We Asked An Evolutionary Biologist What the Hell Minions Actually Are

"We don't have any evidence to suggest that these aren't just really big bags of jelly as opposed to very complicated skeletal structures with muscles."

by Mike Pearl
Jul 14 2015, 6:25pm

Photo by Mike Pearl

Minions are the latest in a long line of pop culture creatures designed to delight children and annoy young adults. But unlike, say, Furby, their creators don't shy away from explaining their existence with somewhat real biology.

Thanks to a marketing campaign apparently eight times the actual budget of the film, if you're currently in the developed world, an ad for Minions is not far away. And considering the huge opening weekend box-office numbers, we're stuck with them for the foreseeable future, which might make them worth looking at under a microscope.

From a creative standpoint, the recipe from Minions inventor Pierre Coffin is painfully obvious: Take one part alien from the Toy Story films and one part Ewok from Return of the Jedi, and that's it. You've got yourself a Minion.

But what is one of these things, really?

The question "What's a minion made of?" could be as silly as asking what continent the Kingdom of Equestria is on. But instead of waving a wand and saying they were magical, the screenwriters present them as cellular blobs in the ocean, then as terrestrial creatures. In other words, they're not fantasy; they're soft science fiction.

That creation myth is rapidly solidifying. The official synopsis tells us: "They have evolved from single (yellow) cell organisms into the familiar beings we know, and they live for a collective purpose: to seek out and serve the most despicable master they can find." This contradicts an older official short film that claims, "We are engineered from the same strand of mutated DNA," so presumably that is no longer canonical. In either case, things like DNA and cells are clearly involved.

Then last week, Pierre Coffin acknowledged the unanswered questions when he elaborated a little bit about their origins: They're all male, non-reproducing, and immortal. To find out more, we got in touch with DNA expert and evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory of the University of Guelph in Canada. Dr. Gregory was more than willing to help us flesh out a surprisingly plausible evolutionary explanation for these brightly colored little guys.

VICE: So, Dr. Gregory, I've noticed that minions have pronounced butts.
T. Ryan Gregory: They do have pronounced butts—I'll give them that.

I'm bringing it up for a reason. It means even though minions are immortal, they have anuses. They have digestive tracts.
And they have butts and mouths at separate ends, so they're not like sea anemones.

Sea anemones poop out of their mouths?
Yeah. Or they eat with their anuses. Whichever you prefer.

OK, I'm glad we're talking about invertebrates. Are minions vertebrates?
They're almost certainly not vertebrates.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

That's a bold claim. How do we know?
From the little bit at the beginning of the new film, they seem to evolve independently from what looks to be a single-celled thing. And then they're sort of floating around in that state while you see some fishes and things that are sort of early vertebrates. It looks like they were still kind of their little blobby selves while vertebrates had already evolved, so they don't seem to be descended from early vertebrates.

How do you explain how human they are if they're invertebrates?
They have teeth that look like human teeth and eyes that look like human eyes. But we know of features like those evolving independently in different lineages. Cephalopod mollusks also have complex, camera-type eyes, like we have, but they evolved independently of vertebrates. There's a fish with eerily human-like teeth. Fish are vertebrates, but those teeth evolved independently from ours. You can get some of those traits occurring independently in different lineages, and that is probably the situation with Minions

Don't they move like they have backbones, though?
Some kind of internal support structure that looks an awful lot like bones would not be that crazy. They don't have to have bones though. You can have a fairly rigid body with appendages that can grab things without having bones. Think of an octopus, for example.

Another three-fingered animal. Via Wikimedia Commons

I guess that could explain why they only have three fingers. It's really unusual to see a number other than five, right?
You get horses that run around on one toe—they've lost the others. You get three-toed sloths and various other things that have had reductions from the ancestral complement of five digits. But in this case, it looks like they have had three the whole time. So again, it was just not descended from the same group as the terrestrial vertebrates; it looks like they've independently evolved digit-like things.

So it's safe to say what look like fingers are actually tentacles or something?
Yeah. I think that's a reasonable possibility. We don't have any evidence to suggest that these aren't just really big bags of jelly as opposed to very complicated skeletal structures with muscles. That doesn't mean that you couldn't have quite capable and dexterous appendages. An octopus can open a jar from the inside and do all kinds of things, and they don't have bones.

Then again, Minions have hair. Does that shake your certainty?
There are other examples where things have—quote—"hair." There's a very interesting hairy crab, and some caterpillars look really furry. Various insects have hairs. Spiders have hairs. So I don't think it follows that just because they have a little bit of hair on their head they're necessarily a mammal. Maybe it's not hair in the mammalian sense at all, but what are called setae.

We don't have any evidence to suggest that these aren't just really big bags of jelly as opposed to very complicated skeletal structures with muscles.

