Science Fiction in our Genes

I wrote earlier this week about science fiction, adaptation, and the human species over on my blog. in a nutshell, I’d written earlier about genes and how animals raised in captivity adapt to being in close quarters so quickly that it’s not really a viable option to raise an endangered population up to replace wild populations that are in danger of extinction. So what does this have to do with humans? Well, the conversation went something like ‘people who like to live in cities are weird’ (I’m shortening and paraphrasing) during a discussion about the coasts of the US, and how they have a tendency to vote a certain way. But, if you think about it, and I do, urbaniztion of a population does indeed do things to it. Similar things, I think, to the effects felt on a captive population of, say, butterflies. The butterflies get smaller wings, heavier bodies, and the ability to lay more eggs. So in effect they are going to do well in a cage where they can’t fly far, and would be easy prey for predators if they were put out of their nice safe cage.

Scientists are studying the effect that urban areas (generally defined as >300,000 people) have on plant and animal species. It’s no real stretch to imagine that living in a metroplex would affect humans as well, especially the poorer, less mobile parts of the population. And this is without even moving into the realm of science fiction. These studies have seen the effects of adaptation in as little as two generations – in my original article I was working off the premise that large effects of  captivity were seen in Drosophila in eight generations: in human terms, 150 years. But two? A mere 30-40 years? (yes, thirty. Look at average primapara age for the inner-city populations).

All this is native to our design for adaptation and evolution of the genome, the in-built system to keep a species thriving in changing environments. If you don’t adapt quickly, you die – which was a larger part of what led to the passenger pigeon extinction than human predation on that species. Now, how about human tinkering with our own genes? We can do it – we’ve known that for a while, gentle readers. But a new paper on Crispr tells the tale of genes switched on inside an adult allowing that model organism (a mouse, in this case) to express genes they had been unable to do before, which led to the self-treatment of diabetes, kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy. This is exciting on so many levels, one of which is that this was done without having to completely break the DNA (a double-strand break) which means that the inadvertent introduction of mutations is not a concern.

Now, leap off this mudball and into the realm of science fiction. We see that if we do not maintain genetic diversity and gene flow between populations, we risk extinction. The ability to quickly adapt and overcome has long been a human realm. But what, as our populations grow larger and our urban areas soak up the majority of the humans on this planet, will happen to that diversity? What if we became like the passenger pigeon, and when sudden catastrophe came (a pandemic, an alien invasion, what-have-you) we were unable to adapt? The answer lies in the stars. But to get there, we’re going to have to adapt again and again, and our populations, like the urban rats of New York, will evolve and differentiate. Not enough to become separate species, unless we really start tinkering with Crispr… although as writers and speculators, we know that’s going to happen, don’t we? Humans will experiment, and they will experiment on themselves. I mean, it’s only a matter of a few years since the theorist about Heliobacter pylori decided to prove his hypothesis by drinking a beaker of that pathogen and giving himself ulcers. And another one ingested internal parasites on purpose to prove that they would put his autoimmune disease into remission. We’re crazy, we humans.

Which means that to write science fiction we have to think crazy, like a fox. To imagine the weirdest thing we can, and then take it a step weirder. There’s a whole field of stories that suddenly seems prophetic as we begin to truly understand the tools we have now, and the reality of epigenetics. Lamarck, who proposed the giraffe’s neck had become so long because it was necessary to reach the higher leaves (the ones out of reach of the eland and the gnu, which makes me think of Kipling’s stories), was laughed out of science when Darwin’s theory was all the rage, but in the long run it turns out that he was more right – and our genes more complex – than scientists at the time could possibly have imagined. Now, keep in mind that although we are now able to manipulate our own genome, and we have begun to grasp that natural selection is not always the random pattern once theorized with the epigenetic understanding that we are shaped by our ancestral diet and environment, we still do not fully understand what genes do.  there are a few genes we can point out and say x does y. However, the vast number of them interact in complex and mysterious ways. We can’t just say, snip that gene out and cure cancer! because that’s not how it works.

Which means that in terms of story and speculation, we have worlds of room to draw conclusions and create plots that could be possible, or utterly wrong, but it’s so much fun to take the bleeding edge of science and play it out into what might be. What’s next?


  1. Well, now this is interesting. Very interesting indeed. I think I can use this in several places. 🙂

  2. I’ve wondered if, as IIRC Weber, and then the CoDo universe have suggested, some groups of space-faring humans would become more “culturally concentrated,” so to speak, a bit like island populations. It’s a bit of a joke around Redquarters when an odd festival or event in England, Ireland, or Japan makes the news that “People trapped on islands get eccentric after a few generations.” I can see, oh, a group of people on a colony world deciding that they are going ot go back to [assumed primal ancestry] and using genetic tinkering as well as cultural shaping in an effort to remake an older culture and “race”. Say, oh, medieval Magyars in space, or a Zulu-dominated world with dreams of finishing what Shaka sort of started. Or something else less militaristic.

    It could be really fascinating, or an absolutely horrific nightmare, depending how you write it and imagine it.

