Sunday, March 18, 2007

Evolutionary Tree and Worldbuilding


Those who've read Linnea Sinclair's post for March 19, 2007, just previous to this one, will be particularly interested in the sentence in the article I'm discussing here that indicates humans evolved from prey not preditors. And prey do tend to form groups, herds, flocks, prides, etc. I can wonder if it's too simplistic to classify humans as preditor or prey when we clearly produce both.

An Item in the March 18, 2007 issue of Newsweek -- BEYOND STONES & BONES: The New Science of Evolution by Sharon Begley -- gives us an interesting twist on the biological part of the author's worldbuilding job (we not only have to make planets, but biospheres too).
There are some illustrations in the print article that don't appear in the free online article, but here's the link to the online article.

This model of human evolution opens a whole lot of possibilities for the evolutionary trees of other planets that we can just imagine -- and all the trouble Terran explorers could get into because they didn't understand where the planet was in this process when they landed.

Who's to say that two or three independently evolved versions of some sapiens species might not independently open negotiations with some alien explorers. That's been done in SF, but here we have a way to make it plausible to modern readers who are learning THIS model of human evolution in school (or not!).

What's important about this article is not the science it's explaining -- anyone following "the literature" would know all this already years ago. What's important about this article FOR WRITERS is that it's in Newsweek -- and thus now writers who are worldbuilding must assume their readers are familiar with this new theory of the evolutionary pattern.

Some may rely on it as the best current information, some my disbelieve it because they disbelieve, and others may misunderstand it. But now it's in Newsweek, the SF/F writer has to account for it in order to make the story plausible to the most readers.

Some of the items of greatest interest to me come near the end of the article.

a) (bottom of page 1 of online article) the record shows evolutionary changes seem to come in bursts, in fits and starts.

More than once in human prehistory, evolution created a modern trait such as a face without jutting, apelike brows and jaws, only to let it go extinct, before trying again a few million years later. Our species' travels through time proceeded in fits and starts, with long periods when "nothing much happened," punctuated by bursts of dizzying change, says paleontologist Ian Tattersall, co-curator of the American Museum's new hall.

b) (4th parag up from the end )

"We are all descended from maybe about 2,000 men -- perhaps 4,000 people. And I recall they genetically identified "Eve" the one woman who is ancestor to all modern humans. I don't know if that's still firmly established. "

c) (2nd parag up from the end) the most recent change in the human genome seems to have occurred 5800 years ago --

"The third (...gene...), called ASPM and also involved in brain size, clocks in at 5,800 years. That was just before people established the first cities in the Near East and is well after Homo sapiens attained their modern form. It therefore suggests that we are still evolving."

d) ( at the end of page 2 online) connect this to item a) above.

"Instead, evolution played Mr. Potato Head, putting different combinations of features on ancient hominids then letting them vanish until a later species evolved them. "Similar traits evolved more than once, which means you can't use them as gold-plated evidence that one fossil is descended from another or that having an advanced trait means a fossil was a direct ancestor of modern humans," says Wood. "Lots of branches in the human family tree don't make it to the surface.""


a) as I originally set up the Sime~Gen mutation, channels appeared and disappeared quite a few times leaving no record (lots of great stories in times of chaos) -- and likewise the Farris mutation occurred independently in widely separated places, mostly only to fail because they are so fragile. Fan writers have largely ignored all those story opportunities! That may be because they were operating from the "old model" of human evolution mentioned in this Newsweek article while I had extrapolated ahead to the currently fashionable model explained here.

b) has little to do with S~G -- but in worldbuilding in general, that 2,000 male group of ancestors might be the crew and passengers of a crashed space ship. Given this model of evolution -- where modern traits appear and go extinct over and over at widely separated and disconnected places -- it's possible to extrapolate that just exactly that kind of "appear/disappear" evolution is going on on other planets, and somewhere OUR traits would appear and not disappear too quickly.

On the other hand "we" haven't been around very long -- who says we aren't going to disappear in this Global Warming phase, only to reappear again independently here when the climate is better, or on another planet. Of course, Global Warming could be terminated by a meteor strike or Supervolcano eruption.

Look at this "appear/disappear" model from a far perspective. Isn't it as if "something" is trying to use the anthropoid DNA template to "emerge" ??? hooo-hooo spookey.

c) You all do know this is the year 5767 of the Hebrew calendar -- that means that God finished creating humankind 5, 767 years ago, just when this calculation shows that the latest gene was added to our makeup, the key turning point in the record where language, art and culture emerge. (as I recall agriculture appeared about 7,000 years ago, and as much as 9,000 years ago some kind of human traveled from what is England today, across Greenland to the Eastern Canada and US shores (they left graves with peculiar red clay in them).

d) put the "fits and starts" concept of evolutionary progress together with the way a pattern seems to emerge here, there, elsewhere, die out, and emerge again independently -- correlate that with the mystical view of the universe and you can worldbuild for the next 30 years and not run out of permutations and combinations of worlds in which to tell stories.

Also don't fail to notice how the "fits and starts" concept of evolutionary progress doesn't exactly fit with the "genetic clock" calculations where genetic replication "mistakes" are made at a statistically predictable rate.

Now I do expect that in a few years, this entire model of evolution will hit the trash can as researchers dig up the connecting links among the dead ends -- but in the meantime, we can have a FIELD-DAY in SF writing.

And what haunts me in the whole thing is how obvious it is that WE (us Ancients) are likely to be one of those branches that peters out to extinction. Where have I seen that theory played with in SF?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I've delved into this, as well, and particularly enjoyed the cultural ramifications. Just like most caucasion people think of themselves a different race than, say, people of African descent, it would stand to reason that humans developing on two different planets would consider themselves a different species. In fact, they are the same species, but each would likely have adapted to their environment in some way. How would these similarities and differences come into play with interstellar conflicts? Would the two human civilizations come to realize they're the same species and make nice?

  2. *quote* A hormone called oxytocin, best-known for inducing labor and lactation in women, also operates in the brain (of both sexes). There, it promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus the cooperative behavior that lets groups of people live together for the common good. *end quote*

    And IF this could be synthisized, how would if affect wars? How would it affect corporate negotiations? Criminal trials? The entire law enforcement industry? WHAT IF (and didn't we discuss what if here?) instead of tazering a suspect, the cops shot him with a dart full of oxytocin... or a more powerful synthentic version.

    What if...? I feel stories brewing.

    THANKS for a great post and link, JL!


  3. "In fact, they are the same species, but each would likely have adapted to their environment in some way. How would these similarities and differences come into play with interstellar conflicts? Would the two human civilizations come to realize they're the same species and make nice?"

    That is somewhat the situation in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. When Terran star travelers "discover" Darkover, at first neither the Terrans nor the Darkovans know that the human inhabitants of Darkover are descendants from the passengers and crew of an Earth colony ship lost many centuries earlier. A few of the artistocratic (psychically gifted) families, to make matters more interesting, have interbred with the mysterious, reclusive native Chieri (sort of elf-like creatures, who are hermaphrodites capable of assuming either sex depending on the situation).

    RE oxytocin, I don't think shooting someone with the hormone would work as described. I believe it has to build up in one's system for a while to affect behavior to that extent, wouldn't act instantaneously. True, nursing a baby is relaxing for the mother (if my own experience can be trusted), but I doubt that hormonal effect would overrule a fit of rage in the midst of the heat of conflict. A "more powerful synthesized version," now that has interesting possibilities.