There's nothing else about them that seems remotely mammalian, right?
I did check, and they don't appear to have nipples or a belly button. They usually have their overalls on but there's a case where you can see them shirtless and it does not look like they have actual nipples, even though they do cover up that region for whatever reason. So, again, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that they are mammals at all.

So they're an aquatic invertebrate species that started walking around and breathing air. Does that present logical problems?
It looks like they emerged from the water, and moved onto land essentially in the current form. There are some implications from that. One question is: How can they breathe air?

Right. How can they breathe air as soon as they step out of the ocean like that?
Maybe they had much more experience on land, or at the surface, or something other than what's been portrayed so far. Maybe they were gulping air like lungfish. I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't sort of amphibious, although they seem to be in awe of the new land environment that they've found. Maybe if they've only ever spent time on little islands, then the mainland would be something that would be remarkable to them.

Would the eyes of other aquatic animals work on land?
If you took a fish, and put it on land, it wouldn't be able to see particularly well. That has to do with the refractive properties of the medium. If you're in water, it essentially has the same refractive index as the goop inside your eye, so you can't just get a sharpening of the image via the cornea and you have to use the lens. In our case, the difference in refractive index between air and eye goop means that we can focus most of the incoming light with the cornea and use the lens for focusing at different distances.

Might that be what the goggles are for, though?
I was wondering if the goggles might be full of water. One possibility is they're just safety goggles. They do tend to be doing a lot of industrial work, but they have them on when they first come out of the water. So it's entirely possible that it's a visual aid because of the problems of having different visual requirements underwater versus on land. That's entirely possible.

Have you noticed how physically diverse Minions can be?
There's one eye and two eyes. There are differences in body shape and height. Some are pretty short and rotund, and some of them are quite long and thin. There are differences in the amounts of hair that they have. What some people online have noticed is that Minions tend to have certain features that co-occur. So they're not randomly distributed. One-eyed minions tend to almost always be the shorter variety. And generally speaking, you get similarities in the hairstyles of the tall ones. So it looks like those traits are correlated, or what we might call "linked."

A tardigrade, another immortal species. Via Wikimedia Commons

So now that we're talking about their genes, their creator has said they're all immortal and male. Does that present problems for a biologist?
To even say "male," it only really makes sense in contexts where at least historically, there's been sexual reproduction in that lineage. You only see sexes in species that, at least ancestrally, had sexual reproduction. So there's male gametes and female gametes. There's sperm and eggs, at least of some variety. There are lineages that have lost sexual reproduction and only reproduce asexually, but they are females having female offspring, without males.

And does immortality put hurdles in front of a biological explanation?
They're going to be accumulating a lot of mutations. Their DNA is going to be damaged, and there'd have to be some way to repair it.

Just to be clear, what would damage a Minion's DNA?
You're damaged all the time. It can just be UV radiation, or just errors in cell division. Those occur anyway. Minions are just around for a really long time, and they're exposed to mutagenic factors, so even mild damage would accumulate. With sexual reproduction, you mix around bad copies and good copies of genes. So Minions must have really good repair enzymes that repair these errors as they occur because there's no such recombination in their case.

Minions are just around for a really long time, and they're exposed to mutagenic factors, so even mild damage would accumulate.

Does that superpower occur in nature?
The Guinness World Record holder for "Most radiation-resistant lifeform" is this species called Deinococcus radiodurans. It's particularly good at surviving things that would normally do a lot of damage to the DNA of an organism, like intense radiation. It has a really good DNA repair system, so if something is damaged, it can actually fix the error, whereas in most things, if they were exposed to intense radiation, it would just be fatal.

Is there any other way to get around that DNA damage?
They could be somehow buffered against all of those things, but they're not darkly-colored, which is something we see in high-UV environments. Or they're just taking up DNA all over the place from other sources like we see in some neat little animals called rotifers. That allows them to have functional genomes even when they're living for a really, really long time and not recombining any of their genes. It could be some cool system like that, you know?

Do we really see lifespans like that in animals?
[There are] immortal jellyfish. What they do is they kind of revert back to the juvenile state and then carry on from there.

But Minions don't look like they "revert." Is there another way?
If you've ever had tadpole shrimp or triops—sea monkeys do this too—you can get these resting eggs. These are similar kinds of things. Resting eggs can be incredibly resilient, and survive droughts for example.

And Minions can also survive in space. That's some serious durability.
You've got resting stages in water bears or tardigrades—those are things that can survive in space—very durable. I don't think we have any evidence of Minions doing that but we haven't seen everything about them, so who knows? Maybe they do.

So in terms of general plausibility, how do Minions rate?
In the end, I think there would be some very interesting biology behind Minions if they existed. Do I think they'd be likely to actually evolve? No, not really. But humans weren't particularly likely, either.

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