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Is Wayward Pines Genetically Plausible?

Wayward_Pines,_a.k.a_Agassiz,_BCTonight is the final episode, ever, of Wayward Pines, the 10-episode FOX television show that’s the best sci-fi I’ve seen since the X-Files.

The series, based on a trilogy by Blake Crouch, has a seemingly simple set-up. Random people, except for an overrepresentation of federal agents such as protagonist Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon), are in car crashes. They awaken in a spooky hospital in a creepy little town in Idaho. Walls (thankfully not a dome), festooned with signs warning that to leave is to die, contain the befuddled but curiously unquestioning townsfolk.

Occasionally, at night, everyone’s landline rings at the same time. This is a “reckoning,” a call to gather in a central square where a throat is slashed for a minor transgression. Graffiti-ing a wall. Mentioning life before Wayward Pines.

The kids – “generation one” – attend an academy run by a headmistress who looks and sounds just like Lisa Kudrow from Friends. I expected her to sing Smelly Cat before realizing she’s really Hope Davis, and terrifyingly manipulative.

When people try to escape the walled town, murderous ghouls flit by and the people vanish.

Idaho_regions_mapSPOILER ALERT!

The phone calls drawing people to reckonings remind me of H.G. Wells’s classic The Time Machine. Its future humanity diverges into the above-ground meek, sleek, blond and blue-eyed Eloi and the dark and dangerous subterranean Morlocks. When the Morlocks are hungry, they sound a siren. The happy Eloi, in a trance, march right into their dens, doomed to become dinner.

But the Wayward Pines gatherings are to prevent being eaten.

After the first 4 episodes, I was certain that Wayward Pines was a resting place for spies, like The Prisoner, another short summer TV series, from 1967. The Prisoner followed a British spy who had just resigned, who’s abducted and sent to a weird, walled prison-like community. I was wrong, and the reveal in episode 5, “The Truth,” knocked me off the couch.

The year is 4028, and the residents of Wayward Pines are all that’s left of humanity, unless pockets of survivors exist (a second season might explore this). Our descendants have become, due to genetic mutations as yet unspecified, “aberrations,” aka “Abbies,” which Wikipedia accurately calls “violent humanoid predators.” Episode 8 ends and 9 begins as an Abbie devours an unfortunate escapee just a few feet outside the walls. In contrast, the Morlocks’ hunting was implied; the 1960 film that scared the crap out of me didn’t actually show the carnage, just the aftermath.

4028? A mere two millennia for humanity to wipe itself out and a new hominin species come to dominate?

EVOLUTION TAKES TIME
128px-Brown,r_time_macine60The dual humanity of The Time Machine, a not-so-subtle allegory of British class distinctions in the early twentieth century, was plausible because the Time Traveler in his contraption zaps ahead to the year 802,701. That’s enough time for geographically separating gene pools with a sprinkling of mutations, plus natural selection acting on sun versus no sun, to have sculpted the two species from one. It’s a duration reminiscent of when several species of Australopithecus co-existed with Homo habilis in Africa, the terrain and other obstacles separating groups sufficiently to allow their differences to persist. At least until our brains developed sufficiently for our forebears to invent travel and for populations to mix.

We can only conjecture how the Eloi and Morlocks branch from humanity. In Wayward Pines, the survivors can thank the mysterious David Pilcher, whose profession is perhaps mad scientist. He had an inkling, back in the 1990s, that the Abbies were coming. According to Donald Trump’s way of associating simultaneous events into causality, Pilcher’s inspiration might have been the grunge movement.

To save humanity, Dr. Pilcher abducted a bunch of people back then and froze them. But unlike Woody Allen’s Miles Monroe in Sleeper, who was frozen like a bag of peas and catapulted two centuries into the future, some of Pilcher’s guests awake in 4014, thaw, learn the truth, and violently kill themselves. So he keeps the others in the deep freeze a little longer, then plants them above his subterranean lab in Wayward Pines. This time, he doesn’t tell the defrosted followers where they are, or why. He knows they can’t handle it, but Matt Dillon disagrees.

How did Dr. Pilcher choose his founding society? Did he invoke a selection process, like in When Worlds Collide or the Twilight Zone episode in which families are chosen to board a spaceship to escape Earth’s imminent destruction?

WHERE ARE THE APES?
Heston_and_harrison_planet_of_the_apesThe Abbies of 4028 may share the planet with simians, if one considers the various guises of The Planet of the Apes franchise. The 1968 film’s protagonist Taylor crash-lands in 3978, according to the smashed chronometer on his spaceship. Mark Wahlberg replaced Charlton Heston in Tim Burton’s 2001 version. Mark leaves Earth in 2029, landing on future Earth in 5021. Beneath the Planet of the Apes takes place in 3955, and the TV series in 3085.

(NHGRI)
(NHGRI)

The most recent incarnation of the Apes replaced time travel with a runamok gene therapy viral vector that only recently made pet chimp Caesar supersmart. He and his similarly doctored labmates take over within two decades, just in time for a sequel.

Darwin’s Children, another of my favorite books, makes more sense than the errant gene therapy vector and may have inspired it, Greg Bear having published it in 2003. In the world of Darwin’s Children, a retrovirus called Sheva splits humanity, endowing the infected with neurological enhancements that, presumably, will one day enable them to take over, even as discrimination against them surges.

