Relentless Mutation: How Right Does Metal Get Genetics?

If you started actively reading Heavy Blog in more recent years (like the very good decision maker you are), it’s unlikely you’ve seen much content from me. In

3 years ago

If you started actively reading Heavy Blog in more recent years (like the very good decision maker you are), it’s unlikely you’ve seen much content from me. In fact, I haven’t been able to contribute very actively at all since 2017, when I decided that the best thing to do on the tail end of my agonizing undergraduate years was to – wait for it – go back to school.

Fortunately, graduate school has treated me much more kindly than those years did. I’ve fallen increasingly in love with my field of evolutionary genetics over the course of my doctorate so far, equally enthralled and overwhelmed by just how much there is to learn even after I’ve spent just over four years doing this on a full-time basis. Sure, it takes up a lot of my time (and writing energy) but I’m still very grateful that it’s something I get to do.

“Cool! So… what does that have to do with music again?” Well, metal is no stranger to lyrical topics that veer towards science fiction and the like — and as it turns out, this ongoing training as a geneticist has meant that I’m now on slightly better footing to evaluate how the music I listen to tackles anything related to genetics. It was in a discussion spurred by Eden’s glorious prognotes on Alkaloid‘s stunning 2015 debut The Malkuth Grimoire that the idea for a piece that picks out a few songs and assesses them on these grounds came to fruition, and you’re now three paragraphs into reading it.

So! Today, we’ll be taking a brief tour through some tunes that make reference to topics in genetics, and I’ll be both a) explaining what said concepts mean, and b) wherever applicable or at all possible, evaluating how well the song lives up to said concept. I’ve taken some liberties with song choices and so many of these will relate mostly towards objective a), effectively letting me soapbox a bit about genetics on the pages of Heavy Blog for your reading pleasure, though I promise to do my best not to get too deep in the woods.


Alkaloid – C-Value Enigma (The Malkuth Grimoire, 2015)

What better place to start than the very song that inspired this piece? Having a closer look at “C-Value Enigma” obviously necessitates explaining the concept of a C-value first, and so we’ll start there. As we might already know, the ‘basic unit’ of life is a cell, and all organisms — from fungi to elephants — are made of one or more cells. In its basest form, a C-value can be defined as the amount of DNA in a cell. More specifically, C-values are used to refer to genome sizes* (specifically haploid genome size, but we don’t really need to get into that here). A genome is the entire set of DNA that belongs to an organism, and there’s unsurprisingly quite a bit of variation between how genomes look across nature.

As we might also know depending on how into science we were in high school, the building block of DNA — and consequently, the base unit of DNA size — is the base pair (bp). A single base pair can be thought of as a single letter in the genetic code of a given organism. We can therefore use base pairs to measure and compare genome sizes (or C-values, if you’re keeping up) and as it turns out C-values vary quite a bit in nature: bacteria may have genome sizes of 140,000 bp, while human genomes are roughly 3,000,000,000 bp (i.e. 3 Gbp) in size. This probably doesn’t seem all that surprising, given the obvious differences between us and single-celled bacteria. But as it turns out, genome size doesn’t always reflect how complex an organism is: the humble axolotl has a genome that clocks in at a patently insane 32 Gbp — ten times larger than the human genome. Despite that, I’d wager there aren’t very many literate axolotls reading this article.

This disparity was originally referred to as the C-value paradox — why does genome size not correspond to how complex an organism is? It turns out this has to do with how genomes are subdivided into genes and intergenic DNA (as in ‘not genes’). You may have heard of the whole concept of ‘junk DNA’, and while that term might be a bit misleading, it’s definitely the case basically all genomes contain some DNA that’s just… there, taking up space in the genetic code while not actually encoding anything; think of it like a series of extended keysmashes randomly appearing every now and then in a recipe book. Now, we’ve made some broad strides in understanding variation in genome size in nature — for instance, evidence shows that larger genomes are found in cells that divide slower. Another recent study also showed that the axolotl genome is filled with tons of repetitive intergenic DNA. Still, without getting mired too intensely into the biology: the key idea is that we’re still a smidge unclear about several things surrounding non-coding DNA and how it affects genome sizes.

How does this relate to Alkaloid’s song? Well, in an album full of bonkers musical virtuosity, “C-Value Enigma” stands as possibly the most note-dense song on the record. We’re talking note-dense to the point where it couldn’t possibly have been recorded live by a human being, and it turns out that’s exactly the case: Alkaloid frontman Morean created the song by manually stitching guitar sounds together to be played by his computer at ridiculous speeds. Yet despite this insane note density, it’s still the shortest and most structurally uncomplicated song on the record.

This to me feels like Morean’s take on how genome size doesn’t necessarily relate to organismal complexity: “C-Value Enigma” is certainly very dense and technical when its constituent parts are concerned, but the song as a whole, on a more structural level? Not particularly so — it’s just one long string of notes that hits a brief crescendo at most. In all, it’s a nice musical interpretation of the idea, and probably gets the closest of any song on this list in staying true to its original concept while also doing so in a uniquely creative and clever way.

