Short Story: The Newest Generation, Part One


Arriving minutes early, Professor Arnie Saknussen peered from behind the back stage curtains. As expected, his audience would be scant.  In a two hundred seat hall, he counted nine people.
Fighting his entire life for respect, saddled with a name that both inspired his youthful interest in science and diminished first impressions when introduced to colleagues, the thoroughly credentialed professor sighed deeply. He was never going to get used to disappointment, but he was getting used to the expectation of disappointment.
As a boy, Arnie idolized his namesake, the fictional explorer and scientist that courageously fought for his beliefs, ultimately putting his life on the line to prove what his contemporaries considered outlandish ideas. Perhaps that was why he, himself, was so willing to think outside accepted theory. Certainly, his early years had been easier, before he voiced the offbeat theories. He had once fought through his name to be considered something of a prodigy. Now? Not so much.
Entering the stage, approaching the podium, Professor Saknussen approved of the suggestion the lighting tech had made, to leave lights low and natural throughout the auditorium. With a large crowd the speaker should be illuminated, but with this small number of spectators, the pomp and ceremony would seem pretentious. This lighting made the venue more intimate and him more humble.
“Good morning, everyone,” Arnie began. “I will be presenting a controversial idea today, a proposition not well accepted presently by the establishment in the sciences concerning evolution and genetics. I hope to open your minds to an alternative possibility, to provide something for you to think about.”
A late entry as soon as he began speaking marched toward the front rows and chose a seat close to the stage. The young woman sat unceremoniously and plopped her armful of books and her sweater in the seat beside her. Then she pulled out a cell phone and Arnie wondered if she was ignoring his lecture or recording it.
“The gist of the idea is that evolution can manifest as a sudden and, until now unrecognized, glaring change in morphology within a single generation. In other words, that slow change over time is not the only way that species adapt to change. That a species can become something unrecognizable, more or less, as the offspring of its parent species.”
The science educator paused to let his words sink in. One thing about the small numbers of onlookers, he could more readily gauge how much of the audience was interested and paying attention. The girl in front had placed her device carefully in her sweater, facing the stage, and was now paying attention. The rest less so, a shared smirk on the face of two sitting together.
The talk progressed, Arnie presenting a slide show along with the logic of his speculations. He covered the evolution of Equus ferus caballus, the domesticated horse, and including the endangered Przewalski’s horse, the only remaining truly wild species of horse. There were better examples, but the professor found people identified best with something they felt an affinity for. Lemurs weren’t it.
There were as many gaps in the evolutionary record from Eohippus to the current derby winner as there were in the record leading to Homo sapiens. Arnie’s contention was that those gaps were sudden and not the result of missing information.
By the time his lecture wound down, he was sitting on the lip of the stage, having detached the microphone from its stand to be carried as he wandered. Even though he would have preferred a large crowd, he liked the opportunity to connect in a less formal way.
Most of the participants were already in the act of leaving. The two smirkers leaned forward, though, and began to pick his lecture apart using the current and most popular arguments of the times.
“With all of the millions of species on the planet,” one opined, “why don’t we see new species suddenly replacing old species?”
“Well, let’s remember that we have only been entertaining the idea of evolutionary change for less than two centuries, and in the beginning century, we had no idea of the mechanism, DNA, involved. That is less than the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. And as I said in my talk, ‘sudden’ may mean millennia or a single generation. I would also point out that there are often new species found in areas that have been considered thoroughly explored. And they are most often found to be related to existing species.”
The questions and answers devolved as they so often did into a debate, weighing the new thinking against the old and becoming more technical as more was said. Soon the conversation swayed toward how specific alleles were triggered by different proteins and how changing chromosomes could affect diseases like diabetes and lactose intolerance.
The two young men walked away more respectful than they began but to no one’s surprise, unconvinced.
Turning away from the discussion, Arnie almost bumped into the young woman who had lingered. She had remained quiet and unobtrusive and out of the professor’s line of sight.
“I’m sorry, Professor Saknussen, but I hope you have time for the questions I came to ask.”
Arnie was tired. Not so much from the travel, the lecture, or the discussion following… but from the frustration of the battle waged against entrenched thinking. He was tempted to blow off this late comer to the party, but something about her words and the way she couched them made him pause. Perhaps, just maybe, she would have something worthwhile. And besides, Arnie had nothing but a rather run-of-the-mill hotel room beckoning his interest.
Sighing, the evolutionary geneticist sat down in one of the theater seats as he invited her first query.
“What are you looking for?” asked the girl. “What could prove your theories?”
Of the many questions asked in entertaining any new idea, this was one that always sparked the imagination. There was no single answer, and although the lecture was meant to impart the answer through extrapolation, Arnie was often surprised that people often needed clarity. He made a mental note to evaluate and create a more obvious way for people to understand the point.
