The Complete Idiot's Guide To Known Space

This review courtsey of the excellent www.republibot.com
By Republibot 3.0,
Complete Idiot
3/24/09

Part 2:

Today we're gonna' talk about Evolution.

Although "Evolution" has been a staple of science fiction almost since the genre's inception, it is a very real and very fundamental part of Known Space. It's woven in to the fabric of the fictional universe in ways that are subtle enough to be generally overlooked, and though it occasionally comes to the fore, it is primarily a background element that is every bit as invisible as oxygen, but every bit as real. Evolution - on a zillion different levels - is inherent in the whole of Known Space as a fundamental background assumption that you don't tend to notice unless you're looking for it.

Observe:

Once upon a time, there was a non-humanoid race called "The Slavers" who weren't all that bright, but were telepathic, so they didn't need to be. They could enslave others to do their thinking for them. They colonized the entire galaxy, seeding entire earth-like planets with yeast to feed their massive population. This yeast floated atop the oceans of these otherwise-sterile worlds in massive sheets yards thick. Eventually, one of the Slaver's slave-races managed to genetically engineer a huge evolution-proof animal that was immune to psychic powers, and they were able to wipe out the Slavers. And, due to bad planning, the Slave Races also got wiped out, except for the big evolution-proof beasties. All animal life in the galaxy died out in one day, and life started over again.

Those yeast-farm-worlds went untended, the yeast evolved gradually in to a zillion different forms of life on a zillion different worlds. On the planet orbiting 61 Ursae Majoris ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/61_Ursae_Majori ), the yeast ultimately evolved in to the K'zin. On Earth, the yeast evolved in to Dolphins. On a planet orbiting an unnamed star in the galactic core, it evolved in to the Pak.

Once upon a time, these Pak decided - for Pakish reasons - to colonize Earth three million or so years ago. The colony failed, except for the juveniles, who lived long enough to breed, but never survived in to full-on Pak adulthood. These Pak adolescents were more or less Homo Habilis ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Habilis ), and they eventually evolved in to us. Thus the Pak had speciated in to two separate species - the Pak and Homo Sapiens. Actually, more than two because we're told that all primates on Earth DEvolved from that initial Pak colony. So humans are not strictly speaking indigenous to earth, but Dolphins are.

Sometimes evolution is your friend, and sometimes it kind of kicks your ass. Take the Dolphins, for instance: In Known Space they're sentient, and as smart as humans, but they've evolved without any ability to manipulate their environment. No hands. Or the huge, massive genetically engineered Bandersnatch from the Slaver Wars - their chromosomes are as thick as a human finger, cosmic radiation affects them as little as it would affect a slice of Styrofoam. They're evolution-proof, and lack the ability to build or use tools. They, too, are screwed. Or the Slavers - a few of them survived the war, but with a reduced gene pool and a lack of slaves, their telepathy was of little use. They devolved in to a sessile telepathic life form with extreme sexual dimorphism. They're as sentient as a man, but they're stuck on a rock their whole lives, just like a barnacle. They're effectively screwed, or to use Niven terminology for it, "Handicapped."

Anyway you slice it, there's a whole lot of Genetic Shakin' goin' on, but there are other forms of evolution, too. As we've already seen, the Bandersnatch were genetically engineered. That's actually a kind of deliberately un-natural selection, but it still fits in the general gradual shift from one thing to another. There's more than one example of this, too. Consider the K'zin. A species of bipedal carnivorous predatory cats in a low-tech society, they were discovered by an alien race called the Jotok, who backed some tribes over others, giving them advanced technology to subjugate the planet under one rule, which, of course, was itself under the rule of the Jotok themselves. Imagine Dutch merchants in space, and you'll have an idea how their society worked. This had a massive genetic effect, since they cloned lots of copies of the best, most aggressive K'zin warriors, thus giving an overabundance of those traits in the local gene pool. Eventually the K'zin managed to get the upper hand, enslaved and bred their own Jotok, and re-took their world. For unclear reasons, The K'zin then used alien genetic engineering technology to render their females non-sentient. Again, there must have been massive genetic effects to both these manipulation, but for the rest of their history the K'zin have a curious, and artificial form of sexual dimorphism where intelligence is present in only one gender. (And in fact, this, too, is a unique recurring theme in Known Space: It was true of the Slavers, and their sessile descendent). True, there are some remnant populations of unaltered females here and there, but not enough to matter in the long run.

