Interview with Greg Bear for Darwin's Children
DR:In DARWIN’S RADIO, you wrote about the evolution of a new human species that is triggered by an HERV, or Human Endogenous Retrovirus—which, if I understand correctly, is a kind of ancient virus that has entered into human DNA and persisted there in a dormant state for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. HERVs sound so much like pure science fiction that it's rather shocking to discover they actually do exist inside us, although without the evolutionary properties you ascribe to them . . . at least, so far. Can you talk a little bit about HERVs, both in fact and in your fiction?
GB: Endogenous Retroviruses (ERV) are real and exist in various forms in nearly all living things. ERVs appear to serve a number of functions; in humans, a gene from an HERV (that is, a virus gene) helps human embryos implant in the mother’s womb. So, they are no longer solely disease-causing (though expression of ERV may lead to some autoimmune disorders).
Within our genes are many “mobile” genes that can copy themselves and transport other genes from one position to another. These are called transposons, or retrotransposons, and they may play a huge role in organizing and regulating our genome. Interestingly, retroviruses bear a distinct resemblance to retrotransposons. The question then becomes, which came first—jumping genes, or viruses? And did one lead to the other?
Infectious retroviruses, such as HIV, which causes AIDS, may very well be derived from ERV genes in other species, such as monkeys or chimps. In DARWIN’S RADIO, I postulated an HERV that acquires the ability to infect other individuals and carry targeted genes from one person to another. No such HERV has been discovered, but I suspect we’ll find something similar soon—though perhaps not with such radical effects.
DR:We think of viruses as being harmful, parasitic. But what you're talking about sounds more like symbiosis—I mean, especially the idea of a viral gene helping human embryos implant in the womb. How common is that?
GB: It happens in all of us. It’s how we get born. As to how often viral genes are used for constructive purposes, no one yet knows. Some scientists theorize that embryos use ancient retroviral particles as part of a campaign to prevent the mother from rejecting them as foreign tissue. This is similar to the sort of immune system suppression found in HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but with a positive result.
DR:The specific HERV that causes the evolution in DARWIN’S RADIO is known as SHEVA. How does SHEVA work? How do SHEVA children differ from the human norm, and how did you decide on these particular physical and psychological differences?
GB: SHEVA children are the result of a programmed reshuffling of genes induced by a transfer of coded genetic signals. Their characteristics are largely determined by a kind of meta-evolutionary response. The genome is capable of reacting to the outside environment through our immune system and stress hormones and chemicals. (ERV and mobile genes are frequently activated by stress hormones.) The immune system acts as a kind of radar, informing the genome about environmental changes—and in SHEVA children, the stress of changing social conditions determines the changes. In a sense, the genome is making an “educated guess” based on past experience, giving the new variety of humans a better statistical chance to succeed by mixing and matching and even expanding upon varieties of past traits—smell, scent production, communication abilities in both the brain and elsewhere. Writing about a new kind of teenager in DARWIN’S CHILDREN was a real challenge!
DR:And yet it's not exactly as if they're more advanced than we are; it's more like they're significantly different. In some respects, they actually seem at a disadvantage. For example, they don't seem as interested in technology as we are. There is a common idea that each new stage of evolution automatically results in a superior species that will necessarily out-compete its predecessor—indeed, that the two must be enemies in a struggle only one can survive. You obviously don't think that's the case.
GB: The new children, once they come into their own, will be as interested in technology as the rest of us—but for now, they live at a disadvantage. Technology is human. The point of all the evolutionary changes in DARWIN’S RADIO and DARWIN’S CHILDREN is improving the speed and efficiency of communication. When the children network, they do it ever so much better than we do!
DR:What I found particularly fascinating was how the psychology of the SHEVA kids seemed to follow from their physical attributes; it reminded me of Freud's famous phrase, "biology is destiny." Do you believe that? Are human beings going to be able one day to take control of our biology and, hence, our destinies?
