In yesterday’s New York Times, ace critic Michiko Kakutani reviewed a new novel, Lucy, by Laurence Gonzales. The premise sounds pretty dire:
Lucy is part human, part ape, the result of an experiment in which a British scientist named Stone managed to artificially inseminate a genetically altered female bonobo named Leda. Lucy is reared and home-schooled by Stone in the heart of the African jungle. His plan is to send her off to college in England, where she will presumably meet a mate. He envisions her as “the universal Eve” for a new and improved race of people that will preserve the best qualities of bonobo genetics.
For one thing, Kakutani doesn’t like the science, and rightly so:
Not only does Mr. Gonzales fail to explain how Stone might have managed the unprecedented feat of cross-species breeding in the middle of the jungle without any real laboratory or medical facilities, but he also sidesteps the question of why Lucy’s looks are so utterly human and why her bonobo genes are evident mainly in traits like her unusual physical strength and highly acute hearing.
Yeah, the reviewer should have given the salacious details! But what Kakutani doesn’t realize is that this experiment has been tried before. As I mention in WEIT, the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov inseminated female chimps with human sperm in Africa in the 1920s and failed. His reciprocal plans to inseminate humans with ape sperm were mercifully aborted by the Russians.
Could human-ape hybrids (called “humanzees” or “chumans”) be viable? Maybe Ivanov just didn’t do the experiment enough times; after all, even humans who try to have human babies often fail. The chimp and human lineages are diverged by about 7 million years, and that’s almost exactly the same distance between the horse and donkey lineages. Horses and donkeys, as we know, can produce viable (but sterile) offspring—mules. So maybe humanzees like Lucy (obviously named after Donald Johanssen’s A. afarensis fossil) could survive.
Kakutani’s question about why Lucy has human appearance but some bonobo behaviors is a good one, though. She goes on to criticize the novel on nonscientific grounds:
Unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales’s orchestration of these developments is increasingly hurried and perfunctory as the book hurtles along. He rushes through the momentous decision to create a YouTube video explaining Lucy’s story in her own words, making the whole scenario sound thoroughly hokey, and does much the same thing with the scenes depicting Lucy’s flight from home and efforts to elude a mysterious stalker who may or may not work for the government. . .
. . . To make matters worse, his depictions of Lucy’s enemies — fundamentalist bigots who want to send her to a zoo; conservative politicians who want to pass a bill that would officially render her “a nonhuman animal” — grow increasingly cartoonish, to the point where any real sense of threat is removed. It seems preposterous that the United States government or its agents would throw this teenage girl into a cage on an Air Force base. And it seems equally preposterous that they would allow a Mengele-like veterinarian to perform sadistic experiments on her.
Oy, gewalt! That sounds like a biologized version of The Da Vinci Code. I’ll give this one a grateful pass, but if anyone here reads it, do report back.
Fig. 1. Ilya Ivanov (1870-1932), renegade biologist