Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And there were giants in those days . . .

Imagine that at some point in the near future explorers on the moon discovered a dead space suit-clad body. Imagine further that examination of the body - nicknamed "Charlie" turned out to be 50,000 years old - and fully human. That's the premise of James P. Hogan's 1977 novel Inherit the Stars.
Now, Charlie's kind, Hunt told himself, must have evolved to their human form somewhere. That this "somewhere" was either Earth or not Earth was fairly obvious, the rules of basic logic admitting no other possibility. He traced back over what he could recall of the conventional account of the evolution of terrestrial life forms and wondered if, despite the generations of painstaking effort and research that had been devoted to the subject, there might after all be more to the story than had up until then been so confidently supposed. Several thousands of millions of years was a long time by anybody's standards; was it so totally inconceivable that somewhere in all those gulfs of uncertainty, there could be enough room to lose an advanced line of human descent which had flourished and died out long before modern man began his own ascent?
Now the novel itself isn't very good, as novels go. There is no character development and little plot beyond scientists lecturing about "Charlie's" origin. The only female character that appears in more than one paragraph is introduced via the "proud thrust of her behind under her thin skirt", provides a clue to translating Charlie's alien-language documents not through any particular expertise, but because she is familiar with the format of a diary, then spends the rest of the book pouting and winking. There is no conflict or personal relationships any of the other usual things that drive a story.

The novel provides the convenient discovery of additional artifacts to help the scientists with their analysis, including a 25 million year old spaceship with the skeleton of a non-human giant and preserved samples of Earthly flora and fauna. There's never really any question that the mystery of Charlie's life fully will be understood by the final chapter.

In the end, it's just a good old-fashioned "what if" story, and one that I found fairly interesting.(Yes I'm easy.) There aren't many science fiction novels that speculate about evolution, so that makes it fairly unique. Could technologically-advanced humans have existed on Earth 50,000 years ago? Could Charlie be the product of convergent evolution on another planet? If completely alien species were successfully introduced into a planet's ecosystem and survived (and evolved) for millions of years, how would that look to evolutionary biologists?

Now this being fiction, the scientists are able to extract a lot more information from poor Charlie's ancient freeze-dried body than you might expect, such as precise enough metabolic information to infer the composition of the atmosphere where he lived. But, very oddly from a modern perspective, there is no DNA sequence data or detailed molecular phylogenetics. That's not too surprising, since back when the novel was written DNA sequencing was in its infancy. since Sanger, Gilbert, and Berg didn't receive their Nobel Prize for their contributions towards recombinant DNA technology and sequencing until 1980, and the human genome project wasn't even a twinkle in Wally Gilbert's eye in the mid-1970s.
Professor Danchekker, the novel's chief biologist and paleontologist, is of the adaptationist school of evolutionary thought - he assumes that all of Charlie's apparent traits are due to adaptions to his environment. He also doesn't have that great a grasp on evolutionary theory, at least it seems that way when he is lecturing about it:
"The point you are overlooking here, I think, is that the evolutionary process is fundamentally made up of random events. Every living organism that exists today is the product of a chain of successive mutations that has continued over millions of years. The most important fact to grasp is that each discrete mutation is in itself a purely random event, brought about by aberrations in genetic coding and the mixing of the sex cells from different parents. The environment into which the mutant is born dictates whether it will survive to reproduce its kind or whether it will die out. Thus, some new characteristics are selected for further improvement, while others are promptly eradicated and still others are diluted away by interbreeding.

and later

"But this is typical of the way in which evolution works. The forces of natural selection will always operate in such a way as to bend and shape a new mutation, and to preserve a variation of it that offers the best prospects of survival for the species as a whole. [...]"

Evolution does not happen merely by random chance as he suggests, and he seems to be ignorant of the role that genetic drift plays alongside natural selection. And then there is his belief that humans are oh so very special:

"Have you ever stopped to think what it is that makes man so different from all the other animals on Earth? I know that we have larger brains, more versatile hands, and so forth; what I am referring to is something else. Most animals, when in a hopeless situation will resign themselves to fate and perish in ignominy. Man, on the other hand, does not know how to give in. He is capable of summoning up reserves of stubbornness and resilience that are without parallel on his planet. He is able to attack anything that threatens his survival, with an aggressiveness the like of which the Earth has never seen otherwise. It is this that has enabled him to sweep all before him, made him lord of all the beasts, helped him tame the winds, the rivers, the tides, and even the power of the Sun itself. [...]"

It seems he'd be a fan of the humanity test used by the Bene Gesserit in the Dune novels. As Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tells Paul Atridies:

"You've heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There's an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure he pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.
So it's a comforting notion that humanity's aggressiveness and ability to transcend suffering is both unique and an excellent survival trait, but I don't think there is any solid science to support that notion.

So the details of the evolutionary biology aren't at all perfect*. And yet, I still found myself entertained by the wild speculation and the final piecing-together of Charlie's life. Like I mentioned above, I'm easy. However, I probably won't be searching out the sequels - known as Hogan's "Giants Novels".

You can read Inherit the Stars for free at the Baen Free Library

If you do read it, you might be interested in some additional scientific background related to the story:

* Hogan is apparently a "skeptic" of the "I don't believe any modern science that touches a political issue" variety. His web site has positive links to books and sites about Intelligent Design, AIDS denialism and other pseudoscience. So his writing is likely not a good source for biology-based science fiction.

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  1. Inherit the Stars: one of my all-time favorite SF novels.

  2. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had first read it 25 years ago. When I was in high school I gobbled up "idea" stories like this. Now that I'm older and more widely read in both SF and science I like novels that have more character development (and decent female characters). Short fiction, on the other hand, I think is the perfect medium for focusing on an intriguing scientific idea.

  3. I'm so glad to hear Robert say it was one of his favorites. It was one of mine too. But that was long ago, when I was a teenager. I likely would not enjoy it as much now for the same reasons Peggy mentioned.

  4. Recently there has been much discussion on the emergence and extinction of Neanderthals -a human form quite evolved and not us ,the modern man .Their mass disappearance is still a matter of investigation -the novel in question is therefore not without some plausible scientific basis.

  5. You might also enjoy the first chapter at least of Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker in which he describe how evolution works to produce intelligent machines. I think he gives too much credit to convergent evolution (i.e., the protagonist machines are much too humanoid IMHO) but it is a beautiful sequence.


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