Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear

darwins-radio-by-greg-bearGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan

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Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as originaly formulated by Darwin himself, paints a picture of changes occuring in populations at a slow, steady rate. Such a view does not jibe with the fossil record, which demonstrates long periods of apparent evolutionary stagnation interspersed with explosions of new species. The concept of “Punctuated Equilibrium,” offered by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge as a critique and modification of Darwin’s theory, attempts to explain this discrepancy. In their view, the “fitness landscape” exerts a negative feedback on evolutionary innovation when the environment is stable. But when major stressors appear (climate change, over-industrialization, the odd asteroid) evolution meets the challenge with massive die-offs of old species and the appearance of new forms.

In Darwin’s Radio the author asks a critical question: what’s the catalyst? If changes in the fitness landscape drive evolution, where’s the biological signaling system that drives innovation at the level of our chromosomes? In Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear offers an answer: the retroviruses. More specifically, the Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs), molecular fossils scattered throughout the genome, ready to reconstitute and catalyze genetic R&D when the going gets tough, driving humans to a new phenotype.

Mitch Rafelson is an anthropologist and a scientific pariah. His reputation has already been trashed by a to-do over a Native American burial site, in which he put the interests of science over those of the local tribes. Now he’s getting himself in trouble in the Swiss Alps, illegaly investigating a spectacular find: a fresh-frozen Neanderthal couple, one of them murdered, and a child. That’s spectacular enough, but the site holds other mysteries. The Neanderthals bear strange, fleshy masks over their faces. And the child is no Neanderthal, but rather homo sapiens. It’s the find of the millenium, but in the mountaneering disaster that ensues Mitch is lucky to get out with his ass attached. Bear does a great job of opening the novel with a bang, mixing mystery, action and character development into an irresistible hook.

Meanwhile, Kaye Lang, a molecular biologist with a novel theory about the re-emergence of HERVs, and Christopher Dicken, a virus hunter from the CDC, have stumbled onto a silent, deadly epidemic. A bizarre new disease is striking pregnant women around the world, resulting in the spontaneous abortion of deformed offspring. Bear handles difficult and complex exposition masterfuly, revealing whole epidemiologies in a few lines of dialog. His characters go through rounds of painful personal evolution: Kaye is recently widowed, having lost a husband who was more of a father-figure than a lover. Dicken is forced to deal not only with his area of competency–hunting viruses–but also with the unfamiliar entanglements of politics. Everything the characters do has the delightful tendency to show up as a complication later on. By the time Kaye and Mitch discover the powerful sexual chemistry between them, it’s becoming apparent that this new “disease” is no disease at all, but rather the very purposeful machinations of human evolution–a recapitulation of the ancient drama that led two Neanderthals to produce one of the first homo sapiens. The fossilized retroviruses buried in our genomes are an evolutionary organ, a molecular rapid response element that permits us to respond as a species to environmental stressors, rather than step aside and allow the indefatigable cockroaches to take over. Mitch and Kaye realize that they’ve found each other in the crucible of evolution, and that realization confronts the two young lovers with an awesome, terrifying decision.

Darwin’s Radio is perhaps the most accessible of Bear’s recent works. This book demonstrates a first-class storytelling talent coupled with daring but hard-headed scientific speculation; the best that hard sf has to offer..

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