It's a little bit bizarre that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exist at all. They were the culmination of a joke between two friends, Keven Eastman and Peter Laird. In one of history’s only positive examples of brinkmanship, the two comics creators pushed one another into an idea, wackier at each iteration, until they ended with something that was one part Daredevil parody and a million parts radical.
It’s the sort of thing you might come up with, among friends, over a couple of drinks, laugh over, and discard. Eastman and Laird, thankfully, didn’t do that. They carried the idea through to its inevitable conclusion: a fully scripted and drawn comic book. Thus, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born.
That's the true story about how Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo were created, but could such radical reptiles ever be a reality? What would it take to create heroes in a half shell? Well, it would require some liberal understanding of how mutation works, as well as an intelligence upgrade big enough to allow our turtle subjects to learn martial arts.
The second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, titled The Secret of the Ooze, focused on the particular substance responsible for transforming four ordinary red-eared slider turtles into the heroes we’ve come to know and love.
This ooze — otherwise known as mutagen within the canon of the TMNT universe — is a viscous liquid that mutates organisms or objects into something else when it comes into contact with them. The most famous example is, of course, the four turtles, but there have been many others. The Turtles' noble master Splinter himself, Tokka and Rahzar, Leatherhead, Bebop and Rocksteady, Mondo Gecko, Slash, Old Hob, Koya, Alopex, and Bludgeon are only a small selection of the many mutants created by the mutagen.
The origin of the ooze is, likewise, variable, either coming from high-tech laboratories or from an alien source, but its impact is the same.
Those humans or animals that come into contact with the substance are drastically changed, either into a humanoid version of the original animal or into a non-human animal version of a human. In short, we most often end up with sentient versions of familiar animals.
There is, currently, no known substance that could have such an effect on an organism. Having said that, there are many things, some of which exist in your everyday life, which do cause mutations of a less drastic nature.
For a start, mutation is an ordinary process that exists ordinarily within regular evolution. Your cells regularly copy themselves all the time. When a cell makes a copy of itself, it isn’t always perfect, and you end up with some small mutation within the new material.
These mutations mostly come as a result of random change over time, or due to environmental factors. Something as simple as exposure to sunlight can cause genetic mutation within an individual and, more often than not, these mutations are harmless.
They can even be beneficial. The evolution of a species over time is a result of these mutations. Some of these seemingly random changes will, given a long enough time span, result in beneficial changes that propagate throughout a species, making them more suited to survive within their niche. But sometimes they are detrimental, causing physiological changes that result in birth defects or death.
Exposure to high levels of radiation is known to cause these changes, ultimately causing the body to break down and fail to function.
We’ve got a pretty good understanding of the sorts of materials and activities with the potential to create negative mutations, but the converse is mostly out of our grasp. Our bodies are, for the most part, well-oiled machines, meant to work in precisely the way they are laid out. Changes to that layout seem to lean toward having no impact — or a negative one.
Given enough time, these mutations add up to positive change, but only because the positive ones are the ones that get carried on. The negative changes necessarily die out.
The only real exception to this rule comes in the form of designed technology. In recent years, scientists discovered CRISPR, a process that utilizes natural biological functions to modify DNA at will. This research has the potential to allow us to cut out and add bits of genetic code in ways we never could before. Once fully understood, the implications are such that we might be able to eliminate negative mutations in individuals, and even modify our DNA in positive ways. But the research is still preliminary, and we’re a long way off from the type of controlled mutagen seen within the pages of Eastman and Laird’s famed hero tale.
BUILDING A NINJA TURTLE
It is possible, given enough time, that non-human animals like turtles and rats might become sentient on their own. But we are an impatient people, and if we want Ninja Turtles within our lifetime, we’re going to have to take matters into our own hands.
The concept of animal uplift is one that’s percolated through science fiction for generations. Stories like The Island of Dr. Moreau and Planet of the Apes consider these notions, with terrible consequences for the human characters within.
Here, in the real world, there are some who consider the idea of uplifting non-human species very seriously. In fact, some consider it an ethical imperative as we progress toward the future.
The obvious candidates for this sort of activity are those most closely resembling us in intelligence already. One can pretty easily imagine a world wherein chimpanzees and dolphins are intellectually enhanced to a point wherein they are capable of standing (or swimming) beside us. But transforming a rat or a turtle is something else altogether. Such a transition would require massive changes, not just to the brain structure, but to overall physiology.
Previous research has demonstrated that it is nearly impossible to change the mind without also changing the body. In the mid-20th century, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev embarked upon experiments with foxes in an attempt to determine how dogs and other animal species were domesticated. He realized that domesticated animals had certain biological features not otherwise observed in nature, and hypothesized that these physical features had a close relationship with behavior.
Taking a population of foxes, Belyaev selected for one particular behavior: a willingness to interact with humans. Over 40 generations of foxes, he selected for this behavior until he ended up with a population of foxes that could be considered, at least by some measure, to have been domesticated.
Only, he didn’t have a population of foxes. Not really. Sure, they were descended from foxes, and they resembled foxes, but they were changed in some very crucial ways. Not only was their behavior changed, making them more amenable to contact with humans, but their bodies were changed as well.
This research indicates that the genes responsible for behavior also impact biology. You can’t change one without the other. In short, in our attempts to make a turtle or a rat more intelligent, we must also necessarily change the structure of their bodies.
This is good news if your ultimate desire is a team of martial arts heroes living in the sewers.
However, there’s nothing in earthly biology that suggests that intelligence requires a body plan similar to humans.
Chimpanzees have similar intelligence, relatively speaking, and a similar body plan. This may seem like solid evidence of some correlation but is actually not surprising considering we both descended from a common ancestor. Dolphins and elephants also have high intelligence, with considerably different body plans, neither of which lend themselves to the fighting arts.
It's not a big stretch to imagine a population of dolphins or elephants capable of thought on par with our own, but with bodies drastically different.
So, it seems reasonable to assume that creating a population of humanoid animals requires more than the types of changes in behavior and physiology of which we’re capable.
Surely, evolution is capable of transforming a population of animals into humanoids; it’s done so at least once before. And, given enough information, we might be able to replicate the process. But whatever biological maneuvers are necessary are currently outside our understanding, at least until a conquering alien species shows up with magical slime.
Maybe someday Eastman and Laird’s vision will become a reality, but it isn’t today. In the meantime, we'll just have to be grateful for more than 30 years' worth of stories — and hope for 30 more.