From Science Fiction to Science Fact

A few weeks ago I spotted, in someone's trash, Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic, The Foundation Trilogy. Shortly after, I found the 1954 giant-ants-in-L.A. film, Them, in a discount store video bin. Garbage to some, these tales were once treasures to me, although I prefer science fiction more subtle than the formulaic doomsday scenarios of humanity succumbing to oversized or overabundant (a) birds, (b) mind-snatching seed pods, (c) blobs, and of course (d) ants. The humans always prevail.T

Sep 27, 2004
Ricki Lewis
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A few weeks ago I spotted, in someone's trash, Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic, The Foundation Trilogy. Shortly after, I found the 1954 giant-ants-in-L.A. film, Them, in a discount store video bin. Garbage to some, these tales were once treasures to me, although I prefer science fiction more subtle than the formulaic doomsday scenarios of humanity succumbing to oversized or overabundant (a) birds, (b) mind-snatching seed pods, (c) blobs, and of course (d) ants. The humans always prevail.

The best plotlines echo evolution. The 1951 film When Worlds Collide, for example, dramatizes the founder effect and eugenics. A few humans, selected for their superior intelligence, board a spaceship to escape an earth suddenly in the path of an oncoming planet, to settle elsewhere and found a human colony. (This theme reemerged in 1997's Asteroid, a film so bad my husband dubbed it Hemorrhoid.) Similarly, postnuclear-holocaust scenarios spawn population bottlenecks. These ideas aren't so far-fetched. Bernard Foing, chief scientist of the European Space Agency, recently proposed depositing a "Noah's Ark" of DNA samples on the moon, lest the Earth suffer the fate depicted in Asteroid and When Worlds Collide.

My favorite sci-fi theme is coexisting peoples. Two novels from 1996 bring the past to the present: Brain-sucking brutes living in remote Tadjikastan in John Darnton's Neanderthal, and an Indiana Jones-esque paleoanthropologist chasing pubescent australopithecines through a Kenyan forest in Petru Popescu's Almost Adam.

H.G. Wells took the concept of dual humanity into the future in The Time Machine. Written in 1898, the book spawned two films depicting the subterranean Morlocks, mutated into bluish ghouls, attacking the sun-loving Eloi. But the master at predicting humankind's fate is Greg Bear, a non-scientist with a soaring imagination. In his 1999 and 2003 novels Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children, he not only splits off a new line of hominids, but also explains how it happened, and with remarkable plausibility. His "virus children" arose when an ancient retrovirus reawakened in pregnant women in 1999, shuffling embryonic genomes in ways that created children with abilities that outstripped, and frightened, the regular folk. In the second novel, as the virus children enter adolescence, their forced isolation in camps catalyzes establishment of their own culture, further separating the two types of people. It is a compelling depiction of reproductive isolation leading, presumably, to speciation.

In creating fiction, Greg Bear transcends the boundaries of science while adhering to what is known. Says he, "My secrets are few. I love biology. I have been researching it in constant reading since the early 1980s. I saw very clearly that DNA must be computational, a self-organizing, self-repairing system. In the early 90s, it became clear to me that modern evolutionary theory was incomplete. I set out to find all the out-of-the-way papers that I could to prove that nature was a network, from top to bottom." The Darwin series arose from those thoughts.

I wish molecular genetics and genomics had been part of the science fiction I relished as a teen. This might have tempered my disappointment that time machines, immortalized in stories by the likes of H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Rod Serling, never managed to get invented. I know now that time travel is indeed possible. The answer lies not in vehicles, but within genomes.

Comparative genomics is the unlikely unexpected machine of the 21st century, with organisms at evolutionary crossroads of complexity filling in many blanks. Tiny mycoplasmas reveal life's minimal genetic toolbox, while genes that first appear in yeast hint at the distinction of being nucleated. The genome of a roundworm adds the instructions to be an animal, and that of the sea squirt, a vertebrate. Comparison of the mouse to human genome suggests that perhaps Planet of the Apes was not so unlikely. The next great leap will be deciphering the genomes of organisms other than laboratory favorites, and perhaps even mixing up the ingredients of life from a genomic recipe.

While the classic science fiction stories of the 1950s and 1960s emphasized our uniqueness in the living universe, genomics is exposing the links that connect all life, at least on earth. So while I still adore the tall tales of sci-fi, I find that, these days, science itself is more exciting. For genomics demonstrates that truth is indeed stranger than (science) fiction.

Ricki Lewis rlewis@the-scientist.com