Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wiggling Around Darwin

This item about a panel at Readercon, 'Is Darwinism Too Good For SF?' has been itching away in my mind ever since I read about it on the excellent Biology in Science Fiction blog:
This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Considering the importance of the scientific idea, there has been surprisingly little great sf inspired by it. We wonder whether, in fact, if the theory has been too good, too unassailable and too full of explanatory power, to leave the wiggle room where speculative minds can play in. After all, physics not only has FTL and time travel, but mechanisms like wormholes that might conceivably make them possible. What are their equivalents in evolutionary theory, if any?
I'll leave as an exercise to the reader to generate an exhaustive list of the container-load of SF inspired by and exploring various consequences of the theory of natural selection, while Peggy, who maintains the Biology in SF blog, neatly skewered the confusion between theory and application. As a former biologist and practising SF writer, I'm more interested in the notion of 'wiggle room' within Darwin's theory of Natural Selection. Is there any, and can it be exploited?

Darwin proposed a simple, elegant and powerful explanation ('How extremely stupid for me not to have thought of that!' Thomas Huxley said ruefully, after reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species) for the way that new species evolve. Inheritable variations in a population, tested at each succeeding generation by the ability of individuals to survive long enough to reproduce, would over long periods of time cause the emergence* of new species better fitted than their ancestors to survive and exploit their environment.

Darwin presented a mass of patiently accumulated and sifted evidence to buttress his arguments, but they were by no means complete. One of the most powerful deductions of his theory is that all life on Earth arose from a single simple ancestral form. At the time he published On the Origin of Species, the oldest known fossils, from the Silurian, included complex animals like tribolites. Where, his critics demanded, were the simpler forms his theory suggested? Well, later discoveries of simpler flora and fauna in older rocks, solved his famous dilemma. Likewise, modern genetics provided a mechanism of inheritance of characteristics, as well as ways in which variability could arise - either by mutations in genes, or from the transfer of genes between populations and between species. The fusion of Darwin's ideas with genetics created the modern evolutionary synthesis. To date, it has proven extremely robust, but that doesn't mean that the intricacies of the mechanism of natural selection and evolution are fully understood, or that alternative theories have been totally swept aside.

Biologists consider evolution by natural selection to be a fact. But there are still plenty of things for evolutionary biologists to argue about. Is evolution steady-state, or can it accelerate in certain circumstances? Is gene transfer more important than mutation? What is the role of symbiosis and symbiogenesis? Is every phenotypical feature of an organism due to selection? Is evolution predictable? Plenty of wiggle-room there, I suggest, for the SF writer (and plenty of SF writers have exploited it).

Then there are the alternatives to Darwinism. Some aren't scientific - Creationism being the most obvious, along with its slightly subtler cousin, Intelligent Design. I can't think, offhand, of any SF stories or novels built on the concept that God created the world and everything in it six thousand years ago, but there are quite a few SF works that play around with notions of Intelligent Design. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, or David Brin's Uplift series. Sure, the godlike creators are aliens rather than some invisible and undefined creator, but they do direct and guide evolution, and bootstrap complexity by injecting intelligence and self-awareness into other species. And isn't genetic engineering and creation of artificial life a form of Intelligent Design? (Imagine biologists of a species evolved from, say, bears, trying to make sense of post genetic-engineering flora and fauna in ten million years time.)

There are other alternatives too - vitalism, panspermia, the theory of formative causation, to name but three. I don't think that any of them hold a candle to neoDarwinism, but that doesn't mean that they can't be used as jumping-off points for some kind of speculative fiction. After all, there are plenty of stories about non-Newtonian universes . . .

*A clumsy circumlocation to avoid that contentious term, 'create'. In 1863, long mired in controversy, Darwin ruefully wrote to the botanist Joseph Hooker: 'But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process.' A sentence which generated this famous footnote: 'On the same subject my father wrote in 1871: "It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine compound was chemically formed ready to undergo stillmore complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.'


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