Related paper: Elliott, T. A., & Gregory, T. R. (2015). What’s in a genome? The C-value enigma and the evolution of eukaryotic genome content. Proc B., 370(1678). Link.

*If we’re to be pedantic, C-value is sometimes used refer to the actual, literal mass of DNA in a cell in picograms, but is also used interchangeably with genome size as measured in base pairs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists can have really strong opinions about terminology.

Tool – Forty Six & 2 (AEnema, 1995)

Regardless of your thoughts on their new outing, Tool‘s AEnema undeniably has some of the highest highs the band has ever produced, featuring staple songs like “Stinkfist” and “Forty Six & 2”. In classic Tool fashion, there remain plenty of references to some higher consciousness, psychoactive substances, something or the other about pineal glands, and, well, fisting. In line with all that fun stuff, “Forty Six & 2” refers to a theory that the number of chromosomes in the human genome, 46, is in some way ‘disharmonious’, and that somehow evolving to 48 chromosomes would leave humanity in a higher, more ‘harmonious’ state.

I’ll open by mentioning that there’s many fundamentally wrong things with this theory, at least one of which should hopefully be obvious given what the discussion of “C-Value Enigma” above: that larger genomes do not necessarily correspond to complexity, structural or otherwise. Red king crabs have over 200 chromosomes, while Atlas blue butterflies have roughly 450, and all carcinisation jokes aside there’s not really evidence to point to either of these species living in some sort of fourth-dimensional harmonious state. One could argue that not all chromosomes are created equal — indeed, the human X and Y chromosomes do differ from the rest of your chromosomes both in what they encode and how they change over time — but that point doesn’t make this concept of evolving towards a supposedly harmonious number of chromosomes to achieve a higher consciousness any more credible (though to their credit, Tool do seem to be somewhat aware of this).

Second, evolution does not take place on the individual level. Populations evolve, as natural selection acts on a pool of individuals with different genetic material, but individuals themselves do not: you cannot somehow will yourself into having two extra chromosomes over the course of your lifetime regardless of how many psychedelics you’ve taken.

So the question here is: how would changes in chromosome number arise? Trying to answer that question would require a much larger literature review of possible causes, but perhaps we can illustrate one of them using an especially pertinent example. There’s a nice punchline at the end, so bear with me for a bit here.

Chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes, or forty six and two, as Mr. Keenan and the rest of Tool would count them (eat your heart out, quatre-vingt-et-un). You might notice that this is quite close to 46, and as it turns out, the genetic content of chromosome 2 in the human genome (itself the second largest chromosome, at a whopping 242 million bp) is actually also found in the chimpanzee genome, albeit curiously split across two chromosomes there. It’s as if our genomes contain the same recipes, but what spans two cookbooks in the chimpanzee genome is just unceremoniously slammed together into a single cookbook. Namely, the data suggest that at some point in mammalian evolution, these two chromosomes somehow joined together — and this ‘accident’ was then retained in the gene pool.

This observed pattern is the result of what’s known as a chromosome fusion event, where two separate chromosomes accidentally fuse with one another during cell division. The details of how this happens get a little hairy (see the Ventura paper listed below if you’re interested in a specific reconstruction of what likely happened with this particular fusion event) but the point is that changes in chromosome number usually have more to do with not-always-happy accidents during division than anything else.

Here’s the punchline: this specific fusion of chromosomes is accepted as being one of the genetic milestones that led to the evolution of humans more generally, and is found in both modern humans as well as Denisovans (an extinct species of human). So if anything, our chromosome number getting bumped down from 48 (or 46 & 2) to just 46 — due entirely to a funky replication error — is what arguably led to the ‘higher’ human consciousness we experience. Whether that consciousness is higher to the extent that Tool are referring to I’m less sure about, but in any case, I’m afraid the impetus behind “Forty Six & 2” gets the direction of the chromosome number change wrong altogether. At least the main riff is still pretty sweet.

Related papers:

Gordon, J. L., Byrne, K. P., & Wolfe, K. H. (2011). Mechanisms of chromosome number evolution in yeast. PLoS Genet, 7(7), e1002190.

Meyer, M., Kircher, M., Gansauge, M. T., Li, H., Racimo, F., et al. (2012). A high-coverage genome sequence from an archaic Denisovan individual. Science, 338(6104), 222-226.

Ventura, M., Catacchio, C. R., Sajjadian, S., Vives, L., et al.(2012). The evolution of African great ape subtelomeric heterochromatin and the fusion of human chromosome 2. Genome Research, 22(6), 1036-1049.

The Faceless – Accelerated Evolution (Autotheism, 2012)

Perhaps I’m being unfair in picking a song that clearly leans hard into the classic metal tropes of transcending this mortal coil and whatnot, but then again, this is an album that literally featured a spoken word-ish interlude called “Hail Science” that sports Microsoft Sam carefully enunciating the following gem of a paragraph, whose closing sentence pushes it from the realm of standard sci-fi to pure comedy:

Science is on the verge of debunking the preposterous concepts of  mythological superstitions and enlightening the world to a new age of self-empowerment. An age of unfathomable possibility. An age of prosperity. An age of universal advancement and understanding. An age in which The Faceless will have to say… we told you so.”The Faceless, apparently

…and so, with this in mind, I think it’s only fair to evaluate this song through the lens of Science™.

