I've built a magical world. In this world, mages crop up one of two ways.

1) Genetically passed down.

2) Through exposure of magic, for example, growing up in a magical forest.

I would also like the folks who get their talent from environment to be able to pass down their talent genetically to the next generation. So the environmental factor would have to necessarily change the genetics of the person and be heritable.

My question is this: how can the genetic variant be expressed differently from the exposure variant? would there be a difference and how would it work?

I don't know if there is a real-life analogue for a human trait that can become present through exposure but also genetically. I'd like to model this after any real-life traits (if there are any) that have this particular quirk of being switched on by environmental factors and that can then be passed down. Even though this is magic, I've also tagged it science-based for that reason.

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the gene responsible for a certain brain function to sense and meddle with magic also affects the pupil shapes and colors, as for the rest of population still remember a boy who can 'see' sounds... he develops and master the art of echolocation which simply means he's damn good. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 16 '17 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism was a soviet pseudo-scientific "alternative" to genetics, promoted for political reasons. Anecdote says, that Lev Landau (one of the most important physicists in history and Nobel laureate) asked Lysenko "If you cut off calf's ears, will next generations have smaller ears?", after Lysenko confirmed that it's indeed what according to him should happen, Landau asked "Then how come virgins are still being born?" $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Jan 16 '17 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Miech That tracks with the kind of "science" you'd find in magic stories. Good take for this sort of thing, so thanks for that! $\endgroup$ Jan 16 '17 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ Scope out "Epigenetics". $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Jan 24 '17 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Does it actually have to be related to DNA? You could invent something like a magic gene separate from DNA. Something that everyone has and passes to children. If someone is exposed to magic then this gene grows stronger. Maybe it would be something like a soul $\endgroup$
    – user31746
    Feb 2 '17 at 16:57


Epigenetic structures are structures that cover genetic structures, i.e. DNA, and govern how the genes of the DNA express themselves. DNA only changes over the course of millions of years through evolution, or suddenly through mutation. However, organisms need to be able to adapt to daily changes in their environment, and epigenetic structures turn genes on and off on a day to day basis to allow organisms the ability to cope with daily challenges and needs.

Experiences Passed On To Children

Not only are genetic traits of DNA passed on to subsequent generations, but so too are epigenetic traits. The Överkalix study showed that children whose grandparents had lived through either a feast or a famine season before giving birth passed on the symptoms of starvation or gluttony to subsequent generations via epigenetic structures:

Among the 1905 birth cohort, those who were grandsons of Överkalix boys who had experienced a “feast” season when they were just pre-puberty—a time when sperm cells are maturing—died on average six years earlier than the grandsons of Överkalix boys who had been exposed to a famine season during the same pre-puberty window, and often of diabetes. When a statistical model controlled for socioeconomic factors, the difference in lifespan became 32 years, all dependent simply on whether a boy’s grandfather had experienced one single season of starvation or gluttony just before puberty. It appeared that Överkalix grandfathers were somehow passing down brief but important childhood experiences to their grandsons.


Magic Passed On Via Epigenetics

So, even though some of your characters may not have genetic predispositions for magic, if their parents gain powers via environmental exposure, such experiences can easily be explained as being passed on to subsequent generations via epigenetics.

Magical Ability Via Genetic Mutation

Sudden changes in genetic traits can be effected by mutation, allowing brand new traits to be gained in one generation and subsequently passed on to offspring. Perhaps your environmental exposure to magic causes benign, useful genetic mutations giving parents fully functional, beneficial genetic traits for magical ability.

Normally mutations are not always beneficial, since mutations are generally random in nature, but perhaps exposure to magic by it's very nature causes specific, beneficial mutations to DNA that grant magical abilities. These abilities would then be passed on to subsequent generations in the newly mutated DNA.

Differences of Genetic vs Epigenetic vs Mutated Traits

Essentially there is no difference, so far as I'm aware, between how normal genetic traits and mutation-caused genetic traits manifest themselves in offspring--so far as I'm aware, they both are treated as genetic traits, i.e. traits manifesting in the DNA itself.

However, traits manifesting due to epigenetics are significantly different, as I understand them--epigenetic mechanisms allow existing genetic traits in the DNA to be activated or deactivated on an as-needed basis:

Epigenetic factors are compounds that attach to, or "mark" DNA. These factors interact with genetic material, but do not change the underlying DNA sequence. Instead, they act as chemical tags, indicating what, where, and when genes should be "turned on" or expressed.


