Thursday, September 27, 2018

Biology Marches On

I'm currently reading, little by little, a book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (best known for THE SELFISH GENE), THE ANCESTOR'S TALE: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE DAWN OF LIFE. He structures the book by analogy with THE CANTERBURY TALES, with "pilgrims" joining the procession at various rendezvous points, backward from the most recent progenitors of humanity to the origin of life on Earth. At each "rendezvous," he introduces our "concestor" at that juncture, a coinage for "common ancestor." For instance, we meet the common ancestor of all known hominids, of hominids and other primates, of primates and other mammals, etc. One fascinating revelation of this book, for me, is how the classification of life on Earth has changed since my time in public school. In the 1950s and 60s, biology classes taught us to divide all creatures into two kingdoms, animals and plants. Bacteria, amoebae, and fungi got pigeonholed with plants, while protozoa qualified as animals. Today, biological science recognizes up to six kingdoms: Animals, Plants, Fungi, Protista, Archaea/Archaebacteria, and Bacteria/Eubacteria). Amazingly, according to Dawkins, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants! Here we see an example of the trope "Science Marches On" (i.e., it's always possible for yesterday's established theories to be revised or replaced).

Similarly, during our elementary and high-school years (shortly after dinosaurs roamed the Earth), all humanity consisted of three races, then called Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. The song we learned in Sunday school about God's love for "all the little children" classifies them into "red and yellow, black and white." The three-race system of categories lumped "red" (Native Americans) in with the Mongoloid (Asian) ethnicities, not unreasonable considering the probable Asian origins of the original inhabitants of the Americas. If Inuits had been mentioned, they would probably have been included with the Mongoloid groups. Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders weren't brought up at all, much less Australian Aborigines and the Ainu of Japan. Aside from the fact that "race" in the old-fashioned sense is no longer considered a valid scientific category anyway, the ethnic divisions of Earth's population are more complicated than we were taught as children. A popular-culture example of unquestioning acceptance of the three-race system appears in James Michener's TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. (It's not quite explicit in the movie, although "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" makes the implications clear enough.) When Nellie discovers that her French suitor has fathered illegitimate children by a Polynesian woman, she's appalled because, in her Southern world-view, there are only three races—white, Oriental, and Negro. Polynesians obviously don't belong to either of the first two, so they must be the third. (She uses the other N-word, however.)

Theories of the ancestry and origins of humanity have changed radically in recent decades, with new fossil discoveries and cutting-edge technology for detailed DNA studies of population movements. The film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY looks charmingly naive nowadays, with its dramatic scene based on the simplistic, now-abandoned assumption that our development into sapient beings sprang from our learning how to make weapons in order to kill things. (Elaine Morgan, in THE DESCENT OF WOMAN, labels this anthropological construct the "Tarzanist" theory.)

Coincidentally, I'm now rereading a duology by Rose Estes, TROLL-TAKEN and TROLL-QUEST. This fabulous urban fantasy (published in the 1990s) portrays the creatures we call "trolls" as descendants of Homo erectus, driven underground by the worldwide dominance of Homo sapiens. One of my favorite contemporary vampire series, S. M. Stirling's Shadowspawn trilogy (A TAINT IN THE BLOOD and sequels), postulates that his vampire-werewolf-sorcerer subspecies split off from "normal" humanity during a long period of isolation in the last Ice Age (a motif borrowed from Jack Williamson's classic DARKER THAN YOU THINK and updated with allusions to modern genetics and quantum mechanics). As reported in recent news, many scientists now believe that other hominids such as Neanderthals and the "hobbits" probably coexisted with and may have interbred with Homo sapiens. Keeping informed on latest developments in biology and anthropology can help authors create realistic, believable alien species.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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