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I picked up a used copy of Greg Bear's book Darwin's Children recently and read it without initially realizing that it was a sequel. I didn't find it particularly involving, so I skimmed most of the second half of the book. The book has all the trappings of hard SF, including lots of characters who are scientists, lots of exposition of science, and a lot of plot that revolves around solving scientific puzzles. For this reason, I kept expecting some kind of sensible explanation to be offered by the end of the book of what was going on. As I was skimming toward the end of the book, I was thinking, "I'll just blow through all this so I can find out the explanation at the end." There never seemed to be such an explanation, although maybe I'm not getting the idea because I didn't read the first book and skimmed the one I did read. I also read the WP articles on the books afterward, but they didn't seem to address this.

Is there actually some plausible explanation of the science, which I'm just missing? It seems that we're supposed to believe in this whole complicated suite of sudden evolutionary changes that come busting out of old junk DNA to manifest themselves suddenly in the human phenotype. These occur without any evolutionary pressure, over a single generation, and they produce cool and apparently beneficial effects, such as emission of mind-control pheromones and the ability to use the tongue to somehow speak two sentences simultaneously.

This isn't how evolution works -- at all -- so I'd been assuming all through the book that there was some big revelation coming at the end. I thought maybe aliens had implanted the DNA bomb and then set it off suddenly in 2000 AD, for purposes that were to be revealed at the end. Then I get to the end, and it's basically...nothing. No attempt seems to be made to make any sense whatsoever out of any of this. Am I completely misunderstanding this book? From all the sciencey-sounding material, I was expecting some real science, but is it more like the science is just fake science like in the Marvel X-Men or Attack of the 50-Foot Woman?

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    Read the first book.
    – Moo
    Feb 28 '20 at 3:23
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    "maybe I'm not getting the idea because I didn't read the first book" Yep. It explains at great length the mechanism, which relies on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endogenous_retrovirus.
    – ceejayoz
    Feb 28 '20 at 3:27
  • Why is this closed? The question is asking for scientific solutions or explanations that are related directly to a cited work of fiction.
    – Dima
    Feb 28 '20 at 13:41
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    Well I haven't read either, but you asked "Is there actually some plausible explanation of the science, which I'm just missing?" and the answer, apparently, is "yes; it's in the book you skipped." this seems to have a fairly developed pseudoscientific explanation in it, and is presumably a shorter read than the work itself.
    – Alex M
    Feb 28 '20 at 16:58
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    Well I don't know what you want, then - what space is there between "I refuse to read the book" and "this summary isn't detailed enough"?
    – Alex M
    Feb 28 '20 at 20:57
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As Moo says in the comments the first book covers the science of this at great length. A summary can be found on wikipedia but you have the general gist.

Built into the human genome are non-coding sequences of DNA called introns. Certain portions of those "non-sense" sequences, remnants of prehistoric retroviruses, have been activated and are translating numerous LPCs (large protein complexes). The activation of SHEVA and its consequential sudden speciation was postulated to be controlled by a complex genetic network that perceives a need for modification or to be a human adaptive response to overcrowding. The disease, or rather, gene activation, is passed on laterally from male to female as per an STD. If impregnated, a woman in her first trimester who has contracted SHEVA will miscarry a deformed female fetus made of little more than two ovaries. This "first stage fetus" leaves behind a fertilized egg with 52 chromosomes, rather than the typical 46 characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens.

To address your problematic points, firstly human beings are under a huge amount of evolutionary pressure. Society itself puts that pressure onwards and the books focus on overcrowding and the density of communication as key factors. In the our world most of that pressure is channelled into behavioural changes as people develop coping mechanisms to conform to the society they live in. Bear's book simply offers an alternative outlet.

Secondly, yes it seems unlikely that this is how evolution works in the real world, but this is a work of fiction and parts of the first book deal with Paleontology discoveries that suggest this burst type of evolution has happened before.

The two books if I recall correctly are quite different in style. Book 1 is heavier on the infodumps, book 2 is heavier on action.

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  • Thanks, but this doesn't clarify things for me. As noted in the question, I read the WP articles, and they don't seem to answer the questions I had. I don't understand how these sophisticated traits came about. Evolutionary pressure has to operate over many generations in order to produce a complicated adaptation like human speech -- or, in this example, a complicated new form of human speech. The pressure can only act on genes that are actually expressed and cause traits to exist in the phenotype. These genes pop up fully formed before selection could have operated to produce them.
    – user2490
    Feb 28 '20 at 20:45
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    @BenCrowell That's the fiction part in "science fiction". The author took a concept present in real life and turned it into a plot device with some artistic liberties.
    – ceejayoz
    Feb 28 '20 at 21:12

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