Known Space also plays around with the idea of War as a method of natural selection: An alien race called the Puppeteers was afraid the K'zin would go to war with them, so they arranged for the kitties to meet humanity first, and a massive space war began. Humanity won, providing the K'zkin's first-ever defeat, and also causing the deaths of untold millions of them. The Puppeteers noticed an interesting fact that came of this: After the war, the average of K'zin intelligence went up a bit, and their average aggression went down a bit. They quickly realized that the war thinned the ranks of hyper-aggressive K'zin who tended to charge head-first in to enemy fire, whereas the ones who could resist their "Leap and scream" impulses tended to survive, and thereby pass on their genes to another, more moderate generation. The Puppeteers are implied to have engineered several more Man/Kzin wars - six, all of which the cats lost - in their efforts to build a more docile K'zin. They also screwed with Humanity, truth be told.

The population of earth is relatively stable at over twelve billion people through most of these stories. Lifespans are measured in centuries owing to advanced medicine, and death is more likely from an accident than it is from illness or simple old age. As a result, the United Nations government is intimately involved in people's reproduction. Only so many people can be born every year, and the number of new legal births is generally equal to the number of deaths from whatever cause. Simultaneously, the UN is eugenically screening undesirable traits out of the gene pool. Got diabetes? No baby license for you. Congenital ailments? Sorry, no. Albinism? No, you don't match the drapes. Sorry. Try We Made It, you might have better luck there. There are exceptions, of course: certain forms of insanity have proven to be useful to the UN on occasion, and it's hard to believe after five centuries of manipulation that they weren't just breeding limited numbers their own crazies to order (Though none of the stories ever say this, it's just my own conclusion), and extremely brilliant people are encouraged to have kids. So, obviously, all this unnatural selection has an effect on the gene pool nd the question of what exactly a human is. It's similar to what happened to the Pak in a way, but on a smaller and slower scale. The Earth humans of the 25th century are quite a bit different than the standard humans of today. This gets weirder when the Puppeteers start covertly manipulating the process. They've noticed that random chance tended to favor humans, and that some humans are luckier than others. They naturally wondered if luck was a breedable quality, and decided to find out. The result was an almost-magical good fortune to anyone who had a specific gene that tended to preserve itself my basically causing chance to swing in it's favor. It that meant the person with the gene survived while everyone around them died, so be it. If that meant endangering people's lives to get the gene - and it's owner - from point A to point B for some nebulous purpose, so be it. If that meant screwing around with quantum physics and re-writing the nature of the universe, well that's just to bad for you guys that don't have the gene, isn't it? This proved to be too dangerous to muck about with, so the Puppeteers cancelled their experiments, but it was already too late. This new trait was already diffusing through the population, and ultimately by the fourth millennium, this gene, an indefinite lifespan in which death is not entirely certain, and a thousand worlds inhabited by humanity have transformed our species in to a quasi-greek-god-like race that is largely incomprehensible to us.

Not unsurprisingly, this is the point at which the Known Space narrative ends - Humans as we know ourselves today no longer exist, we're as alien psychologically and sociologically as the aliens themselves, though physically we look better (People are always prettier in the future). The End. For us, anyway.