So, this makes me wonder if epigenetics can carry and manifest a brand new trait not found in the DNA, or whether epigenetics can only effect traits already existing in the DNA. I've researched this a bit and cannot find an answer. Epigenetics is a much newer field of research than genetics, so this question perhaps would make a good question for Stack Exchange's Biology site.

Nonetheless, the idea of epigenetics giving magical abilities due to parents having environmental exposure to magic can still be valid: you could say the parents already had the genetic traits for magical ability existing in their DNA in an inactive state, and their magical abilities didn't manifest until the magical environment caused their epigenetics to activate the magic genes.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a fantastic answer! Would there be any differences in the functionality or expression when it comes to inherited vs. mutated? $\endgroup$ Jan 16 '17 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby I'll add a paragraph on to the end to address this. $\endgroup$ Jan 16 '17 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby I just asked the question in Biology about whether or not epigenetics can carry a trait not already found in the DNA. We'll see what they say. :) $\endgroup$ Jan 16 '17 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I know, the answer is no. The mechanisms of epigenetics (ie known as of last I checked: a few years hence) are adhered to the NA strands. (D/R NA) They could theoretically also be stored as hormones-by which I mean no evidence supports that, but such can reside in a cell and effect behaviors, so if the germ cells carry the trait, you're good. If magic charge sets the change, and sufficient charge acts as an antenna to draw more, you could have that stand in for a natural epigenetic trait. Exposure young would take less for the shift, & also explain it lasting after exposure ends. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Jan 25 '17 at 5:01

Hate to go midiclorian on you, but have you considered making your magic sentient?

Consider the possibility of magic being an intelligent extra-dimensional life form with a playful, loyal and loving disposition. Sort of like a golden retriever puppy in a household which loves it.

This magic does not care one way or another about human events, except when those events effect the humans which it is loyal too. Sensitive and skilled humans can train their magic to perform tricks, but whether trained or not, sometimes the magic responds on its own initiative to the assistance or frustration of its' favorite humans.

One more thing is necessary to make this work. We need these magic creatures to breed as their human families grow. That way, a human woman who attracts and earns the loyalty of a magic during her youth in the enchanted forest, can pass on magic to her children as they arrive. To resolve this, let's make the magic capable and inclined to spawn baby magic whenever their hosts make babies in the human way.

If the humans remain unaware of the magic being alive and see it only as some mystical source of power, they might easily overlook the relationship aspect of the human-magic pairing. This could lead to diminished power, total loss of power or even the power (in the form of a magic's loyalty) moving from one person to another.

Meanwhile, the genetic scientists would be going nuts, comparing the genes of the gifted to those of the mundanes. Despite all their technology and scientific rigor, those scientists will never figure out the mystery of magic because that mystery comes from the heart, not the genes. They may however, while studying the gifted, attract the attention and loyalty of a newly spawned or disenfranchised magic, throwing their whole genetic explanation into even more turmoil.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a different way of looking at it, which can, from the outside, look like it's genetic, when it actually isn't! Cool answer. $\endgroup$ Jan 16 '17 at 20:52

Similar to Ryan, I would argue that you can't have "magical talent" just from your genes. In doing so, I'd like to point out that many things that we consider to be part of our "genetics" are really learned skills which are made easier by our genetic heritage.

As an example, consider mountain climbing. The tools we use to climb mountains are built into our genetic code, right? We have amazing legs and lungs that we use to power ourselves up to positions of greater gravitational potential than anywhere else in sight! There's even some sense of this ability being genetic. The Sherpas which haul gear on Everest are known for being "barrel chested," capable of breathing in far more of the thin mountain air.

Here's a mountain climber that one would argue climbing is not in his genes: Kyle Maynard

Kyle Maynard is a quadruple amputee. He suffered from congenital amputation, where fibrous bands restricted the development of his limbs. He's been this way since birth. Clearly his genes are not in his favor. Well, tough cookies. The dude decided to go climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, so he just went out and did it.

Your magic could be just like mountain climbing. It's so much easier if you have a genetic heritage supporting you, but you can learn it from interacting with your environment with enough dedication and heart. This is really true for any skill we have, if you think about it, but it's a bit more obvious if you pull in such an inspiration like Kyle Maynard first.

The real trick is the language you use within your body to describe what you are doing. That language would be shaped by whether you are trying to learn has genetics to help it along or not. If you are talking about a genetic trait, you will see the language we choose is not just based on how to make that genetic heritage work, but it's also founded in how to pass this information to the next generation (so they can use their genetic heritage). If you develop it from interaction with your environment, you are less concerned with how to pass it on and more concerned with how to just make it in the first place. Your language will be more focused on how to identify some capability and "misuse" it to leverage it for magic.

