Epigenetics, science fiction, and scientific fact
November 22, 2010 | JV Khol
In his book “Darwin’s Radio” (1999, Del Rey) and his sequel “Darwin’s Children” (2003, Del Rey), science fiction author and novelist Greg Bear successfully predicted that human endogenous retroviruses are involved in human speciation. His new subspecies of humans communicated with pheromones, as do other species from yeasts to non-human primates. This example of science fiction becoming fact contributes to a scientific understanding of epigenetics and human pheromones via a forward-thinking author’s grasp of molecular biology and his willingness to take the next logical step for his readers. Other fictional representations of human pheromones must also have some basis in fact; enough to be included on Wikipedia and other informative sources, if only to encourage forward-thinking by others. Indeed, in his November 2003 presentation before the American Philosophical Society, Greg Bear said: “What we [science fiction writers] write is far from authoritative, or final, but science fiction works best when it stimulates debate.” Moving forward as he spoke about epigenetic influences, he also said that chemical signals between organisms can change genetic expression. This allows the social environment to modify gene expression in individuals and in their offspring.
More than a decade has passed since Bear’s conceptualization of how pheromones might exert a powerful epigenetic influence on other species and on us. Those who are familiar with current works from molecular biology can now more fully recognize that Greg Bear was at least a decade ahead of his time. For example, see this article on human endogenous retroviruses and primate speciation. Also, my co-authors and I wrote about epigenetic influences and pheromones in 1996. The take home message that’s available through the integration of science fiction and scientific fact is that pheromones may be the most significant epigenetic influence of all. We are beginning to see this more clearly after our species sequenced the human genome and as we learn more about epigenetic facts predicted by Bear’s science fiction.