A theoretical way that the human species could diverge rapidly involves a type of chromosome aberration called a Robertsonian translocation. Two different acrosomes – chromosomes with one long arm and one very short arm, numbers 13, 14, 15, 21, and 22 – attach, yielding at first a carrier with one smushed together unusual chromosome, and if carriers mate, some individuals with 44 rather than the normal 46 chromosomes. Without delving into the intricacies of meiosis, the people with 44 chromosomes could not produce viable offspring with the 46-ers and so would technically be an instant separate species, should they decide to procreate. Case Report: Potential Speciation in Humans Involving Robertsonian Translocations details how this can happen. Robertsonian translocations have led to speciation events in rodents and sheep.

But back to the peculiar little town in rural Idaho.

(NHGRI)
(NHGRI)

MY HYPOTHESIS
The humans and Abbies apparently diverge over about 134 generations, figuring 30 years as a generation time. That’s about the number of fruit fly generations I tortured as a graduate student. Not really long enough to generate a new species.

So here’s one scenario of the origin and evolution of the Abbies from us. I’m borrowing from other science fiction plots, but notably omitting being impregnated by a space alien and giving birth to a humanoid who looks like Michael Jackson with sparkling eyes and a revved up libido, as happens to Halle Berry’s astronaut character Molly Woods in CBS’s Extant.

1. Something kills a lot of people so the founding Abbie mutations can reasonably become a significant proportion of the population. I suggest a fast-acting flu, as in the terrific new book Station Eleven. The flu decimates about 99.9% of the human population, from 7 billion to 7 million.

2. A massive environmental disaster dismantles infrastructure, like in The Day After Tomorrow. Waves of earthquakes and tornadoes throw up great dust clouds that usher in an extended nuclear winter, as in Robert McCammon’s glorious Swan Song (from 1987, my all-time favorite apocalyptic novel).

3. The prolonged darkness, over time, topples food webs, killing off many species, thereby seeding the eventual cannibalism of the Abbies. Actually, we don’t know if they are a different species because so far they’ve eaten people, not had sex with them. So it might be just hunting.

4. A nice population bottleneck whittles the number of survivors even further, narrowing the gene pool in a random fashion. Then genetic drift, a consequence of sampling from the long-gone whole, and positive natural selection acting on advantageous traits, amplify the impact of certain gene variants.

5. Generations pass. Recessive mutations find themselves paired in individuals, bringing novel traits and new diseases. Meanwhile, new dominant mutations act faster than recessive ones, a point we’ll return to shortly.

6. Nonrandom mating might spread a mutation that offers a survival advantage.

HOW IT MIGHT HAPPEN

Imagine a settlement of 200 or so people who have survived all the disasters. A boy, let’s call him Adam, has undergone a de novo (i.e. new, not inherited from his parents) autosomal dominant mutation that makes him gorgeous, strong, smart, very horny, and very aggressive. Perhaps Adam has a dominant mutation in a gene that confers “central precocious puberty,” which in Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, the bible of geneticists, brings “conduct and behavior disorders” in addition to accelerated sexual maturity.

Armadillo-Florida-crop-2009The first mutant to have a lasting impact will be a male, because like Tom the bull who inseminated thousands of cows and Genghis Khan, who famously spread his Y chromosome throughout the world, males can parent more children in a lifetime than females. Then couple Adam and his mutation with Eves prone to ovulating more than one egg at a time, or perhaps even a female capable of conceiving identical quadruplets, like armadillos. The Abbie mutation and other gene variants on its chromosome (transmitted together thanks to linkage disequilibrium) spread through the fledgling population.

Within a few generations, dominant homozygotes arise in whom a dosage effect intensifies the phenotype. As more disasters and plagues ratchet down the biodiversity, the hungry and ever-more aggressive Abbies begin to eat the terrified last remnants of humanity.

Except the residents of Wayward Pines – until tonight, when the walls come down.

Please share your hypotheses!

Discussion
  1. Dogs have evolved into many different breeds in an extremely short time.

    Rather than a new species, think of it as a new dog breed.

    Consider that the tallest guy in the world (Yao Ming at 7’6″) had extremely tall parents (6’7″ and 6’2″). It’d be easy to breed an Abbie-like breed in just a few hundred years.

    Maybe even tens of years, considering that breeds like American Hairless Terriers and Moscow Toy Terriers have only existed for a couple decades.

  2. To me, the most unbelievable thing about the series is the short time line, coupled with the unbelievable advances in cryo-technology. It would take a series of events with at least a million to one chance of happening to bring about the abbies with a complete die- off of humans in that timeline. And then there is the third big unbelievable premise. How did David know this was going to happen? I need more detail and more convincing on that one. Nonetheless, I have suspended disbelief and thoroughly enjoyed the series. What it lacks in hard science reality, it makes up for in psychological reality.

  3. The terribly scary mutant ‘Abos’ never needed to evolve. They are surrounding desperately beleaguered, affluent white American enclaves already.

    We call them Mexicans, Arabs, the underclass, anyone who cannot speak perfect English.

    Personally, I call them people.

    Honestly, how else can you see this sad little series?

    The thing that irritates me most is that all those nice, white, middle-class children are being given a sense of destiny that they have already. Kill the aberrations, kill the aberrations!

    Je suis un abo…

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