A Change For The Better?

Life after the Fallout.  This edition published by Corgi Books 1975.  Cover art by Bruce Pennington.

Life after the Fallout. This edition published by Corgi Books 1975. Cover art by Bruce Pennington.

Mutation is not all bad.  Changes in a gene, or in the structure or number of chromosomes, have occurred naturally to all living things throughout the history of life on Earth.  And once its DNA is altered, an organism’s life may be different, for good or bad.  But the process of natural selection then acts so that any beneficial mutations are passed on to future generations to aid the survival and further reproduction of that species.

In his 2006 book The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, Sean B Carroll, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, provides a clear explanation of how evolution works through changes in DNA, and indeed how its history can be traced through the genetic blueprint.  There’s no doubt that mutation has always been a vital part of the process of evolution, though natural selection has also ensured that some fundamental genes have successfully survived the effect of on-going mutations over the past three billion years or so.

It’s also well-known that radiation, whether it occurs naturally through cosmic rays or radioactive decay, or is artificially created, can cause mutation through changing the DNA structure, depending largely on the type of radiation and the degree of exposure.  Science fiction has longed raised the possibility of mutating human genes by such means, though up until around 1945 this had usually been based on changes induced in a laboratory.  6 August 1945 changed all that, with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The aftermath of a nuclear war would be an obvious breeding-ground for human mutants.  Not long after the events of 1945, Poul Anderson’s 1947 story Tomorrow’s Children saw attempts to preserve the “true” human stock fail against the overwhelming impact of adverse mutation.  However, the idea developed that some changes might actually be advantageous to humans, creating a form of superior being.  In his 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M Miller portrays most of the mutants after a nuclear holocaust as grotesque, but nevertheless suggests the redemption of the human race through mutation in the book’s closing stages.

The inevitable problem with such beneficial mutation is that people who don’t share those same improvements in the human genetic structure might not be so enthusiastic about it.  Much popular science fiction, such as the X-Men film series, has been built around the problems of a small minority whose special powers far exceed those of everyone else.

Written around the end of the Second World War, the short story The Piper’s Son by Henry Kuttner and CL Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett) introduced the concept of post-atomic war telepathic humans who fear the backlash from “ordinary” people should their powers be used excessively to their own advantage.  John Wyndham’s 1955 book The Chrysalids is possibly the classic in this field, set some millennia after the apocalypse when all mutants, including telepaths, must go to great lengths to avoid discovery by other humans.  But let’s be frank – the utterly random and devastating effect of radiation exposure after a nuclear war is far more likely to produce adverse, rather than beneficial, mutations for a long time afterwards.

Even without this, though, the process of genetic change is continuing all the time.  And if the population is large enough, a few beneficial alterations are bound to creep through.  As things stand today, there are currently well over seven billion people on this planet – a pretty large population.  Sooner or later, something will change, if it hasn’t already.  We must just hope that the rest of us, and our descendants, don’t end up being the victims of natural selection.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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