    1. A series of stories around the 1970s concerned exactly this. It was colonial efforts to recreate a primitive African tribal culture, complete with all the brutish aspects of low-tech living. It tended toward the horrific nightmare.

    2. And they may not be the ones making the choice. Look at the Graysons in Weber; they got so far off the map that no one knew where they were.

    3. “Zulu-dominated world with dreams of finishing what Shaka sort of started.”

      Weber and Flint actually did that one; a group of worlds called Mfecane, IIRC. “Zulus paler than Vikings”, as one of them put it.

  3. And I’m also going to mention ‘copy number variable’ dropping mike and walking away. No, seriously, this is what effects the phenotype expression of the genotype and is directly driven by environmental factors that activate epigenetic change. Fascinating area of study.

  4. Thinking about a space colonization effort. You’ve got two or three major adaptations happening here. First, you need comfortable people on a planet to volunteer to be spam-in-a-can for the rest of their lives. Who’s going to do that? They’d have to be crazy people.

    Then you’ve got generations of travel time as the flying village supports itself with zero outside help or re-supply. Same goes for asteroid living, the environment is hostile, unchanging, supplies come by spaceship, and the living quarters are like a submarine. Humans have a hard time living in a submarine for six months. How are they going to manage over two or three generations? Or five?

    Finally, it gets where its going, and there’s a whole planet out there with wide open spaces, animals, diseases etc. for the flying village to deal with. Are they going to leave their ancestral home for a scary planet?

    That’s a lot of adaptation to expect out of people. Not to mention cosmic rays and the dangers of equipment failure, reduced gravity, etc. Maybe fiddling with CRISPR genetics would be necessary to take wild humans (us) and stuff them in a can for 200 years. They couldn’t merely tolerate it, they’d have to be happy there. Otherwise they’d probably all die. Depression can be fatal.

    At the other end, you’d have to make the can dwellers wild again. Or something.

    I do not think we are smart enough to be able to do that yet. ~:D

    1. And these are just the surface challenges. There’s so much! radiation affecting genes, selection for people who can put up with people but then when we reach planet we need the lone-wolf explorer sorts…

    2. Second Attempt:

      Think For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky. Think Rendezvous with Rama. Think big. Think village with a vista. And coat it with a thick layer of ice and you’ve got both micrometeor and radiation protection.

      Of course, you’ll need something with lots of thrust to push it, and it’s not going to turn on a dime. Apply handwaivum as needed.

      OTOH, we’re not all that far removed from people quite willing to make one-way trips to the unknown. For most who came to American, return was not an option.Sometimes it was from the streets of London to the wide open frontier. And humans have been quite willing to live entire lifetimes in high density. The early cities were packed. There are places on earth packed now.. But people could and do go from packed to sparse and back again.

      This raises the question of whether we’re already genetically primed for such. That doesn’t mean that it’s pleasant and doesn’t mean that we like it. But we’ve seen to have done it from before the dawn of history,

      A bigger issue is the human tendency of fads. What will be the result of a certain physical “look”:achievable through relatively low-cost genetic manipulation on humanity. Think Irish Potato Famine, with humans filling in for the potatoes.

      1. BTW, most of this went through my mind when data indicated that the first known interstellar object to breeze through our solar system was cigar shaped and covered with ice.

    3. I play with a story (among so many… sigh) about one of the psychological aspects I haven’t seen addressed yet.

      Our ancestors were heroes, going into the dark for a great cause. Our descendants will be pioneers, exploring and taming a new world.

      We’re placeholders. And that’s ail we’ll ever be.

      All the generation-ship stories I’ve read are about everybody forgetting where they are. What if they’re not allowed to?

      So much to work around.

  5. A fertile field for writers, the only problem is you get outdated so fast. Or proven dead wrong. Or just totally miss, as in my case, epigenetics, in the early books of a series, and just slide them in later and hope no one notices.

  6. Before you worry about getting outstriped by science too much, think of all the old pulp stories you’ve read.

    We know there are no native Venusians. Doesn’t ruin the tales, does it?

      1. So long as the story is good, a little out-dated doesn’t matter. Or even a lot out-dated, provided it’s not story-breaking (which would probably break the story the day it was published anyway).

        1. Name that story: Super evolved people moving between galaxies – and their computers (people) use punch cards.

          1. The most powerful suspense scene I can remember in a space opera only works if your computers use mechanical relays.

            1. Yep. I wonder if I can find the quote quickly…Worsel was around but no kids, yet, so probably second-to-last book. They were trying to find scientists to build negative matter things, so before any reference to those. I’m pretty sure they were still in this galaxy… Hah!
              “I want only about fifty, as a larger group could not cooperate efficiently. Are your lists arranged so that you can skim off the top fifty?”

              “Such a group can be selected, I think.” The girl stood for a moment, lower lip held lightly between white teeth. “That is not a standard index, but each scientist has a rating. I can set the acceptor . . . no, the rejector would be better – to throw out all the cards above any given rating.”

              [and, wow, small font in those paperbacks]

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