So last night’s episode of The X-Files was more of a monster of the week episode, as one might expect, so there’s a lot less to talk about in terms of the fringe theories that inspired it. In fact if the episode was inspired by anything it was that other Fox property that starts with an ‘x’, the X-Men. The powered kids reminded me a bit of Fenris, a brother/sister team of genetically engineered mutants who had to be in physical contact to use their powers.
The big thing to talk about is the scientific concept referenced in the title of the episode, the founder mutation, though that’s a small part of a more important concept called the founder effect.
To explain the founder effect, let’s talk about how evolution works. Darwin coined the term “natural selection” to explain the idea that the best adapted individuals in any environment are more likely to survive longer and therefore have more children, to whom those individuals bequeath the traits that make better adapted. New species would arise because of this selection.
But what happens when random chance is involved? Let’s say there is a species of lizards living on the slopes of a volcano, and half of them have red stripes and the other half have blue stripes, and if left on their own that ratio of colors would continue indefinitely. But one day the volcano erupts, and just by sheer coincidence 90% of all the blue stripe individuals die, but only 20% of the red stripe individuals die. Going forward red stripe lizards would make up a far greater portion of the population, but it has nothing to do with natural selection. The red stripe lizards weren’t better adapted. They were just luckier. This concept that population change can happen through random chance is called genetic drift.
The founder effect is a kind of genetic drift. Basically the effect happens in small, largely isolated populations. Whatever genetic traits are carried by the founders are going to be magnified throughout the isolated population, because what might be rare genetic conditions in the general population is a common one in the isolated population. In humans, the founder effect is believed to be responsible for certain ethnicities being more prone to having certain genetic conditions. Probably the most famous example is the Ashkenazi Jews and their higher than average rate of Tay-Sachs disease. A more benign example would be the Brazilian town of Cândido Godói, founded by German immigrants in the early 20th century, where the chances that any pregnancy will result in twins is about five times the expected average.
A founder mutation, then, is just a mutation that occurs in the early history of a isolated population that has an outsized effect, because of the founder effect.
In “Founder’s Mutation” Mulder stated that every species begins with a founder mutation. Scientifically, that’s completely wrong. A founder mutation could create a new species under certain very specific circumstances, for example a when a small number of individual organisms arrive on an island and become a successful part of the ecosystem. But generally natural selection is what results in new species, not genetic drift.
The other major scientific concept mentioned in “Founder’s Mutation” is infrasound. Infrasound is simply any sound at a frequency too low for the human ear to hear. Other animals may be able to perceive infrasound, and it carries over long distances.
The scenes where Kyle’s use of infrasound was driving worms to the surface, therefore attracting crows, were probably inspired by a 1974 article in New Scientist magazine entitled “Earthworms, Crows, Vibrations and Motorways.” The author, Roger Tabor, suggested that the infrasound created by heavy traffic was driving worms to the surface, and crows in southern England were learning to feed by the sides of roads.
The other infrasound idea in the episode, that it might drive people crazy (or at least make them feel queasy and anxious), is something that’s been theorized by certain scientists, but I’m not really sure it’s been proven. In 1998 two scientists wrote a paper saying that naturally occurring infrasound may explain why some places are considered haunted, and Richard Wiseman did an experiment 2003 where concertgoers were exposed to infrasound.
What “Founder’s Mutation” didn’t seem interested in explaining was how young Kyle could aim his infrasound so well that it could effect only one person in a room with many people in it, while at the same time traveling through walls.