Interview – Athena Andreadis
Crossed Genres co-editor K.T. Holt recently had the pleasure of interviewing Athena Andreadis, Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. Read on to see what a bioscientist has to say about werewolves and other human-hybrids, settling on other planets, and human evolution both past and future.
Let’s talk about genetics and Fantasy. I’ll just state up front that I don’t believe that the sort of radical back-and-forth transformation we see with things like werewolves and vampires is possible.
And you’re right.
Metamorphosis is a one-way trip, yes?
It is. Larva, pupa, etc. You can have radical metamorphoses, but they’re already there in the blueprint, and they are pretty much at formative moments. In particular, what you cannot have is this shift back and forth that can happen at the drop of a hat, or when the moon is full.
Wouldn’t it basically involve destroying the organism to create the new one?
Yes, basically. What you would have is the equivalent of what happens in insect metamorphosis. You would have to have a huge human-sized cocoon, you go in there, and you disassemble and liquefy. This is what happens with a pupa, if you open it you will see it’s quasi-liquid. Everything has been disassembled and is being reassembled… Go into the cocoon for a couple of days and you get re-done. So this business of suddenly sprouting a snout, or fangs, or wings, is out of the question.
A butterfly is not a caterpillar. Could someone go into one of these cocoons and come out the same person, just in a different shape?
Probably not. Their goals and purposes are completely different. Since you’re dealing with someone that has a really complicated nervous system, you’d basically have to disassemble that brain and reassemble it, which is no mean feat. Even if you had the technology for it. And you’re quite right; what emerges from the other side wouldn’t necessarily think the way it thought when it went in. For example, if a werewolf is bent on revenge it’s possible he or she might have forgotten who they were angry at by the time they came out. It doesn’t do much for plot continuity, that’s for sure. Or organism continuity, for that matter.
You could still be a person, but I do not think you would have the motivations and emotional palette of a human because this is all determined by the way not just our brains, but also our bodies are wired. An obligatory carnivore, even if it became sentient, would think about things very differently than the way we do.
Therefore, a person who transformed into a cat-person or a wolf-person would have very different drives, just because of their physical nature?
Absolutely. Because our body is not just something passive. It’s actually an active participant and it shapes us as much as everything else does.
Okay, moving to another oft-used element in Fantasy; let’s talk about creating life. Scientists have recently synthesized some components of RNA from only its component molecules. Does that suggest that creating life – summoning it from the elements – is actually possible?
There’s nothing mystical about assembling life from simple precursors. I mean, that is in fact what happened.
As you know, the definition of life is very slippery. In the end, I think life is something that has a blueprint for continuity and exhibits complex properties that arise from a feedback loop between what is expressed by the blueprint and the input from the environment (environment can be anything from where you go to school to whether you have water as your solvent). But basically life is an emergent property. There’s nothing mystical about it. Put something together that is complex enough and it starts exhibiting properties not easily predictable by the input.
Even so, the idea that you could start with ‘life soup’ and evolve it up rapidly into some beast for your nefarious purposes still seems pretty farfetched.
If you were to evolve something like this, it would be on the microscopic scale. If you really wanted to evolve a really virulent virus or bacterium, that’s much more likely than evolving a dragon.
Although perhaps not as much fun.
Now I want to take a look at a few themes in Science Fiction. Let’s start with a hard one; eugenics. We see a lot of this in Science Fiction, especially epic SciFi. Is there good reason for its prominence?
There’s something interesting going on there. In some ways, humans have practiced eugenics from the day they chose their mates, bottom line. Directing evolution with molecular instruments is simply the next step from what has happened before. Eugenics is an engineering maxim, and nature is nothing if not an engineer. Now, at this point we’ve actually engineered a lot of things. All our domestic plants and animals are basically unrecognizable compared to their wild-type ancestors. Corn and wheat, especially wheat. Wild wheat looks, tastes, and has the nutritional value of grass, pretty much.
