A Biologist Considers the Twilight Vampires (a guest post by Lin Kerns)
In The Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer recreates vampirism. No longer assigned to the night, the Twilight vamps invade the day. The Cullen coven lives among ordinary mortals, tempering their inherent nature in order to forgo human blood. These unique vampires sparkle; they aren’t repelled by garlic, holy water, or crosses and they do not sleep in coffins. In fact, they like the sun and they are caught in the act of cooking Italian for Bella. Number One Son, Edward, demonstrates that these vampires can reproduce, too. As of yet, the Twilight vamps have eluded much scrutiny in relation to their biology. For fun, let’s have a look at the biology of the Twilight vampires and see whether or not their particular traits are possible, practical, or outright preposterous in the real world.
Sparkling in sunlight (or scintillation of skin): What natural properties would allow Meyer’s vampires to twinkle in the sun? Answer: Random fluctuations of the amplitude, phase, or polarization of an electromagnetic wave. Wow. That’s a bit too much info, but, you don’t need to know physics in order to understand how this action is achieved. Meyer often refers to Edward as made of marble or stone, which helps a great deal in supporting the “possibility” of a sparkling vampire. Diamonds are shaped by jewelers in order to create a multitude of “facets,” or flat faces that temporarily trap light. Once the light enters the diamond, it bounces around and off several facets before leaving. More facets means that the light travels farther before exiting, which means that light separates into the different light colors in the spectrum—think rainbow. But in order for the aforementioned sparkle to fully work, you must use a diamond.
Diamonds are the hardest natural mineral on the planet; electrons in this gem are so tightly packed that light has a hard time getting out, once it is inside. Jewelers use this aspect of the diamond to the fullest, with facets so that light travels even slower. Therefore, the Twilight vampires must have skin that is densely packed, with the same properties that a diamond would possess. Once a human has changed into a vampire, the cells in the skin are crystallized and hardened, thereby exhibiting the same qualities as a multi-faceted diamond; these facets are extremely tiny and hard to see in normal light, but in sunlight, every cell of those vampires glistens like new fallen snow in the winter in full sunlight. This comparison brings to mind the reason why I use diamonds instead of snow as an analogy for the Twilight vampires. Snow sparkles inconsistently due to differing levels of moisture within the crystals that are the framework of snowflakes. Only a “dry” snow will form flat facets similar to diamonds and therefore, reflect and refract light as glitter to the eyes. Those huge, sloppy flakes that are packed with water will not sparkle until the topmost layer loses most of its moisture.
Leaping from physics to biology, our next item of focus is the diet of blood. If you are familiar with vampire lore, then surely you have heard of the disease, Porphyria There are 8 different kinds of Porphyria, but all have one thing in common—a missing enzyme whose job it is to help manufacture heme. Heme is that substance that is the essence of red blood and without it, anemia soon follows; hence, the craving for blood, as that is what the body (in a primitive fashion), tries to replace. However, this disease occurs only within a living creature. (For more information on Porphyria, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the disease: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyria ).
Remember that the Twilight vampire bodies are as hard as stone and icy cold; once the heart stops beating, there is absolutely no circulation occurring, no organs are functioning and so their bodies cannot produce blood. The blood that is ingested and that is so necessary for their survival must go directly to their cells via osmosis, and as the transfer occurs, extremely rapid cell regeneration ensures that the body remains in perfect condition. The Twilight vampires are the walking dead, but some form of mitosis occurs that replaces those damaged cells. This is a stretch of the imagination, as mitosis only occurs within a living organism. However, by some trick of nature, these vampire bodies must mimic human tissue to the point where mitosis can occur. Consensus: no basis in fact; what takes place is wholly supernatural.
This situation brings to mind the problem of vampire reproduction. If there is no circulation occurring within the body, how then can Edward “rise” to the task of having sex with Bella? According to Meyer’s description of her vampires, they are as hard as stone or marble. That would explain one part of the process, but movement and flexibility for the rest of the body would be impossible. There are human diseases that cause the body and its organs to harden, such as Scleroderma (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scleroderma) and Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive, which converts fibrous tissues within the body to bone (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibrodysplasia_ossificans_progressiva ).In the case of our vampires, the problem with a extremely hard body is that it is unable to move. Without soft connective tissues or something akin to scales or bendable bands, a body that is as hard as stone remains a stone. As the Twilight vampires appear human in form and movement, exoskeletons, hard chitinous coverings that form an exterior skeleton, can also be ruled out. Consensus: movement in Meyer’s vampires is impossible; however, they would make very attractive statues.
