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December 5, 2018

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 10: the genetics of Game of Thrones

Filed under: Game of Thrones,Genetics — Razib Khan @ 12:11 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 10: the genetics of Game of Thrones

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts and Stitcher) we discuss the genetics and history of the world of Game of Thrones, from the mountains to the olive grove, the First Men, Andals, and Rhoynar.

We mention the various peoples of the world of Game of Thrones:

There was extensive discussion of the geography of the world of Game of Thrones. In particular the two major continents:

Westeros and western Essos:

There was extensive discussion about the noble Houses in the quasi-medieval world of Game of Thrones. In particular, the genetics and pedigree of the Targaryen ruling House, that of Daenerys. The Targaryens are phenotypically and genetically unique. They have the ability to tame dragons, are resistant to plague, and also seem to suffer fewer ill effects from inbreeding.

Pedigree of Daenerys and John

Like the ancient Valyrians the Targaryens practice incestuous marriage within the family, most notably but not exclusively between siblings. This increases their inbreeding coefficient. The offspring of the mating of siblings has an inbreeding coefficient of 25%, which means that there is a 25% probability that two alleles at a particular genetic position come from the same ancestor. Daenerys Targaryen has an inbreeding coefficient of 37.5% because she is the product of two generations of sibling marriage.

One the issues that emerge out of Targaryen inbreeding is that Daenerys and Jon are more closely related than their simple relationship would imply. Jon’s father was Daenerys’ brother. But since they are products of two generations of sibling mating, they are nearly 90% genetically identical! That means that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are nearly siblings genetically (about 45% related, as Jon’s mother was unrelated to Daenerys).

Finally, have you ever wondered how it is that the Valyrian characteristics that the Targaryans have are passed down through the generations? It turns out that Daenerys’ and her siblings are only around 12.5% Valyrian in ancestry at most. How is it that the physical features of the Valyrians, as well as dragon taming, are passed down across all these generations?

The answer that presents itself is meiotic drive.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 10: the genetics of Game of Thrones was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

December 4, 2018

Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples

Filed under: Cultural Anthropology,Fantasy,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 12:00 pm
Westeros and western Essos

The HBO television series, Games of Thrones, has captured the imagination of modern American culture. It has been used as a metaphor and example for many things, from national politics to international relations, and of course a reimagining of the medieval period in a grittier and more realistic fashion.

Characters from Game of Thrones have even inspired baby-names!

The television series is rich, complex, and multifaceted, but it draws from the novels of George R. R. Martin, a cycle which is called A Song of Ice and Fire. These works are much more deeply textured in their lore and backstory. Martin’s world-building has taken on a life of his own, with several books published related to the geographies, peoples, and histories, which serve as the backdrop for the plot and character.

One of the peculiar aspects of what we know about the historical background of the world that Martin has imagined, with its continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos, is at once very precise, and somewhat inaccurate. In the novels and accompanying books which elaborate on the ‘world-building’, the voice of the explanatory narrators are the ‘maesters’, a scholarly priesthood in Westeros.

Maesters give the reader a sense of what informed people in Westeros believe to have been their past, or the nature of distant lands, but they do not speak in an omniscient voice. That is, they may, in fact, be inaccurate their beliefs, though it seems likely that their interpretations usually contain a grain of truth. Martin has explicitly stated that one should not take assertions that the something happened “10,000 years ago” literally. Rather, if you are told that something happened 10,000 years ago, perhaps it is best to just understand it happened long, long, ago.

The history of Westeros in terms of its demographic past seems straightforward. The first humans who crossed over from the eastern continent, Essos, were the First Men. They rode on horses and used bronze weapons. House Royce of the Vale of Arryn have a family heirloom of bronze armor, that reputedly dates to this period.

When the First Men arrived in Westeros, the lands were empty of humans, but there were various other peoples, such as the diminutive Children of the Forest, who seem to have been hunter-gatherers. The conflict between the First Men and the Children of the Forest ended in a stalemate and a truce. The First Men brought their own gods, some of which may persist in the Iron Islands, but eventually, they adopted the religion of the Children of the Forest, which focused on nameless gods whose powers were located within groves with forbidding trees, the weirdwoods.