We’re essentially jury-rigged; we’re not optimized. Not just humans. All life is jury-rigged. We’re the accumulation – layers upon layers, like palimpsests – of what’s happened in our past. So we’re not optimized for anything, and humans in particular are quite mediocre at everything with the exception of having a very large neocortex, which has given us unique properties. So if we actually optimize for something, we may reach a dead end. Anything that’s highly optimized is only optimized for a particular context. If the context changes, it becomes completely sub-optimal.
Now, I think there’s nothing wrong with taking care of major problems, like severe Autism or Down Syndrome. On the other hand, there’s so much variation – in the way that human brains are wired in particular – and that’s more or less what makes us individuals. And furthermore, there are some things that clearly have a selective advantage. For example, if you are a heterozygote for sickle-cell anemia, you are resistant to malaria. If you have one copy of the cystic cell fibrosis gene, which codes for a receptor, you’re resistant to cholera. There are reasons those things have remained in the genetic pool.
Somebody could say, “Well, but now we can take care of all of these things. We no longer have cholera, etc.” And I think you could make germ lines that have this or don’t have that, but many of these things are pleiotropic*, as well. So until we know exactly what happens, we might get results we did not expect.
It seems probable given how complex the genome is.
It is. It is. Look at the so-called ‘missing girls’ in India and China. Now you can choose the sex of your children, and suddenly there are no more girls. You know, there are millions ‘missing’. And unless we develop artificial wombs, women are still the reproductive bottleneck, in terms of genetic diversity as well. So they might want to rethink such policies at some point.
Now let’s talk about the genetic diversity as it relates to generation ship travel and colonization on other worlds. Does it make sense to have representatives from all over the world?
In terms of long-generation starships, I think the answer to that depends on what level of technology they have when they launch. If they have ways of tinkering with germ line and somatic cells, the genetic diversity they launch with would become irrelevant. They could introduce as much diversity as they want on the way, both for children to be born and to existing crew members.
If they have a lower level of technology available, there are other tangibles to consider. For example, it’s unclear to me that it would be a happy ship if you included lesbian feminists and fundamentalist Arab Wahhabists in the group. If you ended up with a ship being shot to bits, it wouldn’t matter very much what kind of genetic diversity you had.
But let’s assume that this gets somewhat taken care of. After all, cosmopolitans are cosmopolitans across cultures, and often have less in common with their own cultures than with each other. Every time a child is born, the parents’ chromosomes get shuffled. That’s why if you have more than one kid you see that what surfaced in each is so different. It’s also reflected at the level of your immune system, your susceptibility to disease, and so forth. Even after you are made as a person, your immune system still sniffs around and configures itself and fine-tunes itself according to what it encounters.
Incidentally, I think this is the major reason why we have this sudden explosion of allergies today in the first world. To put it in a soundbite: Kids are not allowed to go out and eat dirt. If you ever became ill – not dangerously ill, but ill enough – you boosted your immune system. These days, you’re essentially in a bubble. You’re always clean, you cannot eat this and you cannot eat that, so when your immune system meets things for the first time, it overreacts. So, if you want a healthy starship, you should make sure that your hydroponics section is large and thriving and has all kinds of creepy crawlies and such-like things.
I was going to ask about that next. We send astronauts up; we try to keep everything very clean and very sterile. Am I right in guessing that it just doesn’t seem viable if the population is going to stay there for very long?
Well, these are not self-sustained, long- term missions. The real reason for the sterility is not to contaminate exoplanetary samples. Also, if you read the fine print, you find out that one of the major and most time consuming tasks in places like the space station is scrubbing the fungus off of surfaces because there are no countervailing entities to take care of it. Not very heroic. All these macho alpha-type people up there going ‘scrubba-scrubba’.
Now let’s talk about food in space. What sort of things can thrive or even grow there? Will those be everything that we need, or will we have to make some nutritional adaptations?