While I think the lyrical content of “Accelerated Evolution” is already much, much closer to the standard transcendence trope than the realm of actual biology as we know it, I do think it makes for a useful opportunity to explain how evolution has actually been ‘accelerated’ through time.

I’m of course talking about sex. Obviously.

That’s no joke — stay on the line with me for a second here — and I’m not just talking about humans here, obviously, so this applies just as much to pollen floating in the wind to fertilize other plants as it does whatever image your mind may have just conjured. Why sex evolved in nature at all has historically been a tricky question for evolutionary biologists: after all, wouldn’t it be nice to just float around as a single-celled organism and duplicate at will, instead of going through all the trouble that comes with being a sexually reproducing species?

But thinking about the genetic side of sex actually offers some insights into why sex arose in the first place. We know that genetic variation arises over time through random mutations, but as it turns out, very few of those random mutations are actually actively beneficial to an organism. Think of it like a series of typos and unwanted autocorrect shenanigans in a draft of some text: perhaps one of those changes just strikes gold and makes for a better sentence, but most of the random changes will be total crap. With that in mind, one would hope that these rare ‘good’ accidental changes would then spread through the population when they arise, but this gets hairy when we consider a scenario where there is more than one ‘good’ mutation in a population. Essentially, if a different ‘good’ mutation arises elsewhere in a population that can’t sexually reproduce, there can virtually never be an individual that eventually carries both, since the two lineages of our good-mutation-havers will never be able to ‘combine’ their DNA seeing as the organisms can only replicate themselves.*

Still with me? Because this is where sexual reproduction comes in. In a hypothetical sexually reproducing organism, if two carriers of ‘good’ and useful mutations exist in the population and decide to get it on, their offspring will carry both the useful mutations, having inherited DNA from each parent. In this way, sex speeds up adaptation, since it means that any useful mutations that randomly arise in the population can be much more quickly paired up with other useful mutations, which can help a population adapt quicker over time.

This effect was initially postulated by theoretical biologists, but has since been backed up with experimental evidence from organisms that can reproduce by dividing themselves or via sexual reproduction (yeast are a well-known example of this) which makes it a lot easier for scientists to see whether the above scenarios actually play out as expected. So yes — sex exists to accelerate evolution. With that, I argue that maybe this song, not “Deconsecrate”, should have been the song with a saucy sax solo to match the very salacious themes at hand.

How does the actual lyrical content of “Accelerated Evolution” stack up with this explanation, however? “Vibrations pulsate/a molecular fate” claims the strained voice of clean vocalist and guitarist Michael Keene, after which then-harsh-vocalist Geoffrey Ficco roars “Biology becoming indeterminably intertwined/with its own accelerated evolution”. Although it’s evident these lyrics aren’t really about what I’ve talked about at all once we look at the remainder (take “A vibrational frequency/The labyrinth inside the elusive mind’s eye” for example) it still stands that the section from earlier kind of… does check out? Yes, indeed, nature as a whole changed quite a bit with the evolution of sexual reproduction, and it’s certainly true that the genomes of sexually reproducing species changed even more as a consequence (e.g. sex chromosomes arising), meaning that yes, biology did become intertwined with (what caused) its own accelerated evolution. Huh.

Is this a complete stretch compared to what The Faceless were actually talking about in this song? Absolutely, especially considering it’s entirely possible the title was more or less cribbed from a Devin Townsend Band album to begin with, probably just because it sounded like a cool title (and it is). But I’m going to choose to give them credit anyways. Hail science and all that.

Related papers:

Felsenstein, J. (1974). The evolutionary advantage of recombination. Genetics, 78(2), 737-756.

Colegrave, N. (2002). Sex releases the speed limit on evolution. Nature, 420(6916), 664-666.

Otto, S. P., & Lenormand, T. (2002). Resolving the paradox of sex and recombination. Nature Reviews Genetics, 3(4), 252-261.

*It also doesn’t help that the odds of one of the two good mutations randomly popping up in the other organism’s lineage are astronomically low, so that’s not exactly a reliable way to bring the two together.

There it is: the most I have ever written about genetics in a Heavy Blog post, and at least twenty times more than I ever expected to write about genetics in a Heavy Blog post. But in a way, the lyrical freedom heavier music offers makes it uniquely suited to explore all sorts of otherwise musically-ignored themes along the lines of what we’ve talked about above — especially given that harsh vocals aren’t always constrained to melody-friendly word choices — and it’s a lot of fun to explore those lyrics and themes a little deeper. Sure, sci-fi is nowhere near limited to metal (see Janelle Monae‘s earlier output as well as clipping‘s masterful Splendor and Misery) but somehow talking about biology hits different with a side of distortion and blast beats. Here’s to more loud tunes that talk about and/or are inspired by the weird little molecules that somehow encode all life as we know it.

Ahmed Hasan

Published 3 years ago