GB: There is no such thing as a fixed biological destiny. Identical twins can lead very different lives. Biological systems are immensely complicated and flexible; they have to be to produce complicated organisms such as humans. The mix of genetic traits and developmental processes both before and after birth help shape us for our future roles, but sometimes things go wrong. Thirty percent of all pregnancies, roughly speaking, abort spontaneously because of genetic or developmental errors. Perhaps ten percent of children who are born and survive childhood are defective enough to face major problems later in life; and all of us, one way or another, have small deficits. None of us are perfect, but on the other hand, most of us overcome our deficits and become productive (and reproductive!) members of society. The same is true of all other forms of life. Mistakes happen, but we are designed to overcome them—most of the time.
Humans are proof positive that nature can control its own evolutionary course. We’ll be doing a lot of that very soon now, with fascinating consequences. We’re natural, and we’re controlling evolution . . . hmm!
DR:DARWIN’S CHILDREN is set a decade after the events of DARWIN’S RADIO. What has happened in that time? How does the world of DARWIN’S CHILDREN differ from that of the first novel?
GB: It’s a harder, more frightened world. The school of biological hard knocks since SHEVA has scared the bejesus out most of us, and opened up potential new frontiers that are, if anything, even more frightening than the atom bomb. As I was writing DARWIN’S CHILDREN, I found the real world doing my research for me—changing in ways I did not like and becoming harder, more conflicted, less secure. Much of what is in the novel was conceived of or written before 9/11, and now seems more than a little prophetic.
DR:A related question: were there any significant advances or discoveries in genetics that took place following publication of DARWIN’S RADIO which compelled you to revise the science of that novel as you were penning the sequel? I imagine that must be an occupational hazard for a science fiction writer telling a story about the near future!
GB: Not basically. In details, perhaps. I was a little worried that my theories with regard to viral contributions to the genome, and the ability of viruses to access and use us as a kind of gene library, might be way beyond the cutting edge. But extensive criticism from scientist readers has yet to point to any major goofs. I’m sure they’re there, but nobody yet knows quite what they’ll turn out to be! That is, the theories are still interesting, but very speculative. As for my evolutionary speculations, I’ve seen a fair number of science books and articles published since DARWIN’S RADIO which, to one extent or another, make me believe I am still on the right track. I list some of them in DARWIN’S CHILDREN and on my Web site, http://www.gregbear.com.
DR:Let me ask you the same question with respect to anthropology. In DARWIN’S RADIO, you speculated that an HERV had caused Neanderthal parents to give birth to Homo sapiens offspring. Where does the jury now stand on possible interbreeding between these two branches of the hominid family tree and, thus, the potential presence of Neanderthal genes in the human genome?
GB: I don’t think anybody really knows. Some analysis of mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthal specimens had been done even before publication of DARWIN’S RADIO, and those scientists reached the conclusion that Neanderthals and humans could not be directly related; they may have had a common ancestor 500,000 or more years ago. But other scientists I’ve spoken to regard such statistical analyses as highly speculative in themselves. We just don’t know the extent to which DNA controls its own mutational processes, and that could skew any and all statistical results that assume totally random mutation. Biologists have made a lot of assumptions over the decades that are turning out to not be true; it’s a hard time for older biologists, who have to relearn much of what they were taught in school!
DR: Is something like genetic reverse-engineering theoretically possible? In other words, if there were Neanderthal DNA in the human genome, could a future technology recreate that species? Or, for that matter, activate any of the HERVs that we carry around?
GB: Back-breeding of humans the way that some livestock has been back-bred to early stock, or wild-type animals, could probably produce Neanderthal-like individuals, but that may not be the same thing as actually digging into the DNA and reconstructing a theoretical set of Neanderthal chromosomes. We have to remember that our definitions of what is Homo sapiens neanderthal and what is Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) is based on bones alone, for the most part. All humans on Earth—from pygmies to Vikings—can interbreed. What if every new generation includes largely undetected, “silent” evolutionary mutations that adapt them to their environment in specific ways that we barely understand? Much evolutionary change may happen way below the level of what sticks around in bones!
DR:You've done a lot of anthropological research for both books; not to give anything away, but DARWIN’S CHILDREN also features a revolutionary anthropological discovery. Have you considered actually setting a novel back in prehistoric times?
GB: If you mean challenging the Gears or Jean Auel at their game, no. But dabbling is terrific fun.
