Mar 4, 2017

Ugly Past

cover art by Paul Lehr
I first read "The Ugly Little Boy" in Nine Tomorrows. It was possibly my least favorite story in that collection, but I finally re-read it as part of my look back at Isaac Asimov from the perspective of 25 years after his death.

For this re-read, I downloaded the version of the story ("Lastborn") that was first published in Galaxy, September 1958.

Reconstruction: part modern human,
part Neanderthal?
 Elisabeth Daynès
"The Ugly Little Boy" was one of Asimov's favorite stories. I never accepted the assumption that we would be repulsed a Neanderthal child's appearance. Genome sequencing suggests that modern humans carry Neanderthal-derived genes, evidence that when modern humans migrated into Europe there was interbreeding with Neanderthals. Ideas about the appearance of Neanderthals have changed since Asimov's story was written. Also, the Denisovans were found after Asimov's time; some humans have even higher levels of Denisovan-derived DNA sequences than there are Neanderthal-derived sequences.

It is fun to imagine our human past when there were multiple sub-species of humanoid apes on this planet. Primates seem to have specialized brain circuitry for recognizing faces, and it might be evolutionarily advantageous to link that circuitry to emotional control centers. It would be a waste of time for members of two different primate species to mate and attempt to breed. In some sense, we might be programmed to have innate aversions to humanoid faces that are slightly "off" (uncanny valley).

Some people have proposed that due to dietary problems (low iodine), Neanderthals might have had some sort of stunted or otherwise perturbed morphological development. Other investigators (example) have suggested that during human evolution there was selection for genetic variants better adapted to cold climates.

Thyroid hormone is a potent simulator of body heat generation. Possibly Neanderthals and other primates in cold climates evolved a system for preferential transport of thyroid hormone into the brain, allowing for a large brain size without excessive stimulation of long bone growth. This might fit with recent models (example) of central (brain) control of thyroid hormone-stimulated thermogenesis.

cover art by Alan Gutierrez
Thyroid hormone actions can be targeted and regulated by hormone transport processes and enzymatic conversions between hormone forms. Even if there was strong selective pressure in specific primate populations for purposes such as greater capacity for thermogenesis or adaptation to dietary restrictions (such as iodine deficiency), it does not mean that ugliness was an unavoidable consequence. Facial beauty is almost certainly continuously selected for in humans because of its role in the identification of healthy mates.

Science of Time Travel
Beyond the biology issues raised in "The Ugly Little Boy" is the additional plot element of Asimov's imaginary science of time travel. For The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined a "downwhen terminus" that cut we primitives off from hoards of visiting time travelers who might otherwise arrive from the far future. In "The Ugly Little Boy", Asimov limits the extent of time travel by suggesting that only a fuzzy view of the past was possible AND there was a huge and expensive energy cost for moving objects into our time from the past.

I enjoy the placement of constraints on the fantastical technologies of science fiction stories, but the constraints devised by Asimov for "The Ugly Little Boy" feel contrived and inadequate to explain why we are not aware of time travel technology having been invented in our future. As for many short stories, the ending of the story is the tail wagging this dog.

I've never read the novel-length version of the story by Robert Silverberg, which supposedly goes deeper into the motivations of the businessmen who bring a living Neanderthal boy out of the dead past. This act was depicted as nothing more than a fund-raising trick in the original story, although in true Asimov fashion the head capitalist is not depicted as simply a money-hungry dick. Apparently the novel includes a new character, Bruce Mannheim, who claims to be an advocate for the time-traveling boy, but who is apparently depicted as a media-manipulating creep. None of the reviews of the novel that I've read motivate me to seek out this longer version of the story.

click image to enlarge

Time Travelers
It is impossible for me to read a story without my mind automatically linking it to the Exode Saga. While wondering about how Robert Silverberg might have depicted the Neanderthal boy living in the past after having grown up in our time, I began imagining that there might have been additional Ek'col time travelers besides Ekcolir. Alternatively, maybe Ekcolir himself might have been sent on a time travel journey before meeting Trysta. A third alternative is that maybe Ekcolir was not from Trysta's time and so he arrived in Wales from some other era of time.

The Ek'col were designed as a way to help slip Trysta's special Asterothrope gene patterns into the human gene pool. What might be the story of Ekcolir's childhood? Who were his parents? Maybe it was Ekolir's parents who had to travel through time in order to study Trysta and "correctly" raise Ekcolir so as to prepare him for his mission to Earth.

Next: time travel, Ekco style - "Hierion Confinement"
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