mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
[personal profile] mrcreek
If you've had a chance to read Trail, here are some spoiler-heavy thoughts about the science and ideas behind it. If not, you could always go read it now (remember to read Sequence first).

As I discussed in this post, writing a sequel was more about following the characters and mimicking the plot structure of Sequence than about introducing an intellectual mystery on par with the one in Sequence. Nevertheless, writing Trail made me think and do background research more than I expected, and I ended up touching on some cool scientific concepts. The idea of retrieving viable gametes from glacially frozen gonads is an old one. It has been seriously considered by scientists in the case of mammoths, and apparently by several would-be mothers in the case of Otzi, the Iceman of the Alps, but as far as I can tell it hasn't been done successfully yet. Note that this is different from cloning an extinct animal, which is also a cool idea, but has already been well explored in science fiction (e.g. Jurassic Park). Also, unless they could interbreed with living species, it would be very hard to maintain a viable population of clones, so you might as well just start by impregnating a living relative. However it would happen, the conservation ethics of reviving an extinct animal are not straightforward, since the ecological consequences are unknown, as discussed briefly in the final chapter of Trail. In my opinion, as long as the Lazarus beasts are kept in captivity there would be little danger. If you're going to release them into the wild, you might as well ask whether living Old World species such as African lions should be introduced to America to compensate for their extinct brethren. Such a proposal has been seriously advocated by respectable scientists, but of course it also raises many ethical and practical questions.

The pigmented lupines do not actually exist. It was actually kind of hard to think of a clue that evolutionary geneticists could observe and understand in the field. Most science is much slower than the way it is usually portrayed fictionally, and, as Barbara points out, it generally takes a lot of lab work before you can make sense of whatever you find. Also, most traits are fairly complex and don't break down into nice groups than can be genotyped by eye. However, Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium is a real concept and the patterns Don and Barbara see would catch the eye of an observant biologist if he or she had good reason to believe that the red and blue colors were controlled by a single gene as described.

The extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna remains a great mystery, with various experts supporting hypotheses of climate change, hunting, and disease. The idea that a single keystone species went extinct first, leading to a cascade of subsequent extinctions, is not an idea I have seen discussed very often, but it's worth thinking about. It's well documented in ecology that the removal of a keystone predator can reduce ecosystem biodiversity. The standard hyperdisease hypothesis has several problems: most diseases are not virulent in a large number of distantly-related species; a disease is likely to go extinct before the host does unless it can live somewhere outside the host; and there is usually genetic variation for disease resistance within host populations. My scenario takes care of these concerns, in that only one species is lethally affected, several other species are carriers, and human hunting has eliminated the necessary genetic variation from the lion gene pool and the potential mates for Lump. If humans brought the disease with them as they colonized new lands, it would explain the correlation between human arrival and extinction. Also, lions were widespread enough to be keystone players all over the world (but not in Australia, Madagascar, or other islands). There is obviously no direct evidence for my fictional scenario and I am not advocating it as the most likely hypothesis, but it's certainly plausible. In reality, I think there was probably no one simple cause, and it's likely that climate change, human hunters, and pathogens all had a role to play.

I've taken some liberty with the dates, not for any particularly good reason, and I might adjust them backward slightly if I were to revise these stories. The current evidence suggests that the megafauna began declining about 15,000 years ago and many species may have been extinct by Starlight's time. Of course, it's hard to pin down the time of an extinction; all we know is the last recorded fossil. Similarly, we don't really know when the first humans came to the New World, we just have the earliest recorded artifacts. Also, there was indeed once a fairly narrow unglaciated passageway just east of the Canadian Rockies, but this would have grown fairly wide by the time Starlight and Stone made their journey.

I have spent very little time in western Canada, but I am quite familiar with Alaska and much of the western continental United States, so my settings are mostly based on those places and my experiences doing field work, climbing mountains, and riding in bush planes. Still, I realize the comparison is inexact; for example, unlike the American Rockies, the Canadian Rockies are primarily sedimentary rock (hence the limestone club). If you've lived in western Canada and I've made a glaring mistake (beyond the usual creative liberties allowed an author), please let me know.

I know I know: what's up with all the testicles? Testicles play a pivotal role in both Sequence and Trail. The main reason for this is simply that male gonads are more easily accessible than female gonads, and if you're talking about passing genetic information down through the millenia, gonads are kind of the way to go. Obviously, it was not my goal to write a sexist story, but I am a male and my own biases will inevitably come through. The protagonists in both epochs are male, but they interact with strong female characters, and Don at least tends to play the role of the mansel in distress who needs to be rescued, which is a reversal of the traditional scenario. Still, I would be curious to hear a feminist or psychoanalytical take on these stories, if anyone cares to explore what they say about my mind.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story. I have some very loose ideas for a third story that could complete a trilogy, but I'm far from convincing myself that this would be a good plan, so don't hold your breath.


mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)

October 2015

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