William Doonan

I write books and stories.

MedicineLand: Chapter Sixteen

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The lights were off, but the lab was well-illuminated by the glare from the monitors.  Carson, sitting in his wheelchair, cast a long low shadow from wall to wall.

Julia ran her ID through the scanner.  “You lied,” she said as the airtight door opened.

“I said I was home.  I am home.”

In the dark, the computerized robotic DNA synthesizer she had dubbed Prometheus moved quickly; its single arm moving rhythmically across a two foot square of nylon.

“You’re not running our regular program here.  We’re looking at Karen Sorrows and her fetus, right?”

Carson nodded.  “I’m running it again.  It will take fourteen minutes.”

“This is leased, you know.  It has a log, we keep an activity report.  You can’t have this on the activity report, Carson.”

“I’m logging the regular protocols.  Be cool.”

Julia rolled her chair so close to Prometheus that her breath misted on the enclosure glass.  “What’s going on?”

“You already know, professor.  You’ve talked about it, but this is proof.  It’s illegally-obtained, but it’s proof.”

Julia nodded.  “She’s parthenogenic.”

Prometheus slowed momentarily, spun the table holding the nylon sheet, and began moving again.

Carson nodded.  “She is.  Parthenogenesis is the development of an embryo without any genetic contribution from the father; no sperm involved.  The offspring is genetically identical to the parent.

“No one has ever seen this before.”

Carson shook his head.  “People see this all the time.  Girls get pregnant and swear they’ve never been with anyone, but no one believes them.  This is Nobel Prize material.”

Julia stared.

“Nobody doubts it in reptiles,” Carson volunteered.  “I mean, people doubt it but there have been legitimate cases.”

Julia shook her head.  “Shelly Purcell, California’s foremost snake expert kept a pit viper at home for thirteen years.  Sirene.”

“Selene,” Carson corrected.

“Sirene,” Julia insisted.  “Look it up right now.  I’ll bet you $30 it’s Sirene.”

“You’re on,” said Carson, bringing up the search engine, “but make it $38.”

“Why $38?”

“I ate at the Cafeteria but I bought a copy of People magazine and twenty scratch-off lottery tickets.”

“You’re a fool.”

“I have to have hope.”

“Did you win?”

“No.  Fuck,” he said, reading the information from Google. “It’s Sirene.”

“Pay me, big boy,” she said.  “Shelly Purcell.”

“Didn’t he have a kids TV show?”

“For about a season but he wasn’t telegenic enough so they replaced him with cartoons.  Shelly kept a female pit viper at home, and after thirteen years, Sirene had babies.  Never had any chance for contact with a male snake, and yet still had babies, had seven little baby snakes who were genetically identical to her.”

“Yes,” said Carson.  “Snakes ordinarily reproduce sexually, but under periods of extreme stress, such as drought or famine, or a situation in which an individual could not mate, it might become possible for the female to reproduce asexually, to produce genetic clones.”

“Turkeys too, right?”

“Yes,” he answered.  “I pulled that up about an hour ago.  In 1952, USDA scientists in Beltsville, MD hatched 1100 parthenogenic turkeys.”

“So what would be the evolutionary advantage?”  Julia asked, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it anyway.

“If a female can’t find a suitable mate, it’s in her best interest and the best interest of her species to propel her genes into the next generation.”  Carson smiled, wheeled around to sit next to Julia.

“Do you believe it?” she asked.

“It makes sense from the point of view of natural selection.”

“But do you believe it could happen in a human?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.  “Do you?”

“Yes.”

“Why would it work in humans?  We’re too complex.  There’s too many of us.”

Julia shook her head.  “Shit, we’ve only been living in farming communities for 8,000 years. But the hominid line goes back 7 million years.  For most of our time on this planet, we’ve lived in small groups, likely to be wiped out by leopards or other predators.  It might make evolutionary sense for a woman to have some mating backup plan.”

“I don’t know,” Carson said.  “You’re presuming that small bands of women roamed the earth with no men.”

“I am,” Julia agreed, as Prometheus finished the sequence.  The match was flawless.  Karen Sorrows was genetically identical to her aborted fetus.

“Think about it,” Julia continued.  “What’s the ratio of men to women in the world today?”

“More boys are born every day than girls,” he said, “but at every stage of life, from infancy through old age, males are more likely to die.”

“And from your Anthropology studies, how many individuals make up a band in a pre-agricultural society?  By that I’m asking you to guess the ratio of women to men in small bands across the earth up until 8,000 years ago.”

Carson fiddled with the joystick, rocking his wheelchair back and forth.  “What you’re getting at is that more men would have died so there would have been a higher ratio of women to men.”

“Yeah.”

“But you don’t need as many men.  You only need a few or one.”

“What if there were not a few, not even one?  What’s the maximum carrying capacity for modern hunter-gatherers?”

He shrugged.  “Probably about a hundred.”

“That’s right,” said Julia.  “But four million years ago we were being predated mercilessly.  Most models for human ancestors use modern hunter gatherers as examples, but what if the groups were smaller, much smaller.”

“How small?”

“Like ten or five or three or two.  That means some percentage of human bands would be made up entirely of women.”

“They’d die.”

“As do we all,” she said.  “But would there not be some selective pressure for the genome to have a Plan B?”

Carson wheeled back and forth, rolled tight figure eights of mechanized pacing.  “No one has ever seen this in a mammal.”

“We have,” Julia said.  “Karen Sorrows would have given birth to a parthenogenic clone, but she didn’t because she terminated the pregnancy.”

“Do you think she knew?”

“Someone knew.  This girl is living in a commune where someone cured her terminal cancer, put her on birth control, and then paid for her abortion.  So yes, I think she knew.  And we need to know too.”

“We could call the police,” Carson offered, “or the National Institutes of Health.”

“And we would explain our evidence how?” Julia asked.

Carson said nothing.  They sat for a moment in Prometheus’ rare silence.

“We need to talk to Karen Sorrows,” Julia said finally.  “Either you or I should go.  It probably shouldn’t be me.  You go, OK?”

“Yeah, but not by myself.”

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Written by williamdoonan

January 3, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Fiction, MedicineLand

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