To a great extent, many of the things we know about the First Men are legends and folk memories. Though the First Men utilized simple runic scripts, the art of copious writing and recording was to come later, with the second great migration to Westeros, that the of the Andals

Where the First Men arrived in the mists of prehistory, the Andals came to prominence on the edge of the imaginary history of A Song of Ice and Fire. The Andal migration seems to have been triggered by the rise of the Vaylrian Freehold, whose emergence resulted in the crushing of the ancient empires to the east, west, and north. In the hinterlands of northwest Essos, around the “Hills of Andalos”, the Andal tribes came together. United by a belief in a monistic pantheon of gods, the Faith of the Seven. Each of the gods of the Andals was actually a manifestation of an underlying divinity.

The Andals escaped the expanding reach of the Valyrian Freehold by migrating west, across the Narrow Sea.

While the First Men are reputed to have crossed a land bridge that connected Dorne, the southeastern realm of Westeros, to Essos, the Andals landed in the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale. They brought their language, the ancestor of modern Westerosi, their religion, which became dominant in the far more populous southern half of the continent, as well as institutions such as knighthood.

The dominance of Andal culture is such that when people from Westeros travel to Essos they are often termed “Andals,” even if they are from the North, and so First Men in identity. And yet the Andals did not replace the lineages of the First Men. This is easiest to see for the elite houses.

In the North, the First Men remained preeminent. A region geographically protected from Andal invasions, the First Men in this vast lightly populated domain did not fuse with the Andals, for they turned them back. While the North eventually adopted the language of the Andals, they retained their own indigenous religion, the “old gods,” in contrast to the “new gods” of the Andals, the Faith of the Seven.

But in the South, a new aristocracy arose, Andal in religion and language, but often First Men in lineage. Some powerful families in the South, such as the Blackwoods and Royce claim First Men heritage. But, more importantly, when Aegon I Targaryen began to conquer Westeros 300 years before the events in Game of Thrones, only one of the Seven Kingdoms was ruled by an exclusively Andal ruling dynasty, the Kings of Mountain and Vale. The Storm Kings, the Gardener Kings of the Reach, the Lannisters of the Kingdom of the Rock, the Starks of the North, and the ruler of the Riverlands and Iron Islands, could all trace their ancestry to the First Men (though the Lannisters only through the maternal line).

If such prominent families were of at least partial First Men stock, it is reasonable that the Andal impact was significant culturally, but most of the common population retains ancestry from the original Bronze Age migration. Though there are subtle distinctive physical characteristics of Houses such as the Starks, it does not seem that there is anything particular to Andals or First Men by the time that Game of Thrones is occurring.

The final kingdom that is not listed above is the Principality of Dorne. And this hot southern domain is home to the last major group to arrive in Westeros: the Rhoynar. The full title of the individual who sits on the Iron Throne is the King or Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men.

Long after the Andals arrived and settled in Westeros, the Rhoynar too fled the expanding might of the Valyrian Freehold. A vast armada led by their princess, Nymeria, sailed westward until they reached the shores of Dorne. There the Rhoyne mixed with the local Andal and First Men populations and produced a fused culture with its own distinctive elements. While the Andals and First Men are fair-skinned people, the Rhoyne, who migrated out of the warm lands of southwest Essos, are darker in complexion. But the Dornish exhibit a range, from sandy and salty Dornish people who live in the deserts and coasts, who have more Rhoynish blood and culture, to the stony Dornish of the mountains, who are more akin to the Andals and First Men.

Though there are other peoples who have inflected the cultural landscape of Westeros, the First Men, Andals, and the Rhoynar, together contribute to the vast majority of threads that create the tapestry of Westeros. The First Men cleared the ancient forest and brought settled life to the land. Most of the ancestors of the people of Westeros were these Bronze Age tribes. Their adopted religion persists in the North, and in parts of the South, but the language that they spoke has mostly disappeared, only found north of the Wall, and perhaps among the barbarian tribes of the Mountains of the Moon.

History and iron came to Westeros with the Andals, warlike followers of a new religion who were fleeing an ancient enemy. Andal warlords fused with the ruling class of the First Men, and brought their institutions and language, and made them dominant across the land. Though only a minority of the ancestry of the people of Westeros derives from the Hills of Andalos, in the main the language they speak and the gods they worship are those of the Andals.