Well, space is really hostile to humans. We’re not evolved to live there. And consider the fact that we have not managed to ‘colonize’ (and I use that word with caution) the Earth’s oceans. What pertains to the oceans pertains to space even more so. We have a differential in pressure; we don’t have the appropriate input that would allow plants to grow, whether sunlight or gravity. So what holds for ocean holds for space. Same idea, but in reverse.
If we send out long-generation starships, two things have to apply. The first is that they have to have a destination. Which means that these missions that are now out there to discover Earth-like planets need to come back with a positive answer. Because you can’t just go out there for the hell of it. However, you have an equivalent to that in human history; the Polynesian migration. They did go out in open catamarans, and I’m sure many of them got lost. They went on an element that was not friendly, and it was unclear whether they knew when they launched that there were islands at the end. In fact, most probably did not find them. Enough did, but in space you also have to be ready to take high losses. It would certainly be better for morale and for the likelihood of survival if they knew when they launched that there was something at the other end.
Secondly, it does have to be self-sustaining. No question. And right now our experiment with this biosphere is not going so well. Although technology has given us the means to go beyond our planet…with it we’ve become sort of a locust swarm, in a way. And if we lose our technology at this stage, we will not recover it because the raw materials for it have been mined, effectively. So, if we now lose the technology to extract oil, it’s going to be nearly impossible next time. If there is a next time.
So we have to be able to maintain a full-sized ecosystem, and that also means the small-scale ecosystem that people don’t think about very much. Everyone freaks out about bacteria, but people forget that if we didn’t have bacteria, our soil would be dead because they’re the bottom of the food chain. Secondly, we would be dead because the bacterial life of our stomachs is what allows us to digest some types of food.
Now, for nutrition. You know very well that this business of synthetic vitamins versus real vitamins is bogus because if the vitamin is chemically the same, it will do the same thing regardless of where or how it was grown. But in terms of delivering concentrated nutrition in pills, or IV drips, and so forth, I’ll use a controversial example. If you chew coca leaves, you get a temporary increase in stamina and maybe a bit more focus. If you take cocaine you get a huge jolt and then a huge come down, plus eventual addiction. The difference, of course, is that coca leaves contain something like a thousand compounds. My point is that most foods have evolved to be complex. As in ‘complex carbohydrates’; the difference between potatoes and corn starch. So the bottom line is what gets delivered. What will probably not get delivered by a pill is complexity that allows a lot of things to happen. Whereas regular, garden variety food would be grown or engineered with the right complexity. Like a kaleidoscope.
Let’s move on to the future of human evolution. I’ve read a couple of conflicting articles** about human evolution lately, and maybe you can address them for me. Is human evolution speeding up? Or has it stopped?
I think that it depends on what you mean. Macro- and micro- are slightly different. At the micro- level, mutations pop up all the time, spontaneously. They just happen. Mutations that are very large can be either very beneficial or very detrimental. Others do not make such a difference to reproductive capacity or longevity.
It may well be that on the individual level, single point mutations in genes arise more frequently. The article about human evolution speeding-up probably refers exclusively to brain-specific genes evolving faster. It is not surprising given our radically altered environment, that this might be the case.
The article which argues that evolution has stopped is essentially saying that on the scale of populations we no longer have isolated breeding pools. That’s pertinent not necessarily to details of humans but to whether another species might arise. And the answer is, from humans at this point it’s almost entirely unlikely. We no longer have isolated breeding pools where a really major mutation that was not lethal or did not significantly reduce adaptability could be propagated from a relatively homogeneous population and become the springboard for the next species.
So they can both be right. It depends at what scale you’re looking. It is incidentally true that there are some genes that exist only in humans and their very close relatives. It’s unclear what these do because it’s pretty obvious that all other animals up to and including most primates, are fine without them. Most of these when they’ve arisen seem to be connected to brain dysfunction. Which makes you wonder.
Why would we evolve something that broke our brain?
I think we’re dealing with something called pleiotropic antagonism. Namely, something that’s very good at one point in the organism’s life, but becomes not so good at another. So that may be the case, and we see these because we live long enough to see both the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’.
