Kage Baker was fascinated by seeing evolution in action.
Caveat primus, here: if you do not favour the theory of evolution, Dear Readers, stop reading now. Kage did, I do, and both of us found the evidence to be so overwhelming that one could – frequently, easily, and all over the place – catch the process in process. And those snapshots of evolutionary change were what most fascinated and amused Kage. But they are among the things that make creationists foam at the mouth.
One of the most famous and most hotly contested examples (by evolutionary scientists themselves, never mind the creationists!) is, of course, the British Peppered Moth. These moths come in a wide spectrum of black-and-white colouration patterns. Their most common form, the typica, was mostly white prior to the Industrial Revolution – but when coal vapours began to turn every wall and roof in England black with soot, the white moths decreased. They were showing up too well, and their main predators – birds – ate them up.There were still as many Peppered Moths, though, because the blacker moths, called carbonaria, simply increased to fill the place of their missing, whiter brethren. However, when the 20th century rolled around and people began diminishing coal use and cleaning buildings off, suddenly the black carbonaria were back on the bird menu. And so the white typica increased again.
So now evolutionary biologists quarrel about how and why this happened. One side maintains that its just an artifact of the existence of differently-coloured Pepper Moths: whoever is most visible in any environment gets eaten and so becomes rarer. The other side maintains that, no, the carbonaria moths were a defensive mutation in the species, and the returning typica moths were the exact same mutational response – but in reverse.
Caveat secundus: it’s never that simple. Or maybe it is, and the hard part is convincing observers that it’s that simple. Because ….
Most moth-watchers says it’s actually a combination of the two: evolution, yes, because it happened in direct reaction to the changing environment. Mutation, also yes but not as much: because the Peppered Moth was always showing some variation; it just didn’t need it until coal dust rendered the typica morph more likely to be eaten.
And there are still the unconvinced, who maintain it’s a series of miracles from the benevolent hand of a Diety who likes black and white moths almost as much They like beetles.
It was arguments like these that so interested Kage. She said that the reaction of human beings was itself a sign of evolution in action among humans: the tendencies toward faith and demanding proof fighting it out in the population at large. Or, as she said, “Religious woo-woo vs. scientific woo-woo.” Because there is scientific woo-woo, and some otherwise rational people make a religion out of that.
Kage felt there was just no end to the fun of watching people try to make sense of the world.
As a writer of fiction, she herself felt entitled to present anything at all as a “fact” in the pursuit of the storyline. However, as a writer of “science fiction”, she liked to anchor her inventions as firmly to physical fact as she could. That’s why the sorcery in her fantasy universe was based on good mathematics and perfect-pitch musical skills. And it’s also why she never wrote a story set in deep space or another star system: she was unconvinced there was sufficient rational underpinnings for an FTL drive.
Evolution, though – that was always right there in the forefront of global vision. All you had to do was look. And think a little …
There is a growing tumult right now about an possible “autism epidemic”. Kage was quite interested in this; as someone theoretically on the autism spectrum (where the DMS-4 placed Asperger’s Syndrome) she was part of the epidemic. However, Kage didn’t believe in the epidemic to begin with. She felt it was a slowly-growing case of statistics and mutations.
There has probably always been a tendency in humans being for autism; and not just classical autism, but its various permutations like savantism and Asperger’s. But these are not supportive of survival. We can read back through history and make guesses – these famously clever but peculiar people had Asperger’s Syndrome, these low-effect super-calculators must have been autistic, this story of an aristocratic heir never being able to leave a heavily guarded nursery must be one, too.
Kage thought that a lot of the modern “epidemic” was therefore actually that the condition was more obvious to the modern eye. It’s almost chic these days – enough for D-list celebrities to take public stances on medical issues connected to autism, enough for the DMS to be on the verge of issuing a 5th edition with a new definition of autism and its putative spectrum. It’s a hot button topic, and therefore much more well known; the symptoms and diagnoses are seen, made, noted everywhere. By everyone. Whether or not they know what they’re talking about.
On the other hand, Kage thought maybe a mutation was slowly making itself manifest, as a response to modern, urban, cybernetic society. There have always been people with more affinity for systems and machines that other people. But it’s only now, in the last generation or so, that the machines have caught up to these human beings. Suddenly, there is an enormous survival potential in being a geek.
And here is caveat tertius, Dear Readers: evolution has no point. None at all. It hasn’t got a goal, an ideal, a purpose. All it does is enable one generation to produce the next generation: and whoever best fits with the conditions at the moment gets the better chance to breed. That’s it. Bigger brains, bipedality, omnivory, art appreciation, writing computer code – none is for anything. But if having or doing it doesn’t increase your chances of dying and does increase your chances of contributing to a kid: voila, Evolution finds your name on the list and and the goon at the door lets you in.
Is it another case of statistic and mutation combining forces? Kage thought Maybe. She also wondered if it mattered. Because the time has rolled around where being a geek makes you rich and popular, and how it happened doesn’t matter. Not to evolution, which has apparently kept autism spectrum in her quiver as something that just might work out someday; and certainly not to the human race in general – who want their computers and other “magic” machines to keep working and don’t really care how the magicians got their powers.
People, said Kage, will accept anything that keeps the lights on and puts dinner on the table. And that, Dear Readers, is reallyo trulio evolution in action.
Tomorrow: Return To Lord Howell’s Island!