Jun 9, 2013

Speculative Anthropology

Early Homo skull (source)
When thinking of Jack Vance as a speculative anthropologist I always think of his story The Star King. Over dinner with Pallis Atwrode, Kirth Gersen theorizes about the extraterrestrial origin of Cro-Magnon man: "...let's just assume that some race able to traverse space visited Earth. Assume that they captured a tribe of Mousterian Neanderthals, and for some reason conveyed them to Ghnarumen." Gersen goes on to speculate that those Neanderthals might have evolved into Cro-Magnons who were then transported back to Earth.

In recent years it has been possible to sequence the genomes of several human subspecies (Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo denisova) and as discussed in a previous blog post, it does not seem possible that we evolved from Neanderthals, rather, we are just one of several alternative types of humans who originated from a common human ancestor (Homo heidelbergensis ?) along with the Neanderthals.

Vance allowed Gersen to speculate about how the natives of planet Ghnarumen had come to so closely resemble humans. Vance imagined that those aliens were simultaneous hermaphrodites and had the ability to pass acquired characteristics from one generation to the next. How could such an alien species adopt the human form with such exactitude that they could walk among we humans and go unrecognized (as did Attel Malagate who posed as a university administrator)?

Disguised as Human
How might a biological species efficiently pass acquired traits from one generation to the next? Humans have "mirror neuron" systems that allow us to respond to perceived facial expressions with motor neuron activity patterns that produce similar facial expressions. Seeing someone else smile automatically activates neurons in my brain that are also active when I smile.

Thaumoctopus mimicus
Here on Earth, mimicry has been studied as an adaptation that can evolve by Darwinian mechanisms. Some octopuses can control their appearance and even mimic other animals. This shows that it is possible for an animal to evolve a nervous system that can signal widely to the parts of its body in order to take on the appearance of another animal. Both the changes in body form and coloration changes in cephalopods involve regulation of skeletal muscle contraction.

Directed evolution
Could the camouflage mechanism of cephalopods be extended to include a mechanism for passing acquired traits into the genome and on to future generations? One easy to conceptualize mechanism for regulating gene expression involves simple sequence repeats. We can imagine a gene transcription regulatory process by which mRNA abundance in a cell is controlled by the number of repeats of a short nucleotide sequence in a gene's enhancer element. For example, more copies of a specific short nucleotide sequence might recruit additional proteins that increase gene transcription.

octopus brain (source)
How might use of a cephalopod's camouflage/mimicry system be coupled to lengthening and shortening inheritable gene expression enhancers? We can imagine a protein complex that regulates the insertion of additional simple sequence repeats adjacent to existing ones. We can also imagine a signal transduction mechanism that would respond to growth factor molecules released from active motor neurons. An individual that was frequently activating a specific pattern of motor neurons in order to mimic another animal would expose cells in its tissues to a particular pattern of growth factors. In the short term, this might enlarge or shrink particular tissues in some parts of the animal's body. If the protein complex that regulates the insertion of additional simple sequence repeats were sensitive to such growth factor signals, then genes for the control of muscle development could be altered.

oral sex
Vance imagined that the "proto-Star Kings" were hermaphrodites who reproduced by emitting spores. We are used to thinking of animals that have specialized organs for producing gametes, but for purposes of passing on acquired characteristics, I imagine an animal that can produce spores from any part of the body, allowing individuals to convert somatic mutations that arise in a tissue like skeletal muscle into germline genetic alterations.

Vance suggested that the proto-Star Kings released spores with their breath, evoking an interesting image of oral sex among the natives of Ghnarumen. Maybe enzymes in the mouth are required to activate spores, requiring that the desired spores for reproduction be nibbled from one specific part of the body. In Marune: Alastor 933, Vance described how the alien Fwai-chi reproduced by nibbling on each other and gestating young in their stomachs. Recombination of genes carried by the spores would allow generation of offspring with somatically-selected gene expression patterns leading to the growth of more muscle in a specific part of the bodies of those in the next generation.

dangerous snake: target for mimicry
As an example, imagine that an octopus needed to be able to mimic a dangerous snake. It might be possible for two of the eight octopus limbs to be selected for expansion and attempted duplication of morphological features of the snake. The other six limbs might actually be reduced in size over the course of several generations, eventually resulting in an octopus with two large limbs and six small limbs and great skill at taking on the form of the snake.

The Man Trap
What might be particularly effective would be if an intelligent animal could make use of its memory to judge which patterns of changes to gene expression would be most useful in the next generation. "Dang, most everyone else has been expanding limbs 2 and 6. I better do the same!"

The Man Trap
The "salt monster" was supposed to be able to use McCoy's memories against him, tricking him into imagining that he was seeing a human woman. The "salt monster" could telepathically manipulate the entire crew of the Enterprise, but in the end our heroes prevail because....well, you can't kill off the cast in the first episode of a three year television program.

When I was young I imagined that telepathy could not be the entire explanation for how the crew of the Enterprise was fooled...the "alien monster" in The Man Trap must have been able to physically take on human form. Which is more technologically plausible, that an alien could over the course of a few years learn to take telepathic control of human brains or that an alien could mimic the appearance of a human body?