What about epigenetic factors like lithium, arsenic and lead, etc. that get into our drinking water? And now pharmaceuticals?
Epigenetics works on the level of genetics, in that there are things in the genome that work on you even after you’re born. Alternative splicing is one example. There’s another example called micro-siRNAs that never become protein, but nevertheless influence genes that are already expressed.
Now, taking all that into account, in terms of things in the water, I suspect the answer is, “Of course they affect us.” How could they not? This is ‘blowback’, an unexpected consequence of technology. And it’s perhaps ironic that only those privileged can now deal with it. Can afford free-range chicken. Can afford organic vegetables.
If enough people end up taking care of things locally, they can at least start perhaps tilting the balance. But long term… I mean, our brain and body are plastic. I think if you get exposed to a lot of things when you’re young and resilient you’re not going to have effects. It’s different if something happens to you when you’re sixty, because at that point you are not resilient and you have your own accumulated mutations and system fatigue. So the answer to your question is, “Yes, repeat: No.”
But it depends. Each person is unique and depending on their particular state when they receive water that contains X, Y, or Z, they might die, they might have lingering effects, or they might feel nothing.
And on a spaceship where you’re dealing with recycled water, you would see these things…
That’s relevant. Very relevant. These are things we do have to think about if we think of the self-enclosed environment. Because you also don’t have easy ways of venting…
And if you do, that’s a lost resource.
Right. That, too.
Speaking of resources, let’s touch briefly on Human Resources. Today’s astronauts go through rigorous physical, mental and psychological screening before we send them into orbit. Most people who dream of space exploration can never qualify for that sort of mission. But when it comes to colonization, will there room in space for average people, or even people with disabilities?
I would say yes, for a number of reasons. For example, no matter what kind of drives we have, the journey will be long. So even if you lack, quote-unquote, ‘imperfect’ types at launch, you will get them on the way. Unless everyone is either hibernating or in frozen embryo stage only to be activated at planetfall.
Since these would hopefully not be military expeditions, you are not going to have commander types. The attributes that make you good during times of war are not the same attributes that make you good during times of peace, and we know this in terms of how hard it is to integrate back into peaceful society soldiers who have been at war for a long time. It is quite likely that the people who launch starships are going to be social or religious minorities, like the Puritans who were unhappy over there and so left their home to try making it over here. In those groups what would count is homogeneity and adherence to the principle rather than the settlers’ physical attributes.
If you’re asking me about the ideal, then there are some things that will probably be less important. But in particular, we should not have too many alpha males in the crew. If we do, I guarantee you the ship will not reach its destination intact. They’ll kill each other and/or blow up the ship.
Would it be advantageous to have a disproportionately female settler population?
Possibly. I think there are some differences between men and women, although to me what’s interesting is that the variation within each gender is wider than the variation between genders.
So individual people are more different than men and women are different from each other?
They tend to be.
Going back to your original question, I think that we have space age technology with Bronze Age outlook. Even our religions haven’t changed very much. And I feel that generally the human species will not thrive – we may survive, but we will not thrive – until we have solved this basic dilemma of accepting that women are human. Rather than that women are necessary for reproduction, but are otherwise dispensable.
My hopeful side would prefer to have men as partners. Friends, partners, allies. And each starship would probably end up becoming something unique, if there’s more than one. But I really think that this is a problem with our species, and if we don’t solve it, I feel we’re not going to either manage to send out long-generation starships or continue far longer here.
Should we be looking very seriously at space travel and looking to other worlds when we have such big social and environmental problems here and now? Should we instead be more focused on physical and cultural adaptation to that?
I don’t think we should give up solving the problems of going to space because solving one solves the other. They are interrelated.
