Sunday, July 08, 2007

Heinlein and Human Breeding

On March 17, 1874, Ira Johnson, medical student, sat in the law offices of Deems, Wingate, Alden, & Deems and listened to an unusual proposition. At last he interrupted the senior partner. "Just a moment! Do I understand that you are trying to hire me to marry one of these women?"

The lawyer looked shocked. "Please, Mr. Johnson. Not at all"

"Well, it certainly sounded like it."

"No, no, such a contract would be void, against public policy. We are simply informing you, as administrators of a trust, that should it come about that you do marry one of the young ladies on this list it would then be our pleasant duty to endow each child of such a union according to the scale here set forth. But there would be no Contract with us involved, nor is there any 'proposition' being made to you and we certainly do not urge any course of action on you. We are simply informing you of certain facts."

Ira Johnson scowled and shuffled his feet. "What's it all about? Why?"

"That is the business of the Foundation. One might put it that we approve of your grandparents."

"Have you discussed me with them?" Johnson said sharply.

He felt no affection for his grandparents. A tight-fisted foursome-if any one of them had had the grace to die at a reasonable age he would not now be worried about money enough to finish medical school.

"We have talked with them, yes. But not about you."

The lawyer shut off further discussion and young Johnson accepted gracelessly a list of young women, all strangers, with the intention of tearing it up the moment he was outside the office. Instead, that night he wrote seven drafts before he found the right words in which to start cooling off the relation between himself and his girl back home. He was glad that he had never actually popped the question to her-it would have been deucedly awkward.

When he did marry (from the list) it seemed a curious but not too remarkable coincidence that his wife as well as himself had four living, healthy, active grandparents.
~ Robert A. Heinlein, Methuselah's Children, 1942
July 7, 2007 is the centennial anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein's birth. Love or hate his writing, pretty much everyone groks that he was (and still is) one of the giants of science fiction. While Heinlein didn't use much biology in his stories other than various permutations of sexual relationships, human genetics is at the center of one of the important elements of the Heinlein future history.

I speak, of course, of the Howard Families. The idea was simple: increase the human lifespan by encouraging individuals from long-lived families to have children. Decades of such selective breeding created a large group of individuals from interrelated families who naturally lived for centuries. This achievement was kept secret to prevent vengeful acts by jealous and bitter humans with ordinary lifespans. When it was finally revealed, their worst fears came to pass, requiring the families to escape from Earth until means of artificial longevity were developed.

From the biological perspective, the idea isn't so crazy. Genes that are involved in longevity have been isolated by selecting unusually long-lived yeast cells and nematodes, and longer-lived strains of mice have been (and are being) created by selective breeding. Of course Heinlein took the idea to the extreme - genetics has increased mouse life spans by 10%-40%, not several fold. That's a significant difference, but not enough to boost human lifespans to several centuries.

Maybe human breeding for long life would work, if only there was a foundation out there willing to take on a project that would span decades or centuries and was willing to ignore the ethics of such a project. Of course it's too late for me, but I really like the idea of having a naturally long life, extended without weird diets, pills or surgery.

For more on Heinlein and his future history, check out SF Signal's Big @$$ collection of Heinlein Links.

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1 comment:

Xiaolu said...

I can no longer remember the specifics of it, but I took a Biology of Aging class and I'm pretty sure that's not possible. You could very likely increase lifespan somewhat by selecting long-lived individuals, but ultimately reproduction and daily wear and tear take their toll. I believe antagonistic pleiotropic genes will limit age at some point. Although interestingly enough, the average human life expectancy in advanced nations has and continues to rise beyond what was expected. Please correct me if I'm wrong though. =)