“Well, the very best scenario would be a recorded birth inside an enclosed space with a known species delivering an unknown species.” He mused thoughtfully, always enjoying the sudden epiphanies that came with speculation. “Of course, there are variations of that which would be hard to deny. Finding a known species nursing an unknown infant animal would qualify. Especially if the known species was a large animal. Finding an elephant or a giraffe nursing something clearly not an elephant or giraffe… and unknown… would qualify, wouldn’t it?”
The girl looked thoughtful.
“So it would have to be a wild animal? Or could it be a domestic animal?”
Considering, Arnie stated the objections he would anticipate using domestic livestock.
“The problem with domesticated animals is that we are already using so much genetic manipulation to fashion them as we like. Between the miniature versions of cattle, horses, dogs… and the unnatural color variations we breed into animals using primitive techniques. And that’s saying nothing about cloning, gene manipulation, sequencing, CRISPR, and even more radical science sticking its fingers into the pool, there isn’t much chance of a sudden change in a domesticated species being accepted as legitimate. The change has to not only be legitimate, but it has to appear legitimate… to skeptics, including the ignorant media and general public. Even so, there’s going to be hell to pay convincing enough legitimate, educated people that the manifestation is real.”
“You speak as though you’re expecting something to happen soon.”
“Of course. I thought I made that obvious. It’s happening now. We just haven’t been looking for it. We aren’t noticing what’s in front of our eyes because we are thinking in terms of what we’ve already accepted. It will take a brick to the head to wake us up.”
Once more, the young woman looked unusually thoughtful.
“I think I know where the brick is.”
Having to be convinced himself, Arnie harbored healthy skepticism. After introductions, Jody Carlson presented information that the professor had heard about but hadn’t recognized as pertinent. The national news only reported what they were told.
“I’ve been told to keep this information quiet,” whispered the young college student in a low voice, “but not by my family. I asked their approval after we spoke last night, and desperate people will reach for possibilities to explain what the authorities want to keep quiet. But my family is tired of waiting.”
She seemed serious, and Arnie would give her the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. They were meeting on the quad of the local university after Jody enticed the professional interest of the geneticist, alluding to the clandestine nature of a news item that hadn’t been fully accurate, after his lecture the day before. Now they were sitting on a comfortable bench in a public place, away from interrupting noise and other intrusions. The day was cool in the shade of large trees, and soon the conversation became interesting.
Continuing, the young grad student began to unfold what she knew.
“I have a nephew. One that I was expecting a little over two years ago. But when the due date passed without an announcement, I started to worry. My older sister, Addie, is close to me, very close since my mother died, and I knew there had to be something wrong. I assumed the worst, perhaps a stillbirth. My family isn’t one to shy away from deformity or intellectual disability, so I assumed death was the only thing that would keep Addie silent. But I was wrong. She’s been instructed by the powers-that-be to keep her mouth shut. And they made her quit her job, permanently, and have subsidized her income since the birth. All so she could stay home and be a full-time mother.”
Considering the business Arnie was in, his reason for being in this college town, and the few clues from the prior conversation, the professor anticipated the next point made.
“The reason my sister is required by the government to be a stay-at-home mom, against her wishes, is because my nephew isn’t human.”
Between classes that Jody was unwilling to miss, Arnie’s obligations which he juggled to accommodate his interest, and intense speculation that seemed at times wild imagination, the next three days passed quickly.
The girl had a story. It seemed plausible. But Arnie could not afford to be wrong. His reputation was already besmirched within his community by his support of unusual ideas.
Finding the old clips from each news service, reported as a new medical syndrome creating a type of birth defect, he reviewed each several times. Within the small discrepancies, there was room for suspicion.
There was a claimed cluster of birth defects in the Central Valley of California. No numbers were given, but the implication was that several children with a similar anomaly had been born. In Arnie’s mind, the news was geared to obscure specifics while inviting people in the medical professions, specifically obstetrics, to report odd deformities.
Digging deeper, in ways only a professor of sciences would have available… in other words using his aids and grad students to come up with ways to network over social media and some discrete hacking, he gathered information he wasn’t supposed to know. Bits and pieces, a lot of useless information, but some that confirmed and expanded on Jody’s tale.
So far, it seemed there were eight women confirmed on the government payroll after giving birth in Central Valley… and three in Kansas. They all lived on farms. Arnie considered that interesting.
One of the basic tenets of Arnie’s theory was that environmental factors would have to change drastically to force drastic evolutionary change. If you want a large land animal to lose its ability to walk, you flood where it lives. If you do it harshly but so there are survivors, those survivors better develop fins quickly.
Thinking hard, gathering information, Arnie couldn’t see the environmental factor that would change human beings into something else. The necessary piece was missing. His first thought had been obvious, something within the industrial revolution.  But everything that the industrial revolution had wrought seemed too temporary. Although coal, exhaust fumes, and boxed food seemed likely, they just hadn’t been around long enough or weren’t deadly enough. The human genome was living with these things and wasn’t showing signs of change. Arnie had run the numbers already using volunteers within his department, and nothing was adding up to human alleles having unusual proteins triggering them in odd ways.
It was time to meet Jody’s nephew…

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