DR:One of the most visceral reactions I had as I began to read the novel was that the social and political setting you describe—in which the U.S. government, under the control of a Republican administration, has clamped down hard on civil rights following the appearance of the SHEVA children, forcibly separating them from their parents and placing them into camps—was a criticism of certain acts and tendencies of the current Republican administration as it goes about fighting the war on terror, as well as of conservative media outlets, especially FOX. Am I off base here? Do you think that this perception could lead to controversy . . . or to the novel being read as an allegory?
GB: It’s not allegory. It’s unfortunately a barely exaggerated description of hard political fact, written before the fact. I’ve worked with smart and capable conservatives over the decades—Jerry Pournelle is a good friend of mine—and what’s happening in Washington now is scary in the extreme to civil libertarians of all political stripes. Fox News commentary is rude, dishonest, corrupt, and very entertaining. Its news coverage is often openly biased, “Fair and Balanced.” I watch it often just to keep my blood pumping. Many of their commentators are coiffed and talk like beady-eyed used car salesmen, with a comparable grasp of the truth.
Trent Lott’s mistake was only proof of what I’ve known for some time—that modern conservatism in America is dominated by old Southern culture. It’s the Confederacy triumphantly reborn, hiding its origins as best it can and minus, for the most part, Jim Crow and the urge to keep slaves. Everything else—patriarchy, family and honor first, racism, hypocritical fundamentalism, catering to the aristocracy, rampant sexual hypocrisy, challenges to the constitution in the name of state’s rights (but going after states who don’t tow the conservative federal line), is straight out of any history of the Confederacy. And remember: with regard to Bush administration financial strategies, consider how much Confederate money is now worth.
Why is John McCain so distrusted among southern conservatives? Because he’s not a Confederate. Why was Bill Clinton so soundly hated by southern conservatives? Because he was a southern boy who went Yankee, emulating a Catholic Massachusetts fellow named JFK. Why do blue-collar men all around the country vote Republican even when it’s against their own best interest? Tradition? Hoodwinked by Confederate charm? Go figure.
And why was Trent Lott so conspicuously thrust into the Confederate attic? Because he was so damned stupid as to show all his cards—including some real Jokers—in a high-stakes poker game.
DR:I was also struck by the religious aspect in the novel; it's somewhat unusual, I think, for a science fiction novel to interject God into the story as a mystical presence. There are, of course, plenty of science fiction novels that deal with God or gods, but usually as knowable entities, with much of the mystery removed thanks to application of scientific methodology and advances in technology. You don't take that route. When Kaye Rafelson has transcendent experiences that she comes to equate with the presence of a higher power, the mystery remains. Why did you bring God, or whatever name one chooses to call it, into the novel in this way? Are you suggesting that an invisible hand shapes the course of evolution?
GB: Without tipping my hand too much, I’ll say no: I fundamentally reject creationism or intelligent design by God. I offer a solution that is never heard in either scientific or religious circles: the mystery of God allows for free will in both human behavior and in natural evolution. Nature is thoughtful and creative and even willful—one might say soulful—top to bottom, but even that doesn’t begin to describe the reality. In essence, what Kaye experiences is what well over half of the human race experiences in some form or another: pure epiphany, minus any overt theological girdles. It’s the real thing.
Does God dabble in evolution? I doubt that anyone, scientist or theologian, will ever know for sure. Does God exist? The phenomenon of epiphany exists, and is—so far—completely outside the realm of scientific study. (Meditative states are easier to reproduce; epiphany is spontaneous and unpredictable.) The rest is faith, a very personal thing.
I’ll be curious to see how quickly the “fundamentalists” and atheists in science, and the fundamentalists in the religious community, cotton on to this logical solution to the supposedly unbreakable dilemma. In my opinion, there is no dilemma—just a lack of creative and rational thinking on both sides.
DR:Does this story end with DARWIN’S CHILDREN, or do you have plans to continue the series?
GB: There is very likely going to be a novel about Stella Nova and her son, carrying us through the middle of this century.
DR:What are you working on now?
GB: A high-tech ghost story set in the telecom industry! But absolutely no phone calls (or spam) from the dead. And about that, for now, enough said.