I’m a little seahorse

That first post was science geeky and professor-like, right? Time for science fiction geeky, and for some fun.

The first version of Alien Nation was a 1988 action film, but I’m talking about the TV show that aired a year later. It rated highly, but only lasted one season because it was axed along with many other shows when Fox underwent a change in management. When yet another such change came along a couple of years later, the original cast was reunited to finish out the planned story in four TV movies, corresponding to the five planned seasons. (People were trying to do sagas on TV before Babylon 5, and this show should get some credit for doing it first.)

The man behind this effort was Kenneth Johnson, one of the greats of modern science fiction, especially of the social variety and especially on television, including The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, the initial concept and first installment of V, and to an extent, Farscape. Spotting some similar points and issues across these? That’s Kenny.

OK, social science fiction: using fantastic elements, e.g. aliens, dimensional alternatives, and whatnot, to highlight and further problematize existing human hassles. Here’s a quick profile for how it’s done:

  • Human-analogue aliens
  • Alternative aliens
    • Without prior plausibility
    • With prior plausibility

These are tactics, not independent options, and Alien Nations does all three at once.

Human-analogue aliens are stand-ins for humans, sometimes called rubber forehead aliensAlien Nation does this to address immigration and refugee issues, and very well, too. I highly recommend Frederik Pohl’s “The Day After the Martians Came” (in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions) as probably the most hard-core version.

Alternative aliens change the variables more profoundly, such that they do it differently rather than the same. When the difference lacks prior plausibility, then the effect is colorful but can lack punch or becomes a circular construct, like wolf- or tiger-people humanoids having a noble-savage honor code. That image relies on seeing humanity in a cultural and nigh-mystical sense of “consciousness” as emerging from, in fact escaping from being apes, and suggesting it might happen likewise with other creatures. However, the “it” is simply false – humans are apes, we didn’t “come from” them in a way which escapes that identity or emerges into a new way of being. So our wolf-people are still merely rubber-foreheads, and quite likely a crap version because they get to be a stereotype which doesn’t even exist for humans either.

When the difference is founded in prior plausibility, then a curious disturbing quality can emerge which I quite like. It throws the presumed or assumed morality of our way to do it into high relief, specifically into a question-state rather than a certainty-state.

Alien Nation does both of these with the Newcomers’ reproductive biology:

  • There’s a third sex who provides no gamete, but must act as an intermediate copulatory partner with the female
  • Although the zygote is formed in the female’s body, the embryo is then transferred to the male, who undergoes pregnancy.

The first lacks prior plausibility, which is to say, either an example of such a thing in known biology or an imagined model for it that works without hand-waving. The digametic (sperm/ova) model appears to be the only way that gametic sex occurs in multi-cellular organisms, and insofar as individual features reflect it, they go one way or the other, hence there are as many reproductively operational sexes, bodily speaking, as there are gametes, apparently fixed at two. No “helper” sex in copulation who doesn’t contribute otherwise has been observed for any gametic mode of reproduction on Earth, nor does any theoretical model for how that might work pan out statistically. [Before you get mad at me, yes, I know what gender is, and yes, I know that mammals display a variety of variant individual outcomes. I’ll post on how that relates later, and for now, trust me, I’m not a gender essentialist nor is anyone who’s knowledgeable about biology.] So it’s a neat idea but it’s only an idea.

The second, on the other hand, is quite wonderfully plausible given its presence in a variety of creatures, most famously the family of fishes including pipefishes and seahorses. There are still just two sexes, but a given individual can be both. No known mammals or even amniotes do this, but hey – it’s still pretty close in the many-roomed mansion of Vertebrata. Given some zigs or zags in vertebrate history, we could be doing this even now.

In the show, a lot of this gets processed through the main human character, Matt Sykes, who is a relatively thoughtful but generally unreconstructed man’s man who doesn’t talk about his feelings much. Here’s the first part of the episode which concludes his alien partner George’s multi-episode saga of pregnancy, embedded in a crime story which is all about the expectations of manhood. You can follow it through its parts via the Youtube links.