Finally, there are the Rhoynar. Unlike the First Men and the Andals, their influence is not suffused through Westeros but preoccupies a particular corner. They stand as a contrast and rebuke to the cold and harsh First Men of the North and the stuffy Andals of the South. Dorne is a hybrid land of its own, exotic and yet of Westeros. The Dornish bring together the three distinct human strands of Westeros into one, and out of it comes a rich and unique melange which adds a spice to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

September 17, 2017

George R. R. Martin’s typical fantasy trope

Filed under: A Song of Ice and Fire,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 11:05 am

George R. R. Martin has done something new in fantasy. He has created a world in shades of gray. This is in contrast to the modern template of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, where what is good and what is evil were as clear and distinct as black and white. In addition, A Song of Ice and Fire transcended fantasy’s traditional appeal to adolescent males. This latter tendency is pretty evident in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which was simply not transcending its juvenile origins by book seven or eight, when I gave up. It isn’t as if the Jordan-style, geared toward adolescent male virgins, can’t be done well. I’d argue that Brandon Sanderson pulls this off very competently.

One of the aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire in the books is there isn’t a Dark Lord who is the literal personification of evil. No Sauron. Even the primary antagonists become less dark with deeper exploration, and their motivations are often complex, and comprehensible in their own way.

But there is a major exception to this: Ramsay Snow and House Bolton. The Boltons are the great rivals of the Starks in the North, and before they were vassals they were kings. And they are evil in a straightforward sense without nuance. One stupid “fan theory” (these are the television show watchers) even posited that Roose Bolton was an immortal vampire.

Though Martin is careful to suggest that people should not take the antiquity of the dynasties in A Song of Ice and Fire literally, it is clear that the Bolton’s are not parvenus. Their lineage is old, and it has persisted. And yet the Boltons which are highlighted are basically without any redeeming qualities over their history. Ramsay Snow is basically the protagonist of a snuff film come alive.

When it comes to mining history perhaps the best analog to the Boltons were the Assyrians. Like the Boltons they flayed their enemies alive. The Assyrians also famously were totally destroyed by their enemies because of the ill-will their cruelty in conquest generated. Martin is a student of history, and there is no way that a lineage of such unmitigated evil could persist down the centuries. The Boltons exist as witness to the long tradition of fantasy antagonists which readers love to hate.

August 8, 2017

Jon Snow + Daenerys Targaryen far creepier genetically than you know

Filed under: A Game of Thrones,Game of Thrones,Genetics — Razib Khan @ 10:51 pm
Screenshot 2016-06-14 22.09.51
Credit: poly-m (deviantART)

If you have been following Game of Thrones you have been noticing that there is a brewing romance between Jon Snow, King in the North, and Daenerys Targaryen, the aspiring claimant to her father’s Iron Throne.

Of course there is a twist to all of this: unbenknownst to either, Jon Snow’s biological father is Daenerys’ dead brother, Rhaegar. This means that Daenery’s is Jon Snow’s aunt.

Long-time followers of the world of Game of Thrones are aware that incest between near relations is neither unknown nor shocking. But there is a non-trivial detail which it is important to note. Jon and Daenerys are far more closely related than typical aunts and nephews.

The reason is simple, Daenerys and her brother were the products of two generations of sibling incest. Incest results in inbreeding, and inbreeding as you know results in loss of genetic diversity. By Daenerys’s generation the coefficient of relationship between herself and her brothers was much higher than normal.

To be concrete, the coefficient of relationship of full-siblings is 0.50. That of half-siblings 0.25. Identical twins? Obviously 1.0. Another way to think about this is how much of the genome do any two pairs of individuals share in terms of long tracts of inheritance from recent ancestors. On the whole siblings share about half of their genomes in such a fashion. After two generations of inbreeding Daenerys and Rhaegar have a coefficient of relationship of 0.727 (using Wright’s method). They’re not identical twins, obviously, but their genetic relationship is far closer than full-siblings!

Don’t let the mother of dragons ride you Jon!

Dividing  this in half gives 0.36 as the coefficient of relationship between Jon and Daenerys, as opposed to 0.50 for full-siblings and 0.25 for a conventional aunt-nephew. Jon and Daenerys have almost the same genetic relationship as 3/4 siblings; two individuals who share a common parent, like half-siblings, but whose unshared parents are first order relatives (full-siblings or parent-child).

Not Jaime & Cersei creepy, but still creepy.

Addendum: Though Daenerys is quite inbred, Jon is not at all. One generation of outbreeding can eliminate all inbreeding.

