The biology of Harry Potter

I recently wrote an article outlining how biological concepts are communicated through the Pokémon games and it got me thinking: what other popular franchises might do a similar thing? Now, they don’t come much more popular than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (there are probably lichens living under polar rocks that have heard of polyjuice potion and blast-ended skrewts) and I think it’s possible the books may just have transmitted the odd biological principle to a few unsuspecting readers.

Perhaps because of the cover art, it’s likely the first images the words ‘biology’ and ‘Harry Potter’ conjure up are ones of magical creatures; hippogriffs, dragons or basilisks for example. Of course, whilst often based on genuine animals, it’s widely accepted such creatures don’t exist and anyone who does go off searching the real world for them is known politely as a cryptozoologist. Interestingly, Rowling includes a nod to the pseudoscience of cryptozoology in the form of the Lovegood family who, unlike the rest of the wizarding world, fiercely believe in such creatures as nargles, wrackspurts and crumple-horned snorkacks.

Similar to magical creatures, the Harry Potter universe is chock-full of magical plants and fungi we muggles just don’t appreciate. At Hogwarts, Harry and his pals learn about such matters in Herbology, taught by the aptly named Professor Sprout. In the first year, students study Devil’s Snare; a vine-like plant with the magical ability to ensnare and then choke anyone it comes into contact with. Devil’s Snare has some apparent similarities with real world plants including those of the genus Cuscuta (Dodder) whose numerous folk names include witch’s hair and devil’s hair. Dodder are a group of parasitic plants that wrap themselves around other plants before inserting appendages into their hosts to steal their nutrients, sometimes killing them in the process.

Possibly the most widely discussed biological concept in the Harry Potter series is that of magical inheritance. The sheer amount of wizards that seem to exist throughout the Harry Potter universe suggests magical ability is the result of a hereditary trait rather than a random mutation with an improbable frequency. Indeed, Rowling has alluded to this when she asserted, ‘Squibs are rare; magic is a dominant and resilient gene’ and this gives some clue as to the way magic is passed from one generation to the next. However, in the first book Hagrid states that there are very few pureblood wizards left and therefore, the existence of a single dominant magical gene would likely result in a very high percentage (potentially 50%) of non-magical children born to the parent combination of one wizard and one muggle. As fully explained in this excellent MuggleNet editorial, this is perhaps too high a percentage to be plausible, suggesting magical ability may in fact be caused by the interplay of multiple genes. However, it is possible that JK’s dominant gene statement holds true if you’re willing to delve deeper into the world of genetics by reading this superb paper by fangirl and biology graduate, Andrea Klenotiz.

So there are perhaps some biological principles present in the Harry Potter series, and there has even been talk of using wizarding genetics to help teach students the complexities of inheritance. Can you think of any other biological or scientific concepts communicated through Harry Potter? Send us an owl or let us know in the comments section below.

FYI

 

Jack Croxall

Jack Croxall is a science/literature writer and author living in Nottinghamshire. He tweets via @JackCroxall and you can visit his author blog by clicking the 'Website' link below.

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7 Comments

  1. danpentagram

    Interesting points, although i think a lot of biological points may be lost of some of her younger readers. I do fully accept the Harry Potter popularity and think it is great that as a debut author, she managed to invite generations of children into or back into reading. I don’t agree with using wizard-ing examples in school though – it’s almost as if we all should like the books. But that’s just me being a stubborn grouch ;)

  2. Andimarc (@andimarc1)

    I thought I was the only one in the universe not enthralled with Potter series. I highly respect Rowling, she has brought joy to millions with her books. Even more important, in interviews I have heard and read, she truly loves encouraging kids to read. I read the first book and couldn’t finish the second. Unusual for me, I read everything, even cereal boxes! I agree also that the concepts of wizardry should be kept out of serious scientific teaching. Great thought provoking article, Jack!

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