Family Stories

Kage Baker was fascinated with hybridization. I have no idea why – maybe because she was the second-oldest of a whole mess of children, and may have suspected Momma and Daddy were trying for a new species. Maybe because any girl with brothers comes to wonder if they aren’t changelings or subhuman throwbacks. Maybe because she loved plants.

Plants are madly promiscuous. So are humans.  And so hybridization has been the fastest route to plant speciation ever since humans got involved in the process several thousand years ago. We actively encourage this kind of behaviour in our plants. It’s usually arranged marriages between two kinds of wheat or a couple of nice young citrus trees, but every culture in the world has devised enthusiastic rituals that require copulation in the fields. And even if that copulation is not actively with the rightful inhabitants of those fields (sometimes it is), the open house orgies are intended to promote fertility among the crops – by example, if nothing else.

Humans are apparently hard-wired for hybridization, unusually so for a vertebrate (though lizards are pretty into it as well). The fossil evidence has been hinting ever-more strongly over the decades that hominids enjoyed active social intercourse with any available cousins, and now genomic evidence is unquestioningly backing that up. Humans will screw anything – and apparently it’s been the family style for millions of years.

Until about 30,000 years ago, there seem to have always been multiple species of hominid wandering around the planet. And whenever they met – they interbred. That intrigued Kage. For one thing, it’s a nicer image than the one of various hominids habitually eating one another instead – Kage didn’t like that killer ape machismo. It was her guess that clear-cut missing links were hard to find in the fossil records because the participants in the evolutionary line kept blurring the edges. How can you get a nice crisp line between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens when they keep leaving hybrids behind? Plus, there’s always that one family in the valley over, who’s grandmother is just obviously of habilis origins …

When faced with the question of whether or not a potential partner is human, the answer of the average hominid has usually been: Who cares? For some reason, that reassured Kage – she said the continuity of human nature was clearly very old indeed, and based on sex rather than violence. She felt that was a hopeful indication of the basic healthiness of humanity.

She would be delighted right now, as it has just been verified that a sizeable portion of modern humans shows signs of a menage a trois in their genome. And not only our dear old cousins the Neanderthals (a cross Kage was convinced of years ago) have been restored to the family guest list. There is now a hitherto-unknown recent hominid, the Denisovans, who seem to have hung out in Siberia before heading to sunnier climes – their DNA is most prevalent now in folks from New Guinea and Melanesia. I think if I had evolved in Siberia, I’d have headed for the South Seas as soon as I could, too …

Now: on a note vaguely connected to hominid hybridization, did you know there were two broad categories of bats?  There are, and this interested Kage, too. Simplistically, there are micro-bats – the wee guys with goblin faces and noses like orchids on acid; and the macro-bats – flying foxes, and other less startling-looking critters. And there is quite a size differential between the two.

There has long been a theory bruited about that macro bats might be more related to primates than anything else – the primate attempt at flight, as it were. The theory is based on bone structure, dietary habits, choice of eyes, and , um, genital placement. Macro-bats have theirs front and center, like primates, and in fact tend to couple face to face …

Also, pretty widely, apparently. The dominant bat on one Caribbean island turns out to be a triple hybrid – there was considerable hanky-panky in some rookery a while back, and the resultant blend has prospered. Very hominid sort of behaviour, really. Doesn’t prove a thing, of course – gene analysis will be needed for that – but it’s still amusing and interesting:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/06/01/holy-hybrids-batman-caribbean-fruit-bat-is-a-mash-up-of-three-species/

This is just the sort of thing Kage liked. She liked it better in plants – she really, really liked plants – but mammalian foibles are amusing, too. And enlightening. And educational. And who would not rather think we didn’t brain or eat our cousin humans long ago, but instead asked them over for the night?

I mean, if bats can show that much sense …

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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