Sunday, October 11, 2009

Reproduction in other species

Reproduction is something fundamental to a species – even viruses, which don’t do much else, use other cells to make copies of themselves. So it’s fun to play around with this in speculative fiction, and here are a few ideas.

Skew genders

How would a society which consistently produced fewer males than females – or vice versa – handle the issue of reproduction? Polygamy still takes place on Earth, but in such a society there would at least be less marginalization of men who are not allowed to breed for whatever reason – e.g. the Lost Boys.

And what about polyandry? I’d love to see more of that in speculative fiction – especially with attention paid to how the husbands form a pecking order and how children’s paternity is established. Or if it’s simply not an issue.

Make reproduction mandatory

Between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, a woman is required to have two or more children. It’s a bit like National Service, and the woman is free to do whatever she likes from then on.

The children might be raised by someone else, if that’s what she wants. Or they could be preserved at birth age for her until she’s ready to raise them. I prefer the first, because it’s a way to divorce reproduction (no pun intended) from marriage and love. The vast majority of humanoid SF races have that in common with humans: love and marriage are intrinsically linked with children. But what if they weren’t?

Confine reproduction to one class of the population

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale did this for a group of women who were simultaneously controlled and envied, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. If only a small subpopulation of women were capable of reproducing – but could do it with consistent success and without forming strong ties to their children – they might occupy a prominent place in society. They could travel from place to place offering their services and being paid very well for it. Or they might become the third person in a legally and socially sanctioned menage.

Or reproduction might be restricted to just one person, like the humanoid version of a beehive. A similar situation operates in Karne, one of the lands in my manuscript Dracolytes, where very few women breed – but those who do give birth to over a hundred children, which kills the mother.

And what if reproduction couldn’t occur unless the offspring – while conceived by humanoid parents – had to be incubated in someone else? It would be the cuckoo’s strategy raised to a whole different level.

Don’t be too unrealistic

I don’t expect rigorous science from Star Trek, but on the other hand, there are some things which can’t withstand a suspension of disbelief. One of them was the reproductive capacity of the Ocampa from Voyager. An episode established that Ocampa women have only one fertile period, called the Elogium, in their lives.

This means that each woman has to give birth to twins to at least keep the Ocampa population stable. Producing only one child – which happened in the show – would cut the population in two with each generation. That was one reason I stopped watching Voyager (by the way, there was also an episode where a race of aliens became children as they grew older, which makes one speculate about what they’re like when they’re born).

But there are better methods of producing offspring that could be used – borrowing from science, prionic reproduction or parthogenesis a la David Brin’s Glory Season. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would say.


Mary Witzl said...

Ooh, this is interesting -- all those possibilities!

'The Handmaid's Tale' gave me nightmares for months. Those horrible, fake quasi-religious people who controlled the nubile women -- the whole process of mating them -- I don't think I could ever read that book again, even though I found it brilliantly well written.

You'd have to pay me a million pounds to have another baby. If I had one, I could never give it up, but the thought of raising another kid myself (shudder)-- ten million pounds wouldn't be enough.

Marian said...

Hi Mary,

The Handmaid's Tale, like all good SF, got me thinking. What if male fertility, rather than female fertility, was a scarce commodity? What if we had a world where only a few men could reproduce?

My first assumption was that those men would have it made - women everywhere would want them and they wouldn't have to deal with actually carrying the children.

On the other hand, their fertility, like that of the Handmaids, would be controlled and monitored by the government. They would become a national resource. They could never settle down with one person or raise the children they fathered. If they were gay, too bad. No... their lives wouldn't be too easy.

Loren said...

Marian, what an interesting subject. :D

There are oodles of possibilities, some of which may not be very practical for a sentient species. The children need to be with their parents and their parents' group so that they can learn from their elders. This is rather difficult for species whose members die soon after reproducing, like salmon. They can't pass on to their children anything about how to make their long journeys to the sea and back.

Birds are well-known for sitting on their eggs, and which sex does it varies between species -- it's often both sexes.

JH said...

If only a few men were fertile, then depending on the technology available, they might just spend the rest of their lives having to jack off into a cup every day and send it to the local hospital. It's not as interesting a question as when there are only a few fertile women, unless there's no such thing as in-vitro fertilization.

JH said...

Actually, I'm dumb, in-vitro means outside the womb, so rare fertile girls and guys have it easy either way if it exists. Artificial insemination is the dividing line.

Marian said...

That's true. Still, we could always have a restrictive religious state like the Republic of Gilead (where the only proper method of fertilization is through sex), or the necessary technology not being available. Then the men get to be the human version of the stud bull.

Marian said...

"The children need to be with their parents and their parents' group so that they can learn from their elders."

Not necesssarily their parents, surely? They could learn from any adults taking sufficient care of them... or they might learn in other ways that don't require parents being around. I'm thinking memories handed down genetically.

Loren said...

I was thinking of a very common source of altruism in our planet's biota: kin selection. Being willing to make sacrifices for other possessors of one's genes; biological nepotism.

This isn't conscious calculation, of course, and such tendencies can be tricked. Consider how nest parasites like cuckoos and cowbirds exploit the parental instincts of other birds. Could pet animals be exploiting something similar in our species?

Kin selection works best with close relatives, like parents and children, so that's what I was thinking of.

But if we are talking about societies, being raised by other caretakers is certainly a possibility, and it's often been done.

As to inheritance of memories, that doesn't happen in our Universe. :D But that could help make possible a sentient species whose members reproduce only at the end of their lives as annual plants, salmon, etc. do.

An interesting variation on that theme is that female octopuses of several species spend the last weeks of their lives guarding their eggs. They do not eat for that time, and they die around when the eggs hatch. But that's a bit like the reproducing women of Dracolytes.