Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Bear: Darwin's Radio—A Dragon Sleeping in Our Genes


In evolutionary debate, the question of Intelligent Design is a hot button; if life-forms are evolving to a particular design, one must pre-suppose an intelligent designer.

In addition, one must find a mechanism to communicate this design, one that matches the observed phenomena better than Darwinian selection, and that serves to communicate the design forward through generations of forms that do not express it.
To give an example, if intelligent design is responsible for an air-breather's lungs, there must be some way for genetic instructions to create lungs to reside in the gill-breathing precursor life-form, and that instruction must stay unexpressed through all the ages of the gill-breather's generations.

Greg Bear has proposed such a mechanism in Darwin's Radio. Biologist Kyle Lang is investigating the possibility that an ancient disease may be coiled "like a sleeping dragon" in the remnants of endogenous retroviruses—so-called "junk DNA" in the human genome. As her research begins to bear fruit, a pandemic is growing. If she does not act, soon there may not be any humans left to use the knowledge she has gained.

Bear has taken a fact: the existence of gene "phages" that lie unexpressed in the genetic code until environmental stress causes them to express, and which can lie dormant for generations until they find the right conditions to express. From that fact, Bear has taken a great "what if" leap: What if a similar DNA sequence lies unexpressed in human DNA, waiting to drive all of us in the next evolutionary step forward?

Unaddressed in this novel, or the sequel, Darwin's Children, is the question of intelligent design. In fact, the second book seems to imply the opposite, that the "radio" telegraphing messages forward is merely genetic selection at the level of the individual gene. So the books are thrilling, and chock-full of information about human DNA research skillfully used to drive the story; yet for me, there is still that nagging question waiting to be asked.

After I finished this book, I was inspired to reread Shepherd Mead's outstanding black-humor science fiction novel, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World. It's based on a more simple idea—two salesmen go door-to-door, offering housewives a demo of their product. They don't mention that the demo includes unconsciousness and a side-effect that will take nine months to be fully revealed. Shepherd Mead is the author of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and that same twisted slick sense of humor is in play here. (The book is out-of-print, but you may find a copy in a used book store.)

Before you conclude that these two fellows are impossibly horny, you have to realize that their employer is an alien race bent on conquering humans by, well... the title really says it all.


Blogger samraat said...


4/03/2010 9:36 PM  

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