Our environment affects our language, and our language affects how we act. If you have a genetic heritage of magic and a language to match, you will see the social structure mirrored in the way magic is used. Perhaps spells are classified by "level of difficulty," relating to how we progress through life. Or perhaps only certain individuals are permitted to know certain spells. On the other hand, a non-genetic magic will be more haphazard, based on what works.

These linguistic differences could lead people to assume that the different magics actually work differently, even though it may have some unified force behind it. You, as an author, could choose. You could only ever show this linguistically colored viewpoint, in which case the two magic approaches would feel jarringly different. Or you could choose to show characters digging beyond the language they use to describe the magic to realize that they're all climbing towards the same peak.

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    $\begingroup$ Not to be nit-picky, but your example of Kyle Maynard is flawed. He lost his limbs from an in-utero accident, not due to a genetic flaw. So he could very well have awesome genes for mountain climbing, in fact his dogged determination to compete in sports despite his handicaps suggests that genetically he is well-suited to mountain climbing. He was just unable to express all of his genetic potential. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Jan 17 '17 at 17:36

Not all mutations can be passed down to Future Generations. One way you could distinguish them is by having the original Parent have multiple mutations brought about by being exposed to Magic that he can't passed down to his children. ( I'm not talking about the mutation that allows him to use magic as that obviously must be able to be passed down to his children, however it's possible that being exposed to Magic can it cause additional mutations that are not passed down to his kids).

Another way is to have the original mutated human have difficulty controlling Magic, generally speaking is easier to learn something as a newborn child then it is as an adult. Assuming he was adult when his exposure to Magic take place it's possible that he will never be able to master it as well someone who was born with it will.


Magic is normally not something trivial to control. In most stories, it can take years of practice to get just the basics, and in some cases the only ones considered masters are ones with decades of experience.

So, your specific magic system is one that is moderately complex, something that is not intuitive for normal humans. Some humans however, do find it fairly easy to understand. Their genetics mutated how they think ever so slightly so that they can figure it out easier. There are numerous examples of real life people who can think in ways other humans find unimaginable. If one of these people had a child, that child is likely to have a similar mind, and similarly have a talent for understanding how to use magic.

That is not the only way to get really good at something though. Mastery as a child frequently will carry on through adulthood. Speaking, and writing are primary examples of such things. We learn these basic functions as a child, and then as adults, they are trivial to us. Children's brains are built for learning and understanding new things, So a child growing up in a magic rich environment would likely have their brain molded by that magic. They too learn about magic intricately without even knowing its magic, and being children will try and discover what it is. This will lead to these children naturally discovering magic, giving them a base knowledge and understanding far beyond what any adult could ever learn, because they were literally raised by it.

Both systems are fundamentally different. While both will find it easier to grow, those raised by magic will start off at a higher level, and will more easily learn the basics/intermediates, but later on the Genetics will likely catch up and surpass them. Raised by magic individuals will also likely find it far easier to manipulate their magic, conserve stamina/magic power, and otherwise have more fine control of it. They would be more Jack of all trades kind of users. Genetic individuals on the other hand would be better One trick pony kind of magic users, Mastering only a few things, but they would be more creative in their useage, as well as better strategists.

Of course, Those ideas are not set in stone, and certainly can be mixed and matched based on the individual.


One example of genetic trait that is passed down vs. acquired trait is skin color. Cultures from areas with intense sun have adapted a darker skin tone to deal with harsh solar rays. Light skinned people that move to areas of high sun will eventually become tan (after a few burns perhaps). However, if they remove themselves from that environmental condition they will eventually revert back to light skin tone.

A problem you may encounter with making magic "genetic" is the eugenics aspect of it. People with "natural" ability (like mutants in Marvel comics, or witches/wizards in Harry Potter) have an edge over everyone else and may be viewed as superior. This has the potential of getting political and socially contentious. It puts focus on one's race/genes/lineage rather than hard work and study. Perhaps that is your intent to draw attention to this social issue.

You would also need to define what the limits of "magic" are in your world. Are they very limited, like slightly affecting probability in one's favor, or are your characters shooting fireballs from their fingertips? In the natural world genetic environmental conditioning takes time (many, many generations), and usually the results are subtle. People would also need to be a racial isolates, and not have an a constant influx of genes from elsewhere.

You may want to look at your "magical forest" as a form of magical radiation. Similar to how plants/animals living around Chernobyl have genetic mutations that are passed to their offspring, only in your story I would assume these are beneficial mutations.

Good luck!


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