Darwin's Children: Evolution Has Changed the Face of the World

  • Greg Bear
HarperCollins: 2003. 400 pp. £17.99 Del Rey: 2003. 368 pp. $24.95

Science, the ultimate arbiter of truth, is still stained by the imperfections of human nature. We sometimes think we have all the answers. But the preposterous ideas of yesterday are the unshakeable dogmas of today, and the ancient superstitions of tomorrow. Science is driven by politics, and politics by fear. Greg Bear's latest novel, Darwin's Children, grapples with the biases of our society, and the machinations of science, politics and science policy, in the face of its most formidable challenge for more than 25,000 years: the next step in human evolution. Today's wild speculations might not make it into tomorrow's textbooks, but Bear's ability to tell a good story is surpassed only by his enthusiasm for the advancing edge of molecular biology.

In Darwin's Radio, the forerunner to Darwin's Children, fictional molecular biologist Kaye Lang and anthropologist Mitch Rafelson were at the epicentre of a radical new view of 'human' genetics and evolution. Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) had suddenly mobilized and were wreaking havoc on the newly sequenced genome. Herod's plague, later dubbed SHEVA (for scattered human endogenous retrovirus activation), infected pregnant women, causing spontaneous abortion of a fetus and subsequent development of a 'daughter' zygote that had undergone virus-directed mutation. The children born of SHEVA pregnancies represented the next step in human evolution. They communicated using a combination of double-speak, olfaction and skin freckling.

The plague had been seen at least twice before — once at the scene of a massacre of pregnant women in the recent past, and once in the Ice Age, when a late-stage Neanderthal couple gave birth to an early-stage modern human. The mobilization of the endogenous retroviruses, it seemed, was a response to stress that shuffled the genome in a relatively organized way, and potentiated speciation, or at least subspeciation. Predictably, Rafelson and Lang had trouble convincing the scientific establishment that we weren't just dealing with a standard epidemic, but a natural and desirable advance.

At the opening of Darwin's Children, modern society isn't ready to share its bounty with a new race of human, or a new species of hominid. The 2.5 million surviving 'virus children', or Shivites, are mostly confined to special schools or concentration camps. New branches of law enforcement and public health, enjoying the federal budget dividends of fear, have been established to deal with the problem. Rafelson and Lang themselves had a SHEVA child, Stella Nova, whom they raised out of the grip of the government's Emergency Action directives, and did their loving best to conquer a quantum generation gap. SHEVA dominates the political scene, shifting our way of life. Habeas corpus is suspended for renegade Shivites, as it was in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks for Middle Eastern men suspected of terrorist links. The world is gripped by a dread of nature, much as we are today by diseases such as SARS or AIDS. Viruses jump species barriers as humans tamper with the balance of nature.

In weaving his story, Bear takes us through dozens of enticing didactic excursions filled with speculation about everything from molecular biology to God. Writes Kaye Lang: “The role of SHEVA in the production of a new subspecies is but one function... They are mediators and messengers between cells, ferrying genes and coded data around many parts of the body, and even between individuals... They are like original sin.” Peripheral ideas abound, but not so very long ago the concept of a simple molecule such as DNA being an information-carrying instrument was inconceivable.

The epiphany scenes, in which superheroine Lang meets an all-loving, all-forgiving “caller”, will shock the most die-hard science-fiction fans, and stun the average Nature reader. Bear does an admirable job of trying to square religious beliefs and scientific reason when functional magnetic resonance imaging is used to see what a revelation looks like. And he never takes us quite to the brink of a miracle, stating emphatically in an epilogue that he isn't advocating special creation or God-directed evolution. In short, he reminds us that the mystic experiences that people have are neurological events as real as any other perception, and suggests that they might just be manifestations of a higher organic (as opposed to spiritual) existence.

Like all the best science fiction, Darwin's Children is a medium for telling the public about science. Through one of his characters, Bear pleads for biologists to write clearly: “Don't they realize how important it is to get the word out to everybody?”

Bear makes a few mistakes of definition, going beyond the studied speculation expected in a hard science-fiction novel. For instance, he makes reference to the odd karyotype of a virus child as “52 xx” — convention would have it written as “(52,XX)”. He calls this a polyploid number, but it isn't a multiple of the haploid human chromosome number of 23, so really it should be 'aneuploid'. Bear incorporates the new 'fact' that humans have some 30,000 genes into his definition of 'genome', accepting it as canon, but he rejects the less controversial (albeit possibly incorrect) 'fact' that we are not descended from the Neanderthals.

Although Darwin's Children works well on its own, readers who skip Darwin's Radio and plunge straight in will miss some of the intense excitement of mystery and discovery. Darwin's Children is more a chronicle of the new humanity's first attempt to share the planet with its forebears, and contains a lot of good expository prose about the virus children's relationship to their world.

Bear's two Darwin novels were not written just to entertain. He also seeks to teach readers about science, to highlight our utilitarian politics and our inability to get along with each other, and to provide a quasi-rational basis for theology and morality. He advances a world view in which we are all part of the vast neural network of life, cutting across ethnic borders, species divides and the chasms between taxonomic kingdoms, in balance, and in two-way communication, with the ecosystem. Bear might be off the mark, or he might just be anticipating the next giant leap in our understanding of evolution and ourselves.