Is evolution a gradual process, as Darwin believed, or can transnational change occur suddenly, in a violently brief time span, as suggested by Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould who argued in Ever Since Darwin that “the ‘sudden’ appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it. That ‘evolutionary ‘sequences’ are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.”
Gould’s vision is mirrored in terrifying story of Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear. The title is a poetic description of the core element in the story—that viruses in our genome function as carriers of evolutionary messages—a genetic radio, viruses as transports for genetic information.
“A Species Killer”
In this prophetic hard-science work of near-future fiction, molecular biologist Kaye Lang’s unveils her theory that ancient diseases encoded in the DNA of humans can return to life–has become a chilling reality. The haunting proof is evidence: a “virus-hunter” has tracked down a flu-like disease that kills expectant mothers and their offspring.
“For years.” writes Bear, “I’ve been waiting for nature to react to our environmental bullshit, tell us to stop overpopulating and depleting resources, to shut up and stop messing around and just die. Species-level apoptosis. I think this could be the final warning—a real species killer.”
In this seminal thriller. anthropologist Mitch Rafelson has made an astonishing discovery in a newly discovered ice cave in the Alps of the mummified remains of a Neanderthal couple and their newborn, strangely abnormal child. Kaye Lang, a molecular biologist specializing in retroviruses, has unearthed chilling evidence that so-called junk DNA may have a previously unknown purpose in the evolution of life. Christopher Dicken, a virus hunter at the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, is in pursuit of a mysterious illness, dubbed Herod’s flu, which seems to strike only expectant mothers and their fetuses. As the three scientists pool their results, it becomes clear that Homo sapiens is about to face its greatest crisis, a challenge coiled within our genes since before the dawn of humankind.
“We are Spaceships”
Bacteria, lectures Kaye Lang, “are extremely important and though some cause disease, many others are necessary to our existence. Some biologists believe that bacteria lie at the root of all life-forms, and that eucaryotic cells—our own cells, for example—derive from ancient colonies of bacteria. In this sense, we may simply be spaceships for bacteria.
“Bacteria swap small circular loops of DNA called plasmids. Plasmids supplement the bacterial genome and allow them to respond quickly to threats such as antibiotics. Plasmids make up a universal library that bacteria of many different types can use to live more efficiently. Bacteria and nearly all other organisms can be attacked by viruses. Viruses are very small, generally encapsulated bits of DNA or RNA that cannot reproduce by themselves, Instead, they hijack a cell’s reproductive machinery to make new viruses. In bacteria, the viruses are called bacteriophages (“eaters of bacteria”) or just phages. Many phages carry genetic material between bacterial hosts, as do some viruses in animals and plants. It is possible that viruses originally came from segments of DNA within cells that can move around, both inside and between chromosomes. Viruses are essentially roving segments of genetic material that have learned how to “put on space suits” and leave the cell.”
The paradigm reflecting Harvard’s Gould, “is that evolution proceeds by random mutations within the genome. These mutations alter the nature of the proteins or the other components expressed by our DNA, and are usually detrimental, causing the organism to sicken or die. Yet over deep time, and under changing conditions, mutations may also create novel forms that confer positive advantages.”
The paradigm, Lange presents is a hitherto undiscovered mechanism whereby the genome takes control of its own evolution, somehow sensing the right time to bring about change.
“Genome is a Self-Aware Mind”
“I believe,” she says, “our genome is much more clever than we are. It’s taken us tens of thousands of years to get to the point where we have a hope of understanding how life works. The Earth’s species have been evolving, both competing and cooperating, for billions of years. They’ve learned how to survive under conditions we can barely imagine. Even the most conservative biologist knows different kinds of bacteria can cooperate and learn from each other—but many now understand that different species of metazoans, plants and animals like us, do much the same thing when they play their roles in any ecosystem. The Earth’s species have learned how to anticipate climate change and respond to it in advance, get a head start, and I believe, in our case, our genome is now responding to social change and the stress it causes.”
“Does any reputable scientist support the proposition that the genome is a self-aware ‘mind,’ able to judge the environment and determine the course of its own evolution?” Lange was asked at a lecture Q & A..
“Kaye took a deep breath. “It would take me several hours to correct and expand upon that proposition as you state it, but, loosely, the answer is yes.”
Editor’s note: “Science fiction isn’t dead, it’s just not fiction anymore.”
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