Biology in SF

Anton Sherwood (
Wed, 15 Oct 1997 22:30:08 -0700 (PDT)

Some interesting extrapolation, from another list.

: Date: Tue, 14 Oct 1997 12:19:50 +0100 (BST)
: From: (doug muir)
: Sender:
: X-Comment: Lois McMaster Bujold Mailing List
: Somebody asked me to go ahead and give the long-term results of total
: conscious control over human fertility, such as LeGuin gives to her Hainish
: in "Four Ways to Forgiveness".
: All right... but I'm just going to give the results, not the reasoning
: behind them. Sorry. It would be possible to give whys and wherefores in
: layman's language, but it would require at least a couple of thousand words
: of explanation, and I don't think I have the time.
: So:
: Stipulated first, the Hainish have perfect conscious control over
: conception; neither men nor women will produce or release fertile gametes
: unless they definitely _want_ to.
: Stipulated second, the Hainish have had this ability for hundreds of
: thousands, if not millions, of years; LeGuin makes it clear that it was
: gengineered into them Way Back When (and, to her credit, acknowledges that
: it was a massive project, involving major rewiring and taking generations
: to complete... which would be quite correct IMO). This means that there
: has been enough time for natural selection and evolution to act on them.
: Given those stipulations, how will the Hainish have diverged from the human
: norm?
: The most immediately obvious difference will be a dramatic drop in sexual
: dimorphism. Hainish men and women will look much more alike than we do.
: Men will probably be smaller and more gracile, without the heavier bone
: structure of human males. There will be a general diminishment in
: secondary sexual characteristics. Hainish women will have small breasts,
: though they may be elongate. Hainish men will have much smaller testicles,
: and possibly smaller penises as well.
: Psychological differences, while less obvious, will be profound. The
: Hainish will be more naturally monogamous than humans. The pair-bond will
: be very strong and will either be lifelong (like wild geese) or until the
: children are adults.
: Children, by the way, will develop somewhat more slowly. The parent-child
: bond will be even stronger than in humans. Almost all Hainish will want to
: have children. Paradoxically, birth control may be harder for them than
: for us... psychologically harder, not technically.
: Hainish sexuality will be very different from ours. Their libido will be
: much, much lower than the human norm. They'll have sex perhaps a few dozen
: times in a lifetime, instead of the hundreds or thousands that are typical
: for us. Most of the time, they just won't be all that interested in the
: subject.
: Sex *may* be associated with a period of "heat" or obvious fertility in the
: women, although this is not certain. But in any event, adultery and
: promiscuity will be very rare, and incest and rape, almost unheard of.
: Jealousy, except perhaps among adolescents, will be much rarer than with
: us, although it will not disappear altogether.
: The cultural consequences of these differences I leave as an exercise for
: the student... but think for a moment about being an advertising copywriter
: in such a world, or a novelist, or a songwriter. Personally, I strongly
: suspect that all the psychological energy that humans give to our sexuality
: would have to go _somewhere_ -- into incredibly intense friendships, or
: religious feeling, or gregariousness, or artistic sensibility, or a
: super-developed code of personal behavior -- but I admit that this part is
: pure speculation. They might just spend a couple more hours at the office
: every day.
: The Hainish will be, in general, somewhat less aggressive than us. Hormone
: levels will be different; in particular, average male testosterone levels
: in the will be much lower. However, they will still be capable of
: testosterone spikes under the right circumstances. They will be probably
: still be able to compete and fight quite effectively if pressed, but they
: may not have much flair for organized aggression (i.e., war). It is also
: very possible that they will be less instinctively hierarchical than we
: are. On the other hand, they might also be even _more_ instinctively
: territorial. Again, cultural consequences are left as an exercise.
: Oh, one last kicker: the Hainish may be noticeably less altruistic than we
: are. "Altruism" in the biological sense has a much broader meaning than in
: the colloquial, but suffice it to say that the Hainish may have trouble
: giving loyalty to anything bigger than the immediate family. This one's
: not certain... but in any event, their social structures will be radically
: different from ours.
: I could go on, but you get the idea: the Hainish would not be human.
: First cousins, yes, but they'd be at least as different from us as lions
: are from tigers, or horses from donkeys. They'd be a different species,
: and instantly recognizable as such. LeGuin's depiction of them as human in
: all respects except fertility (albeit humans with an idiosyncratic culture)
: is just not possible. Changing a single characteristic of a species is
: almost as hard as changing a single law of physics, and this is most
: strongly true when the characteristic is related to reproduction.
: Do I hear someone sniffing at "not possible"? Okay... it's, like,
: *possible*, but so biologically bizarre as to require a serious
: explanation... like a planet with a mixed methane-and-oxygen atmosphere
: would be chemically bizarre, or a a bright purple star would be
: astronomically bizarre. We'd say "hey..." if we say those things in an SF
: story; this is at the same level of funkiness.
: Now, I hate to do this, 'cause normally I just love discussing this sort of
: thing, but I'm having a busyish time in my life (working on a re-election
: campaign), and I don't think I have time to compose an explanatory
: mega-post. So I'm just going to say that these conclusions are, if not
: absolutely certain, at least solid speculation based on universally
: accepted principles of population biology.
: ObBujold, I've seen biology in her books that made me go "hmmmm", but
: nothing that could be called goofy. She's actually pretty good about that,
: more so than with the physics and such IMO.
: Cheers,
: Doug M.