Sunday, February 6, 2011

Daphnia, Genetics & Adaptation

A recent NPR story "Tiny Water-Flea Clocks In Record Number Of Genes" started me thinking about adaptation and the contrast between this flea whose genes empower it to create what it needs according to its context, such as growing "its own spear and helmet" when under threat. Researchers at The Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics studying the Daphnia have sequenced the 200 million letters of Daphnia's 31,000 genes. Having 8,000 more genes than humans, scientists are exploring what these extra genes do. Though properly categorized as a crustacea, the Daphnia were originally mistaken for fleas because of their red color, but unlike the flea, the blood in the Daphnia is self-generated in response to environmental stress.

Unlike the World State produced people of Huxley's novel, one of these rice-grain sized fleas is genetically programmed to be "flexible in response to its environment" as opposed to being genetically engineered for a narrowly defined existence.

Lenina's growing anxiety about going to the Savage Reservation with Bernard might not suggest insufficient genetics, but she exemplifies the inflexible lack of adaptability that is increasingly the hallmark of heavily technologized human beings. As she contemplates the Reservation from the hyper-comfort of a World State hotel, Lenina reveals her anxiety about the trip by reviewing the luxuries available at the hotel and repeating the conditioned slogan "

progress is lovely, isn't it?" To which

Bernard glumly responds by muttering the hypnopedic formula that imprinted her brain with the phrase.

"Liquid air, television, vibro-vacuum massage, radio, boiling caffeine solution, hot contraceptives, and eight different kinds of scent were laid on in every bedroom. The synthetic music plant was working as they entered the hall and left nothing to be desired. A notice in the lift announced that there were sixty Escalator-Squash-Racket Courts in the hotel, and that Obstacle and Electro-magnetic Golf could both be played in the park."

"But it sounds simply too lovely," cried Lenina. "I almost wish we could stay here. Sixty Escalator-Squash Courts . . ."

"There won't be any in the Reservation," Bernard warned her. "And no scent, no television, no hot water even. If you feel you can't stand it, stay here till I come back."

Lenina was quite offended. "Of course I can stand it. I only said it was lovely here because . . . well, because progress is lovely, isn't it?"

"Five hundred repetitions once a week from thirteen to seventeen," said Bernard wearily, as though to himself."

The characters in Brave New World are the ultimate professionals. They are the products of precise planning and the latest technology, beings born of Taylorism and the assembly line. Their personalities, aptitudes and desires are all predestined and their lives are predictable. Like all World State residents, they are conditioned to repeat hypnopedic phrases about being happy but put one of them in an unfamiliar, unexpected, or unplanned situation and their precision design breaks down. Unlike our - they are completely unable to adapt.

Unlike the Daphnia, contemporary human "adaptations" are the excretions and extrusions of technology, not our own biology. While our technologies do help us to encounter various environments successfully, most often they keep us from having to adapt and since they are not a part of our bodies they can be lost or taken away. If we genetically generated our own tools from our own bodies or if we could re-grow an organ or a limb, we might be closer to a durable adaptation, but what genetic engineering would it take to get us there?

Friday, January 7, 2011

upcoming adaptation?

Though Brave New World has been around for over 70 years there has never been a successful full-length feature film of the novel. Though he has not been especially forthcoming about the film, Ridley Scott is set to direct a film adaptation, possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this year according to the Sci Fi movie page

The most recent (only?) adaptations previous to this project are two TV versions, one in 1980 directed by Burt Brinckerhoff and the other in 1998 directed by Leslie Libman that stars Leonard Nimoy as Mustapha Mond.
Nimoy makes an ideal World Controller, but the Libman version ends with typical Hollywood schmaltz showing Bernard and Lenina with an infant in exile. Brinckerhoff's version seems a bit cheezy by today's standards and it certainly takes a few liberties by developing parts of the narrative but it ends as the novel ends with John's feet swinging back and forth.

It would make an interesting exercise to read the novel, listen to part 1 and part 2 of the 1956 CBS radio broadcast (Huxley narrates!) and watch the two TV versions above followed by a discussion of the various choices made in each adaptation and how they affect our understanding of the narrative.