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[GUEST POST] Edward Ashton (THREE DAYS IN APRIL) on Genetic Engineering and the Fear of Otherness

Edward Ashton lives with his adorably mopey dog, his inordinately patient wife, and three beautiful but terrifying daughters in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, ranging from Louisiana Literature to Daily Science Fiction. Three Days in April is his first novel.

Genetic Engineering and the Fear of Otherness

by Edward Ashton

Here’s a thought experiment: what if, when European explorers reached North America, they found the continent occupied by a thriving civilization of Homo erectus? Given a relatively modest shift in the timing of the rise and fall of the Bering land bridge, it could have happened. Show of hands–anyone think this would have ended well?

Humans have always had a deep-seated fear of otherness. There’s a very good reason for this, of course. The leading cause of death among our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, is being murdered by another chimpanzee. Neighboring bands of chimps are in a constant state of low-level warfare with one another. In this sort of environment, it becomes a matter of life and death to be able to quickly separate us from them. It’s a fair reading of our species’ history, in fact, to view the past ten thousand years as an ongoing project aimed at subverting or co-opting the instinct to identify and destroy others. Anyone who wants to be king of more than his extended family has to first convince his followers to view one another as us, members of a common family, while still seeing the followers of any rival kings as them. Dangerous. Untrustworthy. Other.

A number of useful tools have been developed over the years to accomplish this trick. We are children of the Sun. They are children of the Moon. We are Persian. They are Greek. We are Democrats. They are Whigs.

We are white. They are black.

The irony in this is that humans are remarkably uniform from a genetic standpoint. Our species went through a narrow evolutionary bottleneck in the recent past, with the result that there is now more genetic variation in the average tribe of monkeys on a hillside than there is in all of humanity–but even so, our history is bloody. Given this, what would happen if our differences were more than imaginary? What if we weren’t a single, almost uniform species? Is there any way this wouldn’t end in wholesale slaughter?

Given the exponential growth in our ability to first decipher and then manipulate the human genome, this question is more than academic. My new novel, Three Days in April, is set in a world roughly thirty years after the widespread breakout of germ-line genetic manipulation. The Engineered still only make up a small fraction of the population, and the modifications of the first generation are mostly cosmetic, but tensions between the genetic elite and the un-modified masses are rising. A rapidly growing, quasi-religious sect calling themselves the UnAltered have declared that in changing their genomes, the Engineered have forfeited their souls. Some among the Engineered are beginning to argue that Homo sapiens’ time has passed, and that the future belongs to those who aren’t afraid to embrace change. The most radical actors on both sides are kept in check only by an all-pervasive surveillance and security apparatus.

All-pervasive, of course, doesn’t mean perfect.

The key point that differentiates our situation from that of our jungle-dwelling cousins is that we are rapidly reaching the point where apocalyptic power can be wielded by small groups, or even individuals. At the outset of Three Days in April, a nightmare plague sweeps through Hagerstown, Maryland, killing ninety percent of the population in a matter of minutes. The government responds by sterilizing the area, killing the survivors in the process. Each side blames the other, and what begins as small-scale violence rapidly spirals toward open warfare.

One of the first questions I was asked about Three Days in April was this: How speculative is it, really? My answer? Not nearly as much as we’d probably like. Many governments have already taken steps to outlaw germ-line genetic manipulation, but my guess is that those laws will be just about as effective as anti-doping rules in cycling.

A speciation event is coming.

If we want to survive it, we’re going to need to find a way to radically expand our definition of us.

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