All vampires are dead—animated but still dead. There is no possible way for Edward’s sperm to exist and the method of transport, as we have just shown, is also impossible. By all rights, the transformation of human into vampire creates genetic “mules”—they look human, but they are all sterile imitations. Reproduction for vampires is limited to their bite and their inherent saliva that contains venom. This venom is viral in nature. How so? Once any virus is transferred, it forms colonies in the victim, and propagates in the new host. If the viral cycle is allowed to continue to completion, either death occurs or a human’s antibodies kill the virus. Regardless, the role of the virus is to eventually die.
In the case of the Twilight vampires, no antibodies can protect the human, death occurs, and a new vampire is created. However, the virus lives on in the new vampire and much like the Rabies virus, waits to propagate itself anew. As we discovered with Jasper’s many battles with the Southern covens, the viral venom only affects living creatures, although the undead can be severely scarred by the biting action. Consensus: vampire reproduction via sex is impossible; their venom contains a virus that does what no other virus does—it lives forever. Therefore, in the natural world, both would be impossible.
All of the Twilight vampires possess super strength and speed, and all of their senses are finely tuned. Sadly, there is no more of a rational explanation for these powers than there is for Superman’s. You’ll have to stretch your imagination to encompass and justify these traits. However, if you are the animated dead, you do not need sleep or the ability to breathe; these two qualities actually make sense. As the blood, which is the vamps’ sole source of caloric intake, is absorbed directly into their “tissues,” there is no residue or waste products left over. There is no sweat, sperm, saliva, tears, or mucus produced, either, as all of these bodily fluids rely upon fully functioning organs and tissues within the body. In fact, none of these vampires are capable of having a body odor. That perfumed lure that Edward says is part of what makes him the perfect predator would depend upon bacteria growing on his skin, and without the presence of sweat, that bacteria will not grow. Regarding the changeability of eye color—sorry, but alleles on chromosomes determine eye color and unless you put out some major bucks for colored contacts, you are stuck with the same color iris throughout life. Consensus: The Twilight vampires make full use of their victuals, but there are numerous problems due to the lack of body fluids and the impossibility of variable eye color; possible only if vampirism is possible.
One of those problems concerns Edward when he takes a bite of pizza in the school cafeteria. Edward likens human food to dirt and tells Bella that even she could force herself to eat dirt. However, without saliva and the inherent chemicals necessary to begin the breakdown of food, Edward could not begin the first stage of digestion. But Edward has a much larger problem; he has a dead esophagus. Food moves through the esophagus to the stomach by an action called peristalsis. Peristalsis is a series of contractions that move in a wave like fashion in order to deliver food to the stomach. We have already established that the Twilight vampires’ organs are stony remnants of their previous lives; therefore, Edward cannot swallow, and even if he could, the food would go no further than the Adam’s apple in his throat. Unless he spits out that pizza, it will sit and decompose in a very nasty fashion. Who would want to kiss someone with rotting pepperoni in his mouth?
Finally, let’s examine the predator/prey aspect of Twilight’s vampires; in other words, can the lion really fall in love with the lamb? In the natural world, there are four general levels of predation, beginning with plants and ending with humans; but there is one level higher where very few creatures belong. Level five includes polar bears, sharks, and crocodiles; these are the few creatures that prey on man, but they exist in an environment that can be avoided. On the other hand, if you are targeted by a vampire, which definitely fits into the fifth column, chances are that you are on the menu and there is nothing you can do about it.
All predators reduce the fitness and survival of their prey. The non-vegan, Twilight vampires do just that by weakening their prey or eliminating a selection from the gene pool. These vampires drain their prey and avoid parasitism by ensuring that their prey is dead. Although the Twilight Saga does not elaborate on the extent of predation by its vampires, the participants of the Southern Wars surely deplete the human population enough so that the carrying capacity, that is, the number of individuals a society can sustain, is improved. As harsh as it sounds, vampirism is one method of population control.
Now that we’ve established the vampires’ category of predation, we must ask if peaceful cohabitation and displays of affection can occur within our model. Within human society, a well fed predator will cease to look upon that creature, which would sustain them in the wild, as prey. In fact, cats and dogs can cohabitate peacefully and often depend upon each other for grooming, warmth, and, yes, affection. The key to the formation of bonds between predator and prey is a reaction to the morays of the dominant society. Humans expect a particular form of behavior; otherwise the person or animal is expelled from human society. In order for the Cullens to exist within close proximity to humans, they must conform to societal standards. And in the case of Edward and Bella, most definitely, love can develop between the two species. Consensus: vampires follow the same course as real predators and also, lions can love lambs.
I hope you have enjoyed our foray into the science of the Twilight vampires and if you have questions, please feel free to ask. Otherwise, your comments are anticipated and appreciated.