July 14, 2017

The past was not PG

Filed under: Bible,Culture,Game of Thrones,Mythology — Razib Khan @ 9:34 am

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

May 6, 2017

Why A Song of Ice and Fire is more definitive than A Game of Thrones

Filed under: Culture,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 9:39 am

Wired has a piece out George R. R. Martin Doesn’t Need to Finish Writing the Game of Thrones Books. The title is needlessly provocative, as there are many good points in the article (though I understand clickbait considerations). Over the years I’ve come to expect and accept that the “great fork” is here to stay, and the books and the the television shows are in some deep and fundamental ways going to be distinct narratives (though Martin and the producers of the television show assert that their conclusion will be congruent, which I actually think may not be optimal).

But the author dismisses an important point rather flippantly:

For the last few years being able to say “Sure, yes, but the books are better” has provided a nice little dopamine rush. But beyond that thrill, what Game of Thrones fans really want is more Game of Thrones. And right now, their best bet for getting that is on premium cable.

Earlier there are comparisons made to the books which inspired Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining, and Blade Runner. These are all cases where films overshadowed the literary works which preceded them.

But none of these works are on par with the world-building and richness of George R. R. Martin’s series (especially the first three books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords). Additionally, in the case of the Jaws and The Godfather I think most people agree that the films are far superior artistic productions to the books. And in relation to Blade Runner, most people know that Philip K Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was only tenuously connected to the movie adaptation.

I understand that writers are sometimes given tasks or make a really good pitch on the most general terms. But if the points wouldn’t pass muster wit your high school English teacher, should they pass muster with a national magazine? In the clickbait era, probably. But I’m still here to point out that Mrs. Barry would not have approved….

April 1, 2012

Game of Thrones is racist!

Filed under: Culture,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 5:01 pm

I wasn’t going to post more today, in light of the April Fool’s joke I played on you. But here’s me going at it again. Lots of stuff I wouldn’t normally stumble upon hits me via Pulse, and today I see this in Salon, Is “Game of Thrones” too white? – Fantasy fiction might have racial problems, but they’re just a reflection of America’s broader battles. Here’s the problem I have, imagine this subhead: “Fantasy fiction might have class problems, but they’re just a reflection of America’s broader battles.” You see, in epic fantasy fiction the class structure is a pyramid, with a few who have, and the vast majority who do not have (let’s take urban fantasy and the like off the table for this discussion). But that’s OK, it’s a feature, not a bug. That’s because epic fantasy is playing with the furniture of the past, and that furniture is riddled with a class system predicated on radical inequality.

The author of the Salon piece concludes:

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and ...

July 6, 2011

Summer has come

Filed under: Blog,Game of Thrones,Song of Ice and Fire — Razib Khan @ 11:51 pm

So it is now less than a week until A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is out. The internet is supposedly flooded with spoilers, some of them fake, thanks to the Germans mistakenly shipping out nearly 200 copies of the book early. At this point I’m kind of irritated by the fact that whenever there’s a media story about the series I have to stare at a photo of Sean Bean looking grave. I’m generally not a fan of film or television adaptations of science fiction or fantasy, but the near overshadowing of the literary production by the T.V. series of late gives me another reason to want to gripe.

The Daily Beast has a very long and lush review (positive). Entertainment Weekly is more concise, ranking the books 3 > 1 > 5 > 2 > 4. And yes, it is for real, at over 1,000 pages this is going to be the longest book! I know I said I’d wait for the Kindle version, but the reviews seem ...

June 7, 2011

Dances with Dragons, t-minus ~ 1 month

So A Dance with Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire #5, is coming out in about a month. Honestly I’ve been wondering if it really would drop (at ~1000 pages, it’s literally going to be a heavy drop). Seems as if it’s for real, Publisher’s Weekly has a short review up (and Lev Grossman will be penning a positive review in Time soon). Overall from what I can glean it looks as if  A Dance with Dragons will receive a straight-B grade. My own current plan is it to wait for the first assessments to come in on Amazon, and get the Kindle version if the star ratings remain above A Feast for Crows. It is strongly hinted in the Publisher’s Weekly review that this is basically another “bridge” book, suggesting that George R. R. Martin still hasn’t gotten the story under control yet. Nevertheless, it may be that we finally reach the threshold of the portion of Martin’s epic which shifts from Dark Age historical thriller to magical high fantasy, a transition the author has promised, and which helped me convince Alan Jacobs ...

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