I used a lot of science fiction in the bio classes I’ve taught, beginning with an exercise in 1994 and generating some pretty aggressive course designs, up through 2014. Here are two handouts from a nonmajors laboratory course I did for a while which really dug into the prior-plausibility technique: Alien and life-history strategy, and The Brood and reproductive investment. Please ask any questions you’d like about them, and consider that every feature of human physiological sexuality is inherited via our origins as a mammalian primate, and is therefore historical rather than conceptual in its profile.

Now check out the exercise at the end of the second handout, repeated below with minor changes. What humans do is listed first with a real-world alternative in the parenthesis.

Invent a creature about our size, cognitive and social and rather like us in many ways, but which differs from us in one dramatic way regarding the organization of its reproductive investment strategy. In other words, “tweak” one of the following to its opposite:

  • Obligatory sexual reproduction (vs. sex being an option in addition to cloning)
  • Single sex per individual (vs. true hermaphroditism, whether sequential or simultaneous)
  • Few offspring with high gestation investment in each (vs. many offspring with low investment each)
  • Pregnancy (vs. egg)
  • Bias toward female investment (vs. bias toward male investment)
  • Non-parasitoidal (vs. parasitoidal)
  • Altricial offspring (vs. precocial offspring)
  • Long maturation time (vs. short maturation time)

Consider how these creatures’ values might differ from ours due to these differences. What might we find disturbing or difficult to consider “human” about them?

vargeenlinkIn class, I had the students work together and just pick one thing to tweak, but I’ll flip a coin for each option … and I wound up with three changes. Meet the Vargeen! (click on the image for the full writeup in PDF)

Try it yourself, using just one tweak: roll a d8 physically or with an online dice roller to find which one will flip. Interpret what you get for a cool culture/values bending alien species to meet, and post about it in the comments for me to work over. Let’s see what kind of SF we can get.

Links: Project Seahorse, Monogamy and sex role reversal in the pipefish Corythoichthys haematopterus, IMDB entry

Next: About killing


3 thoughts on “I’m a little seahorse

  1. (I told myself I wasn’t going to start commenting on another blog, but this “assignment” is too tempting …”)

    The dice told me to use the high-investment/few offspring vs. low-investment/many switch, and my first thought is that few vs. many is pretty well covered in existing human societies, across time and stage of regional development. That is, large families, high infant mortality, and agricultural labor needs is the norm at various times in history and in various regions today, and the attitude towards children in that framework can seem alien to the American “nuclear family” mindset. But that’s no fun, and there’s the probably-important qualifier GESTATION investment (vs. parental investment generally? A quick search on “gestation investment” found financial fund links, not biology).

    So – short/easy pregnancy, many kids. Let’s say three weeks from conception to delivery. Actually, let’s make that the only major biological change, so we get our many kids from that short cycle, not by birthing 10’s (100’s? 1000’s?) of infants at once. Twins and more can happen, but rare (not quite as rare as humans?).

    Hmm – what should I assume about repeating this three-week cycle? Is it just the ease and speed that leads to many kids, or does one conception lead to a series of these three-week births? Let’s say the latter – seems like we’ll tend a little closer to a human-like “family” that way (so another significant biological change). Male impregnates female, and for the next 7-8ish months, she gives birth to 1.1 (boost multiple births some) of their children every 3 weeks. That’s 10-12 kids per “brood” (I’m sure that’s technically incorrect, but a search for “extended brood” found science articles about crabs and bugs, not a vocabulary word for “genetic siblings delivered across a long time period.”) That’s in the neighborhood of a human pregnancy overall, so we preserve some familiarity – but not really.

    10-12 is well towards the large size for human families. For reference, let’s say our alien female could have 10-12 “broods” across her lifetime, and the number of broods is variable by factors similar to number of births for us (birth control, overall health/wealth, associated cultural issues, etc.) Most will space their broods 4-5 years apart (for reasons clear soon), but maybe they don’t HAVE to.