Focusing on problems here will not necessarily solve them. A great example is 16th Century China. It had a formidable fleet. They actually rounded the African Horn. At some point they said, “This is decadent and wasteful. We have to solve all the problems here before we expand into the world.” So they dismantled the fleet and made it illegal to launch large ships. Well, what happened? The Opium Wars happened and they got taken over by the Europeans. And they didn’t solve their own problems, you may note.
There’s no question that we must take care of the problems here, including the cultural ones. If we insist on this doubling of population every few years, and if these people justifiably insist that they should have access to first-world lifestyles, at some point literally billions are going to die. Probably the first thing that will go is not oil, but water. And large cities will go first because they are very fragile. They need so many things to function. Think of garbage disposal. A few days without garbage disposal, and you would instantly have raging epidemics.
The next 40 years will not be the past 40 years. We’ve reached the breaking point and, depending on what we do, it will make us or break us as a species. As a global organism. And frankly, if we mess it up, we deserve to fail. Why should we go to the stars if we cannot take care of our own home?
But any solutions that would allow the creation of long-generation starships would also apply to maintaining Earth. So they’re not mutually exclusive, in fact they will reinforce each other, including physical adaptation. Including the possibility of living in the oceans, which would be like living in space, with just some reversals.
Beyond that, the destination plays a role. If there are Earthlike planets, if they have life of their own, it’s an almost insoluble dilemma.
Because we would be an invasive species.
We would be. Our past behavior is not very encouraging. And this takes us back to the Bronze Age outlook coupled to space age technology.
On Earth and in space, if the careful husbandry of resources proves inadequate, there will be some kind of reversion to savagery, for sure. Which is something science fiction has explored.
One last thing: Human hybrids show up in both Science Fiction and Fantasy. Is it possible (however inadvisable) to hybridize humans and animals? Even more far-fetched: Is it possible to hybridize humans and plants?
Feasibility depends at what level you envision the hybridization, which in turn depends on your level of technology. At the chromosomal level, you can have a first generation (mules, ligers, etc), but that is almost invariably sterile because of different chromosome numbers, which leads to failure of meiosis — a requirement for gamete formation. You can create exotic hybrids and chimeras, but they will have to be made “to order” one at a time — luxury items.
Creating humans with specific attributes (catlike vision, ability to photosynthesize or hibernate, hermaphrodites like the Gethenians) will/may be possible by gene engineering, preferably at the germ line, which would also make the attribute transmissible. This obviously requires knowing exactly what gene or group of genes confers the attribute and also knowing exactly how to place it into the genome so that it doesn’t compromise vital functions. Such alterations, incidentally, might be necessary if we ever live on other planets, since their specifics will undoubtedly differ. An interesting aftermath is that the new traits will result in a different larger-scale biology and psychology (nocturnal habits, different mating patterns…), which in turn will propagate and speciate the new branch.
So we won’t have Smith’s Underpeople. But we may have Crowley’s Leos.
* – “Pleiotropy occurs when a single gene influences multiple phenotypic traits. Consequently, a new mutation in the gene may have an effect on some or all traits simultaneously.)” – Wikipedia
About the author
Athena Andreadis arrived in the US from Greece at 18 to pursue biochemistry and astrophysics as a scholarship student at Harvard, then MIT. In her research, Athena examines a fundamental gene regulatory mechanism, alternative splicing. Her model is the human tau gene, whose product is a scaffolding protein in neurons. Disturbances in tau splicing result in dementia and cognitive disabilities.
When not conjuring in the lab, Athena writes (and used to review) stories and essays, a skill she developed as an unexpected benefit of chronic insomnia. She has always wondered about extraterrestrial life and the future of humanity. Combining all these interests, she wrote To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek, a stealth science book that investigates biology, psychology and sociology through the lens of the popular eponymous series. She plans to write more books, if only she can find the time.
Athena cherishes all the time she gets to spend with her partner, Peter Cassidy. She reads voraciously, collects original art, has traveled extensively and would travel even more if her benchwork allowed it. She she can sing on-key in the four languages she knows — all of which she speaks with a slight accent.
Web sites and representative essays: