The Newton Enigma.  A Novel by Linton Herbert

Chapter 12 b


Aden Kamali waved his guests into seats around his office.  “What brings you travelers here?”


Ivan outlined everything they knew, and then continued.  “So the question is whether there is a population size of humans that will destroy human life.”


“And you do not mean a number the planet cannot feed.”


“No, it would be a much lower number.  Something genetic would be at work.  And they said you were the best population geneticist around.  We hope we don’t take too much of your time.”


“Perhaps I was a good population geneticist here.  But no longer.  I must go away.  My visa has problems, probably some clerical error.”


“I’m sorry,” said Ivan. 


“I, too.  But the result is that I have nothing but time right now.  I shall have some help packing soon.  Meanwhile I am only too glad to talk about genetics.  Soon my opportunities to do so will be much reduced.”


“Is there any genetic reason to think that our friend’s idea might be correct?” asked Ivan.


“None whatever.  Nobody believes that there is such an effect as you speak of.  The bigger the mating pool the better.  It provides greater genetic diversity and results in a healthier, a more resilient population.” 


“Well what is the cause of hybrid sterility?” Ivan asked


“That is a matter of crossings between species.  Here we speak of a single species.”


“But what is the actual cause?  What makes hybrid infertility occur?”


“It is mere happenstance.  As the genetic distance between two populations gets bigger and bigger, sooner or later their genes are unable to talk to each other.  The result is that development of the embryo is stunted.  It is incomplete.  Generally the male takes more steps to develop than the female, so in mammals it is the male that is first affected.  We call it Haldane’s Law.  But it is a random consequence of genetic drift.  It doesn’t happen within a population.  Or at least if it does, the mutant is quickly eliminated.”


“Doesn’t evolution produce it?” Ivan persisted


“No, Darwin himself pointed out that hybrid infertility does no species any good.  So there is no selective pressure to bring it about.  It just happens by random drift over countless generations.”


“How many generations?” 


“Well camels were domesticated in historical times in Bactria, Afghanistan to you.  Soon some were sent to Egypt, for they were found to be very valuable, and Egypt could afford anything.  The Egyptian camel became what you know of as the one humped camel, the very fast dromedary.  The Bactrian retains its two humps.  If you crossbreed Bactrian with dromedary, the young camels are fertile, but in a few generations hybrid breakdown occurs with the result of infertility.


“Nobody was counting generations, but a generation for a camel is now about ten years.  The time since domestication may be about seven thousand years.  So call it seven hundred generations or less for hybrid infertility, for speciation, to have developed in camels.  But for something else it could be a lot more or many fewer.”


“Any other examples?” Ivan wanted to know.


“Well there is evidence that rabbits in the Azores and mice in the Canary Islands have become species since the time of Columbus, some five hundred years ago.  What the generation time of a mouse in the Canary Islands might be, I have no idea.  But nobody believes there is a biological clock.  Nobody believes that there is a characteristic number of generations over which speciation occurs.  It’s only happenstance as Darwin said.”


James tried.  “We’ve got a lot of really big people in the United States.  And we’ve got a lot of really fat ones, too.  Anybody who’s ridden a mule knows it’s a lot stronger than a horse.  A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey.  Could the same thing be going on with Americans as with mules?”


Aden’s opinions of Americans surfaced, but he forced them away.  “We think the height is because of better nutrition.  The same thing happens in a lot of countries as they westernize.  They get around more, see more, do more and one of the things they do is eat a more varied diet.  It does seem odd that we evolved on an inadequate diet and then the same day we get a good diet we begin to grow bigger than ever before, as if the body were saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for that.’  How did the greater size evolve if we never grew close to that size so natural selection could push us farther?  We must have a lot of very well fed ancestors we don’t know about.


“As for obesity, it’s a bit easier.  Obese people take longer to starve.  So if you acutely starve a population everybody will be thin but the survivors are the ones who started out fattest.  Feed them again and you have a fat population.  Of course there are health problems with obesity, so over generations of people being well fed the tendency toward obesity is reduced. 


“It’s all nutrition.  Nobody thinks that there is an element of hybrid vigor, such as you describe with mules.”


“What about sperm counts?” asked Tracy.  “We read that sperm counts are falling in a large part of the world.  Like mules again, are our males getting infertile because of mixed up genes?”


“The falling sperm count is often attributed to pollution.  But nobody knows what the pollutant might be, even with a Nobel Prize dangling for the scientist who figures it out. 


“I think the main stream consensus now would be that it is life style.  Children stay up with electric lights, and that persuades the hypothalamus, part of the brain, that it’s always summer and that kick starts sexual growth.  And they are exposed to a lot more sex and violence in your movies, on television and in books and magazines.  The notion that this is bad is implicit in laws that forbid children from seeing things like certain movies.  If they are exposed to too much sexual stimulation and shocked by too much horror, the hypothalamus decides that there are females around to pay court to or there is a war or both.  In any case, it calls for a mature male.  So sexual maturity starts too soon and is somewhat incomplete.  It isn’t their genes.”


“Just one more question,” said Ivan.  “Is there something called, ‘Effective population size’?  How big does it get to be?”


“Well now we’re getting closer to my field.  I will oversimplify this.  Suppose you have a population size of a thousand.  We will look at genes that are different but have identical effects.  There is a less common gene A, and one hundred people have it.  There is another less common gene B and one hundred people have it.  So a random person has a one in ten chance of having gene A.  You look at one hundred with gene A and if one in ten, that would be ten, also has gene B, then A and B are mixed throughout the population and your effective population is one thousand.  But if everyone with gene A also has gene B, then it looks like you have two smaller populations, one of one hundred and one of nine hundred.


“It gets more complicated because everyone has two copies of most genes.  So you look at how often someone has two copies of A.  If everyone with one A also has a second A, then you are looking at a smaller effective population.  There are other variables, but that is the essence of it.”


“So how big are populations?” Ivan asked.


“They tend to run twenty or thirty thousand.  It’s a fairly constant size.  Iceland has the same effective population size as continental Europe to a first approximation.”


“If our friend is right, then if you take villages of one hundred each and mix them for ten generations you should have an effective population size of about one hundred thousand.  It sounds like we are two generations from extinction,” said Ivan. 


“I don’t think so.  Effective population sizes will rise and rise as more groups mix together.  We will soon have effective sizes far greater than one hundred thousand.” 


Ivan continued to attack.  “Unless we go infertile when we reach too great a size.  Maybe those population sizes are so close to each other because populations are always going over the edge.”


“Maybe, but nobody expects that.  Time will tell, I suppose.  But I confidently predict effective population sizes as large as you like in time.” 


Ivan stood.  The others rose as well.  “Thank you for your time.  You have been most kind.”


“My time is yours.  Let me see you to your car.”


On the way Ivan asked, “Which way do you face when you face toward Mecca?”


“Which ever way the holy man says to face.”


“According to the globe, the shortest way to Mecca is through New York.”


“I am sure you could invent a map that would have you facing any direction at all.  If the shortest distance was the point, we would all pray into holes in the ground, but that is not commonly done.


“No, the point of facing Mecca is to take you out of yourself, to have you rise above local concerns.  You would think that if you were in Mecca, then that would not work, and at the Kaaba itself you would be totally concerned with a local event.  That proves not to be a problem.”


A moment after they had pulled away, Aden took out a pad and made a small note.  Then he punched up a number on his telephone.


Thousands of miles and in a manner of speaking thousands of years away a man was distracted from his prayers on a holy mountain by the signal of the satellite downlink in his Land Rover.  He arose and went over and took the instrument from his driver.


“Father,” came Aden’s voice, “I have been fired.  I am to be deported in the next few days.  No I have nothing to dishonor the family.  It is all government confusion.  So I shall see you soon.”


“If the will of Allah brings my son back to my arms, it is an easy will to accept.”


“I also just had an interesting conversation with, if I am correct, a Christian, an African and a Cossack.”


“A  foul, treacherous, blood drinking, child butchering, village burning, woman raping, wine bibbing, caviar stealing, murder-brained – the misbegotten son of an ill-favored leprous pig, his fangs drip shit and his tiny eyes burn red, the smell of his farting kills ibis at three miles, the curl of his tail makes women abort – upon the unresisting body of a mangy ewe, dripping pus and staring with wild madness – the augers look on her unclean visage and predict that fall of nations and the sodomy of kings …(Ali went on for some time more) … ten thousand fold accursed COSSACK?”


“That’s right.”


“What did he have to say?”


“You know how we often discuss the fall of the West, that they have no babies.  He thinks he knows why and means to stop it.”  Aden quickly related the rest of what he knew.


Ali replied, “We must stop him.  I think.  I’m not sure.  We shall speak of this again soon.”


After they disconnected Ali called up his holy man friend in Mecca.  They greeted each other.  “Do you have a map nearby?”


“Of course.” 


“Make a line through the pyramids, Mount Sinai and Mecca.  Tell me if the line goes through Yemen.”


There was a pause as the holy man busied himself at the map.  Then, “Yes it does.  In fact it goes right through your home town of Aden, where you were born.  That’s why you named your son ‘Aden,’ is it not?”


“Yes.  Now do you have a globe?”  Over the next several minutes the holy man inspected his globe, measured with a string and reported what he found.  At last Ali thanked him and said, “Blessings and peace be upon thee.”


“And upon thy countenance.”


Ali faced away from Mecca toward Cairo.  There was much to learn and little time.


After he disconnected from his father, Aden punched the cell phone again, “Gamal?  We pack soon.  Right now put the word out on the Street.  There is a black Grand National going to Philadelphia.  Keep track of it.”  He read the license number from his note.


There have been 2,112 visitors so far.


Home page.