    So what happens after birth? Hmm – continuing the rapid development (more biology changes!), maybe the mom brings the child from “newborn” to something like what we’d call a preschooler in the three weeks before her next birth. At that point, I’ll say she’s gotta pass the child on to focus on the next in the broodcycle. Staying kinda-conventional(!), I’ll say the father takes over care & nurture at this point. And so it continues as the broodcycle progresses. Fathers have to be good at managing the needs of multiple, not-exactly-in-synch developing youngsters. Mothers focus on one (or two, rarely more) kid at a time – for three weeks, and then let go.

    We’ll create a kind of plateauing line of development for this species, so that the earlybrood and latebrood even out. Preschooler to … preteen? In the course of 4-5 years? Mortality might have traditionally been high in this stage, maybe mitigated by the return of Mom. Unless she becomes pregnant again, and then the strain on Dad goes up – birthing/raising multiple broods quickly might be seen as a noble, “real woman/man” thing, or as a foolish stunt for the weak minded.

    It seems too easy to create the within-brood rivalry as a fierce survival struggle, where the strong kill off the weak and etc. Instead, I find myself wanting to both acknowledge that by hewing as close to human as I have, there’s no way such a large group of siblings can survive to reproduce themselves, and still find another solution … oh, here goes:

    A female will almost never have more than one brood with the same mate (exceptions are story-fodder). So social organizations are by the network of … husbands/wives (people you’ve had children with) and broodpartners (for males, other men who impregnated the same females as you, the other females they impregnated, growing more tenuous for the other males who impregnated those females you didn’t, and etc. Revise as needed for females). These extended networks eventually factionalize, and warfare (traditionally brutal, traditionally waged by contemporaneous broods of teens) reduces the population – but your broodbrothers and broodsisters are who you trust the MOST.

    Well, there’s a start. I’m sure it’s flawed, and even where it’s not it could use work, but I find I like these … “Genlies” (because LeGuin, and that “extended brood” search hit on a paper titled “Cryptic extended brood care in the facultatively eusocial sweat bee Megalopta genalis”) more interesting than I thought they’d be. Particularly when I think of the stories that might arise from individuals trying to skirt the Genly “norm” …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Boo-ha-ha! Let’s hope this is the first of many comments on this thread. What follows isn’t intended as a correction to what you wrote, but some thoughts and comparisons with my thinking.

      Only for clarification, when I wrote of few vs. many, I was definitely not thinking of the current human range, but the mammalian one. So “many” is along the lines of many individuals per pregnancy, and many such litters through the course of an individual lifetime. Several hundred offspring per reproductively active female is more like it.

      Your model of sequential births per copulatory bout is an interesting fictional tweak on the real-world phenomenon of sperm storage.

      In terms of kid production, your Genlies are very much like rats, whose offpspring are weaned at 21 days and at which point the female is usually pregnant again. (although in rats each pregnancy is a separate copulation event) It’s also like rats insofar as multiple males are involved.

      The scary thing is that by definition, either the young are very cheap per individual, or the bodily resources to produce so many of them would be insanely high by our standards. In the former case … sadly … is that parents simply wouldn’t care about each one anything like the way we do. The ones that make it, well, they do, and that’s it. In the latter, we’re talking about a small adult population size because a given reproductive event simply drains the available ecological resource pool so much more than it does for us (which is already quite a lot, comparatively speaking).

      Oh, that brings up a point about population size. No species or ecosystem features a “method” for population control. Nothing happens or is done “to keep population size down,” in a teleological or purposeful sense, not for humans or anyone else. So your warfare model may indeed be occurring, which for the Genlies seems to be a matter of resource control and would not be fanciful sa such, but not in the context of “something’s gotta keep the numbers down.”

      My Vargeen offer an interesting spin on that because culturally, I could see immense escalation in pumping resources into one’s gestation-beasts, as a combined feature of status, wealth, and corralling resources that are valuable to others.

      A further thought on the Vargeen concerns energy too – I don’t know if any studies have demonstrated that precocial offspring are more expensive than altricial ones. Thinking about hares vs. rabbits, I’m thinking not, which is pretty interesting actually.


  2. Pingback: So uplifting | Man nor Beast

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