On Type O blood and being set in the past

A minor update on my main review of BSG:

After the show concluded, many viewers complained about how all the clues in the show had pointed — some very directly — to the show being set in the future, and little had suggested it would be set in the past.

Kevin Grazier, science adviser to the show, stated in his book The Science of Battlestar Galactica that Hera’s blood type was such a clue.

Hera had no blood antigens — ie. she was of type O. No colonial was of type O, they were all of types A, B and AB. Since we modern humans are quite commonly type O, this was supposed to be a clue that the story was in the past, and we all got this from Hera.

Except blood type genetics don’t work this way. Everybody has two genes (from two parents) for blood type. You can be AA, AO, AB, BB, BO or OO, getting either an A, B or O from each parent. There are only 4 types because people who are AO have type A blood, and people who are BO have type B blood. Only OO folks have type O blood — the O trait is recessive.

The problem is this. Even if Sharon (the mother) is OO, she can’t have a type O baby if she breeds with people who don’t have any type Os. The colonials are all AA, AB or BB. They have no AOs or BOs because if they did, they would have type O children from time to time. Grazier knows about the pairings and describes them in the book, but somehow misses this important element. So this is not a proper clue that the show is set in the past.

Wait — we could play some games, and give Sharon some magic special O genes that are dominant over A and B from humans, allowing a baby with type O blood. You could, but that would be some new magic, not any known science, and thus hardly something that clever viewers would take as a clue. To top it off, we must also now assume that none of the #8s in the fleet or colonial society ever got their blood typed. Perhaps that’s true, but pretty unlikely once the Cylons were identified and subjected to every medical test they could get their hands on. Sharon’s type O blood would have been well known, and Hera’s type would also be no surprise.

Am I being picky? Of course. But this is worthy of attack because Grazier is holding this out as an example both of the careful attention to scientific detail in the show, and as an example of how the clever viewer would have picked up a clue to the ending by paying attention. It is sadly, neither.

Grazier’s book also contains a major error about Mitochondrial Eve. It admits the mistake that MTE is not the “most recent common ancestor,” but it goes on to make a bigger mistake, saying that MTE is the sole ancestor of people alive today. That is about as wrong as you can get. In fact, most people alive at the time of MTE (and in fact most people alive somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, at what is termed the Identical ancestors point) is an ancestor of every human alive today. All of us are descended from all of them. It’s not actually all of them because some of them died without children or grandchildren or otherwise had lines that died out quickly. If somebody’s line did not die out quickly — so they got the usual brood of great-grandchildren and beyond — their tree of descendants quickly becomes so huge it can’t die out and can’t be anything but ancestor to all of us. (There are some exceptions when geographically isolated groups got wiped out completely before they had time to send out members to breed with the rest of humanity.)

Note that even though you are descended from everybody alive 20,000 years ago, that doesn’t mean you inherited DNA from all of them. Through the 700 to 1000 generations since those days, the DNA of most of them has been lost. You are actually descended from all of them many trillions of times over — they occupy lots of slots in your family tree, and some of them more than others. But at this distance the genetic contribution of most is diluted to nothing. The odds you would have any DNA (other than mitochondria) from a hypothetical single person who lived 150,000 years ago are quite slim.

You've Got to be Kidding Me

He didn't really say Mitochondrial Eve is the sole ancestor of people today, did he? I mean, Grazier has real degress and stuff. He's not an idiot.

Surely he was talking about the show's lamebrained construct and not the actual Mitochondrial Eve concept.

Sadly, he does

Check out the book (you can also read that section free using Amazon’s look-inside-the-book I think.)

That's Depressing

In some sense it's much worse than the show's ending. Here's a technically educated man with the intellect and wherewithal to know the facts, and he's spewing inanity.

There's a place for inanity in science fiction. The field has always been divided between pure entertainment and more ambitious things that use a real technical scaffolding. Pure entertainment gets away with a lot of junk because its honest about what it is and what it's trying to do. It lacks pretension. But when you invoke real scientific concepts to try and claim deeper meaning/art, you really have to get it right. The deeper meaning/art comes from getting it right, from crafting a viable fictional junction between the technical and the artistic. That's a true skill, and the people who have it are rightfully lauded. You don't get to just take a well established concept like Mitochondrial Eve, say it means the exact opposite of what it actually does, and then claim you're a genius for misrepresenting it in a way you find cool (and conveniently gets you out of a nonsense plot you can't otherwise bring to any kind of closure).

I don't see what the fuss is

I don't see what the fuss is about. In the episode where Hera's blood is discussed, Baltar explains to the admiral quite clearly that by combining cylon's blood (1) with human blood (2) they got Hera's blood (3).

In other words it has never been the case, according to the series, that Sharon (being a cylon) had type O blood. Rather, she had cylon-whatever blood, which in combination with human blood (either AA, BB, or AB type - whatever Helo was) produced *the first ever* O type.

So yes, according to the series Sharon did have a magic cylon-whatever blood, but why should this fact prevent the information of Hera's type O blood from being a clue. This explains why Hera's blood was a surprise - of course it is only natural that Sharon and other cylons were tested for their blood type, but none of them were of the O type, because at that time O could only be produced by a combination of a cylon-whatever blood and human A or B.

So it's magic

What you’re describing is some sort of magic DNA. Grazier implies the normal rules of DNA apply here — one from mother, one from father. Under normal rules you can’t get OO from a non-O Cylon and a non-O human. You would need a magic alele that dominates over the A or B of Helo, does not produce an O in Sharon, but does produce an O in the baby in spite of the A or B from daddy. Whatever that is, it’s unknown to our science and in fact in contradiction to it, so it’s no longer any sort of clue, it’s just some technobabble.

How Can Any Technical Person Say Somethimg That Dumb?

Not the blog author, but this Grazier guy. The recessive genetics of O blood are well documented. Anyone who has taken a high school biology course knows what that means, which is exactly what the blog author explains.

So Cylon blood is magic, huh? Their bodies function exactly like ours, they have the same internal organs, we can breed with them, we can't detect them by examining their blood, but their blood is some never before seen fluid that magically creates a whole new genetic blood type when combined with Type A or B. A meaningful clue for morons maybe. But it does seem a fittingly pathetic defense of a pathetic ending that concluded its brave new experiment in gritty realism by throwing up its hands and asking us to clap for Tinkerbelle.

Novel Mutations

One thing that has not been addressed in this discussion of dominance is the origin of the ABO alleles. Basically an O allele is a defective copy of either an A or B allele. Something has to have happened at some point that makes the gene lose its wild type function; a mutation of some sort. In my case, my blood type is A but I am a heterozygote with the genotype AO and my O allele is one where there was a frame-shift mutation that resulted in a loss of function for that copy of the gene. But because I have two copies I am type A. My sister however got two O alleles and she is type O. Now this doesn't get the writers out of there clench. They could try and argue that, as unlikely as it might seem considering how easy this kind of mutation should be, that Hera is the very first individual with a mutation resulting in an O allele. But she would still not be blood type O except in the even more unlikely event of her receiving two mutant alleles. Sorry, Dr. Grazier, but this just doesn't work. Now to be fair I don't buy Grazier's ret-conning but then let's remember that he's not a biologist. His expertise in computer science and astronomy was valuable to the writing staff.

But then again we have the scene in the Tomb of Athena with the holographic planetarium, isn't that right up his alley? Hmm? Yet I have not seen any apologist retcon explanations from him on that issue either.

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