[I]n the storyline from the 1980 X-Men comic book “Days of Future Past” penned by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne and in the movie based on that story, mutants and mutations are presented as things that human society should fear. In the comic book we read that in that bleak dystopian year 2013, “There are three classes of people: ‘H’ for baseline human—clean of mutant genes; ‘A’ for anomalous human—a normal person possessing mutant genetic potential; and ‘M’ for mutant—the bottom of the heap, made pariahs and outcasts by the Mutant Control Act of 1988.”
Of course this fear of mutation in the comics is linked with the fact that real life genetic mutations often are related to disease states like cancer or sickle cell anemia. But genes aren’t just sitting there waiting to give us diseases. As Matt Ridley wrote so eloquently in the 1999 book Genome, “To define genes by the diseases they cause is about as absurd as defining organs of the body by the diseases they get… hearts to cause heart attacks and brains to cause strokes.”
Evolutionary pressures help propagate and sustain some genetic mutations even when they are linked to disease states. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited genetic mutation of the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells. detector during the Paris Summit in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it wouldn’t have just identified Mystique as the The mutation essentially reduces the elasticity of red blood cells, affecting the oxygen binding function and producing the cells’ characteristic curved, sickle shape. These cells have a much shorter life cycle than normal red blood cells, can lead to blockages in small vessels, and generally result in a shortened life span for people with the disorder.
So if it’s an inherited disorder coming from a mutated allele, why has it persisted in the population? A major suggestion is due to the protective effects of sickle cell anemia in regions where the malaria parasite is present. An important part of the life cycle of the malaria plasmodium is spent in red blood cells and the shortened life cycle of red blood cells in sickle cell anemia interrupts development of the parasite. The condition is therefore protective against malaria and defies simple a simple good-bad dichotomy.
If comics adhered more closely to real life, when evil scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask fired up his electronic mutant camouflaged mutant; it would registered all of the humans in the room as well. But it wouldn’t have been able to tell him with certainty whether the mutations they carry are “bad” or “good”. As with the superheroes and supervillains themselves, the answer to that question is more complicated.