Dear Science,

Is there a biological/evolutionary explanation for Barack Obama? He is the future of the species, no?


From nature or nurture, hybrid vigor perhaps explains Barack Obama.

First, let's meet Gregor Mendel—a bored Austrian 19th-century monk who fathered genetics. To simplify, Mendel bred a line of pea plants that made round peas with one that made wrinkly peas, expecting that he'd get peas somewhere between the two. Instead, all of the progeny made round peas. Crazy! What happened to the wrinkly peas?

He allowed this first generation of round-pea-making hybrid plants to self-pollinate—expecting all the children's peas to be round again—only to discover the second-generation plants either made wrinkly or round peas, in a precise 1 to 3 ratio. From this, Mendel figured it all out. Genes passed unchanged from parent to child cause traits of living things (like having round peas). An individual has two copies of each gene, one from each parent. If you have a mixture of genes for a trait, one of these genes can dominate over the other (smooth over wrinkly), hiding the weaker recessive gene's trait for the generation. (Before clergy were busy obsessing about men kissing men, they did awesome stuff like this.)

That first generation of pea plants, which made only round peas but came from a mixing of round-pea- and wrinkly-pea-making plants, grew better than either of the parental plants—something scientists now call hybrid vigor. Why? The parental plants had only been bred with similar plants for generations—round with round, wrinkly with wrinkly. Each gene has two slots—filled by one from each parent. If both your parents are very similar, you end up getting two identical copies and become homozygous. Now, you take two organisms that have undergone this sort of inbreeding, in different populations, and breed them. The first-generation children of the mix have two different genes in each pair, one from each parent, with a good chance of least one dominant gene from mom's or dad's population in each pair. The result is a super pea plant.

The genetics of humans are vastly more complex than that of pea plants at a monastery. Race (as we perceive it) and genetic populations (as matters here) have only a tangential relationship. So even though Obama comes from what would seem to be two very different genetic populations of humanity (Kenya and Kansas), we cannot really be sure without doing a bit of genetic digging. Science suspects Obama's impressive mix of experiences in childhood and adulthood—spanning from Indonesia to Hawaii to Chicago—has more to do with his greatness.

Blendingly Yours,


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