Teranesia

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

2 Responses to “Teranesia”

  1. Josh says:

    Ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos? Vonnegut’s view seems closer to Gould’s in the sense that in addition to reproductive selection, a very important role is played by chance events. A gene that is not necessarily helpful to survival in any situation may by chance be concentrated in a surviving or isolated population.

    You’re certainly generous with Penrose, why the quantum as opposed to the electrochemical level other than to sell books? There is enough noise at the level of individual neurons to account for unpredictability.

    Who are the evolutionary theorists (hardcore neodarwinists) asserting that every adaptation has a specific purpose? You mention Gould and Dawkins as having a more flexible (scientific) view. Could it be that this notion of absolutely purposive evolution is a mere caricature and not believed by anyone with a lick of sense? I tend to feel it is this very caricature that prevents the lay public from understanding evolution.

    “Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors.”

    How does this affect his argument? Will such an analysis go deeper than an analysis of pop science writing and into the structure of the concepts Dawkins, Gould, etc. are attempting to communicate? Or is the project more to do with the public perception of science, what we can learn from our superstitions?

    The way out of this would seem not to be to abandon this nice purposive language, but instead to begin to aggressively redefine it.

  2. Steven Shaviro says:

    I was referring to the big argument between Dawkins (who is pretty much a hardcore adaptationist) and Gould, who explicitly opposed such a position.

    As for Penrose: I don’t buy his argument. I meant to suggest that Penrose, like Egan, pulls in “quantum effects” as an explanation when nothing else works. At least Egan knows he is writing fiction…

Leave a Reply