “Why would we do this?”
If we’re not going to resurrect ancient dinosaurs and have fun eating cotton candy watching them do their thing, why would we invest so much in this technology? Well, it turns out that that same technology is being used right now to help conserve species that are on the verge of extinction and potentially bring back species that have been driven extinct by human activity.
We just got news that the last male northern white rhinoceros died. Obviously, we have species like the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon and the black-footed ferret, which is on the verge of extinction. That brings up the idea of genetic rescue. The ability to tinker with the genomes of a species and reintroduce improved versions of those genomes into wild populations to help them recover — that same technology would be required to bring back a wooly mammoth.
What species do you focus on in your research?
I’m a herpetologist by heart, so I work mostly on reptiles and amphibians. A lot of my recent work is studying how changes in climate affect the form and function of wild populations. I published a paper last year looking at the effects of the polar vortex storms that swept the Southeast in the winter of 2013 to 2014. The polar vortex is a pattern of Arctic air that spirals around our poles. As the planet warms, the poles are warming faster than mid-latitudes, which causes that pattern to become more wavy, and it sends these periodic bouts of polar air to mid-latitudes. Here, in North America, it causes these extreme cold events.
It just so happened that in late 2013, I was studying the evolution of cold tolerance in this one reptile species, the green anole lizard, which is native to the United States, but its ancestors come from Cuba, which is very warm and thermally stable. So I had data on cold tolerance in these populations. I had data on gene expression.
So, I took advantage of this particular event to ask, “In the survivors of this storm, do we see any signature of natural selection taking place?” And the answer, in this case, was “yes.” We saw that in the southern part of species range, the survivors of the storm were significantly more cold-tolerant than the population was before the storm.
So much of the talk about climate change is that it’s happening so fast that plants and animals can’t adapt, so it’s surprising to hear that you see that change in such a short period of time.
I think this is something that we are increasingly coming to understand. When we think about contemporary evolution, this is a field that is only a couple of decades old. Now, we’re starting to see an uptick in the number of people who are focused on trying to understand how human perturbations to the environment are not only affecting ecology and extinction, gene flow and species distribution, but also the process of evolution. And we are starting to see evidence that animals around the world are adapting.
Jason Munshi-South is doing work in New York City looking at mice that are adapted to urban environments, and he’s seeing very strong signatures of selection in diet. Mice that are living in cities are eating a lot of the junk food that people leave around, while their cousins in more natural habitats are eating grasses and seeds and insects and that sort of thing. In response, the genes that are involved in digestive processes seem to be diverging between cities and natural habitats.
Pollution is also a factor. Andrew Whitehead’s group has been studying pollution adaptation in small fish called killifish. He’s shown that these animals have colonized these very polluted waters several different times, and we see these repeated signatures of selection in parts of the genome that help them to cope with the deleterious effects of being in these polluted waters.
That feels like cause for some small measure of cautious optimism.
I think it’s easy, when you hear that things are adaptively evolving, to think that things are going to be okay, but we still don’t really know. Because the thing is, when we talk about natural selection, that comes at a cost: death. When you have an extreme pressure that has a large death toll, the individuals who are left behind are better adapted, but in the meantime, all of this genetic variation that would have been in the population gets lost because everything is driven down this one specific trajectory.
In the case of the polar vortex storm, what happens if it’s a drought next time? Or a heat wave? Lineages that may have been better adapted for those types of events may be lost now. We just don’t know. There is lot more data that needs to be gathered to understand how the different types of selective pressures — from extreme weather events to urbanization to pollution—play out over longer periods of time to determine who survives, who dies, and how that translates into extinction and speciation and other important biological processes.
So, who are your favorite superheroes?
It’s funny because I think most of my favorite superheroes are actually scientists. Spider-Man, obviously, is a favorite of mine. Peter Parker is one of the most brilliant minds in the Marvel universe. Bruce Banner — I love me some Hulk. He’s one of my go-to characters. Batman is obviously classic. There is just so much to that character, so much depth and history. He’s got a dark side that you don’t see in many other characters.
As we move along with the podcast, we’ll continue to think about aliens and giant monsters and robots and artificial intelligence and all of these fantastical ideas, and explore the science behind them. I think it’s really important to bring these conversations to the real world. We’re being thrown so much information from all over the place. It’s not necessarily all from reputable sources. If we can go through this mental exercise of separating fact from fiction when it comes to these fantastical ideas like comic book superheroes, maybe that will help us to better discern fact from fiction when it comes to the more serious issues, like climate change.