Though it's never stated, the Puppeteers have undoubtedly affected their own evolution. First, they eliminated all predators on their homeworld as soon as they had the ability to do so. Secondly, their medicine quickly eradicated death in all but the most extreme cases, so, effectively, the Puppeteers have stopped their own evolution. They're locked in at one stage of development, and have been for a very long time. A very, very long time.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves - there's still more subtle evolutionary influences present in the books which are neither fully natural, nor fully unnatural. I'm speaking about environment. When Humans spread out from earth, they colonized the solar system, and ultimately the stars. The differences between ‘standard' humans from earth (Called "Flatlanders") and outworlders quickly became apparent. Growing up in the very low gravity of the moon, the people there quickly became very tall, thin, and elegant, like an el Greco painting. They're described as ‘Tolkeinesque elves,' very tall and imposing and even sort of romantic, but also physically quite frail. The Asteroid Belt is populated with people who grow up in normal gravity, so they're physically our size, but their of hardscrabble rugged individualists who prize their own freedom, is slavishly conformist on some other levels. Thus you've got a country of several million people, all of whom have the same haircut. (It's a Mohawk).

Wunderland, the first extra-solar colony, is just like earth, but has lighter gravity, so the people tend to be a bit taller and thinner. It was primarily colonized by Germanic northern European peoples in the days before interstellar flight became fast and safe, and hence their society diverged from the earth norm. Wunderlanders have a distinctive (Presumably Germanic or Dutch) accent, and social caste is denoted by weird asymmetrical beards they wear.

The humans who colonized Jinx quickly developed a surprising fondness for profanity, owing to their world's high gravity. In order to survive, they started breeding their people for strength and sturdiness almost as soon as they got there. Thus, after a couple centuries, Jinxians are instantly recognizable as short, squat, frighteningly strong people. They're also very dark skinned, owing to the extremely bright star they orbit. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirius )

On another low-gravity planet, "We Made It," the entire population lives underground most of the year, owing to inclement weather. The locals tend to be rather pale as a result, and there was an undiagnosed propensity towards albinism in one of the original colonists which quickly spread out through the gene pool, and within a couple centuries, We Made Itians are typified as a nation of seven-foot-tall albinos.

There are other examples, but I won't go in to them here. While all these changes are somewhat cosmetic, and some of them are deliberately manipulative - Wunderlanders and Jinxians and Belters and Loonies and We Made Itians are all still clearly homo sapiens - the point is that we're catching a snapshot of our species in the gradual process of speciation - a long slow process of one species dividing in to two or more. Which brings up the third and most frequently overlooked aspect of evolution: changes in environment. Horses were introduced to America 500 years ago, and in that time they've adapted to the local environment to where American breeds are noticeably different than Old World breeds, and are even somewhat different than Australian horses, introduced to that continent about 300 years back. There's enough traffic back and forth between continents to keep the gene pools connected, so they're never going to truly diverge in to separate species, but if humans disappeared tomorrow and horses remained, the ones here and in Australia would continue to adapt to their environments the way Zebras have adapted to Africa, and eventually you'd have several equine species where you've only got one now. The intention of these chronologically early Known Space stories is clearly to give us an impression of this in progress. Though we know from the final story, "Unsafe at any speed," this process is ultimately arrested by easy FTL traffic and the Teela Brown Gene, it's still damn fascinating.

Something similar happens on the Ringworld. The builders grabbed sentient species from every world in their reach that had them, and kept them in large habitats to study them. When the builders themselves died off, and the humans escaped from the Habitat for Humanity (I'm sorry. Couldn't resist), and populated the rest of the Ringworld. Since wildlife in the Ringworld had been selected for it's usefulness or aesthetic qualities, the ecology there was fundamentally unbalanced. There were no predators, no carrion eaters, nothing really dangerous. In the million years or so since they got out of the zoo, stone aged humans naturally selected and speciated into a zillion different species that filled every niche of the ecology, some becoming the sentient bipedal equivalent of vultures and hyenas, some becoming predatory hunters, some becoming absolute carnivores, some becoming hemovores, some becoming aquatic, some becoming scavengers, some becoming ambush predators, some becoming smarter, some getting dumber, all owing to their niche.

All of this, I think, goes to support a theory about evolution that Niven himself used in one of his non-Known Space stories. I paraphrase, but the gist is that once you start using tools, you stop evolving. At that point, you are shaping your environment, and your environment is no longer shaping you.

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