Foiled by Andrea Barrett
My favorite of the Andrea Barrett stories that we read from Ship Fever is “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.” I love the intricacy of it, the details – even knowing all along that it’s a work of fiction, I could have sworn that the story must have happened. It’s just so well written.
So, while sitting in my Bio 100 lecture on Genetics last week, I was surprised when my professor mentioned that polydactyly is dominant. In Barrett’s story, the husband of Antonia, the protagonist, was born with an extra finger. While the couple has two normal daughters – each with 10 fingers and 10 toes – one of these daughters bears a son with “six toes on each foot.”
I thought I had caught Barrett out. In my (limited) understanding of genetics, a dominant trait can’t skip a generation, only a recessive trait can; that is, if Antonia’s grandson was a polydactyl, Antonia’s daughter who gave birth to the son must have been a polydactyl, too.
And then I was reminded just how limited my understanding of genetics actually is. I approached my professor on Monday after lecture to ask him whether Barrett had, in fact, made a mistake. As it happens, by some sneaky means meant to confuse falsely-triumphant English majors, other genes can mask a trait, even if that trait is dominant. When searching the Internet for more details, I was unable to find out more information – for example, how likely this is to happen.
Regardless, I think Andrea Barrett wins this round.