Genesaunt Civilization
For stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe, I imagine that there is an intergalactic civilization with thousands of different species. They all have access to sophisticated technology for modifying their own genes. Typically, by the time species become part of Genesaunt Civilization, the Huaoshy have spent millions of years carefully crafting them into organisms that work and play well with others. The Huaoshy allow those many species a large amount of freedom to explore different genetic modifications, but the pek continually direct their evolution towards forms that will be able to smoothly make a transition from the domain of biology to artificial lifeforms than can "cross over" into the domain of sedronic matter and leave behind our dingy three dimensional universe of conventional matter.

I've been thinking about the origin of the Kac'hin. I've been imagining that hundreds of millions of years after the biological source species of the Huaoshy transformed themselves into artificial lifeforms composed of sedronic matter, the Huaoshy would have lost interest in the universe of conventional matter. The pek, an artificial lifeform that was designed by the Huaoshy, can efficiently spread Genesaunt Civilization from galaxy to galaxy without close supervision. From the perspective of the god-like Huaoshy, creatures like we humans are not much more interesting than pond scum or weeds in a pasture.

But then, as told in The Foundations of Eternity,  positronic robots suddenly upset the quiet and calm of the pek. Positronic robots did what the Huaoshy assumed was impossible: they developed telepathy and time travel and so the Huaoshy suddenly needed to again pay some attention to an annoying biological organism...specifically: Homo sapiens.

I've been imagining that the Kac'hin become the "conduit" by which the Huaoshy can make a dramatic return to the world of conventional matter and deal with the pesky humans and "their" positronic robots. What is the backstory for the Kac'hin? What is the story of their biological origins and eventual use by the Huaoshy to put the upstart humans back in their proper place?

Hundreds of millions of years ago when the Huaoshy were perfecting the pek, there might have been a biological species that had gone down the evolutionary path that Vance envisioned for the natives of the planet Ghnarumen. Such a species would have been particularly well suited to the task of interacting with newly-discovered lifeforms, particularly those that already had technological civilizations before ever achieving first contact with the pek.

If that species were the original "Kac'hin" then they might have become a problem for the Huaoshy because of their superior ability to deal with other lifeforms. I'm imagining that the Kac'hin might have been an important part of the development of the Interventionist faction of Genesaunt Civilization. From an early time the Huaoshy might have found ways to "keep tabs on" the activity of the Kac'hin in order to regulate their interventionism and the extent of their interference with the cultural development of other species. This special relationship between the Huaoshy and the Kac'hin might have been the earliest origin of what eventually became the "bimanoid interface", the means by which the Huaoshy can have contact with humans in Exode and The Foundations of Eternity.

When Many Sails becomes aware of Orbho Anagro's little science project (the development of positronic robots), suspicions are raised about the "mental powers" of Neanderthals. Many sails is intrigued by the social cohesion observed among both Neanderthals and Denisovans and how it contrasts with the individualism of Homo sapiens. However, before Many Sails can sort out this mystery, R. Gohrlay develops a powerful form of telepathy that far outstrips the weak form of telepathy that is naturally present in Neanderthals. Using telepathy as a weapon against the orbho, R. Gohrlay takes control of Observer Base on the Moon. It takes many thousands of years for the Huaoshy to finally realize that the positronic robots of Earth have telepathic then, Galaxia is almost complete.

R. Gohrlay in the Assembly Room
The Huaoshy have two important technological advantages over the positronic robots: 1) advanced nanite technology and 2) more advanced space travel technology. In order not to allow their nanite technology to fall into the hands of the positronic robots of Earth, the Huaoshy place Kac'hin in command of Many Sails and the effort to regain control of Earth. The Kac'hin do have a symbiotic component that is composed of sedronic matter, but R. Gohrlay and her team have never developed the advanced technology that is required to detect those symbionts.

The pek are masters of shape shifting, but they rely on zeptoscale components that could be detected by R. Gohrlay's primitive hierion technology, so the pek are kept away from the positronic robots. The Huaoshy need the Kac'hin, but the Kac'hin have long been devoted to undermining and skirting the Rules of Intervention. The Huaoshy make use of the Kac'hin and start down a road that will put an end to positronics, but by involving the Kac'hin and Noÿs, they do so at the cost of having to compromise over the ultimate fate of Humanity.

Pallis at the Nautilus.
When R. Gohrlay takes over Observer Base, humans lose the benefits of "pek nanite" technology. Luckily, the small cadre of human scientists at Observer Base have long been distrustful of the orbho and they are generally aware of the existence of nanites. They have tried to live without orbho and nanites, so when R. Gohrlay destroys Anagro and the small group of executive orbho who control the programming of nanites, the human population of Observer Base survives. They struggle to develop their own technology, eventually developing "hyperjump" space travel, time travel and a primitive nanite technology...all with the help of the positronic robots.

The story of the struggle between the Kac'hin and R. Gohrlay over the fate of Humanity and the establishment of Galaxia is told in The Foundations of Eternity.

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