Flash Fiction

By David Winter 10/11/2010

A friend of mine send me a link to New Scientist’s Flash Fiction competition. The idea is pretty simple, write a super-short (350 words) story on the way the world might have been if some now disproved scientific theory turned out to be true. Get an entry in and it might be published in New Scientist and, much more excitingly, Neill-Freaking-Gaiman might read whatever crazy idea you came up with.

Three hundred and fifty words is about a prefect word count for my schedule at the moment (although it does take quite a long time to write something that short) so I’ve been working on a couple of ideas. You can only submit one story to the competition, so here’s the one that I deemed too silly to send in. (There are bonus points for anyone who can explain why this wouldn’t work even if recapitulation theory did turn out to be true)



Researchers Recreate Human Ancestors

  • Bipedalism nothing new
  • First animals sponge-like
  • New tools create ethical dilemmas

An historic series of publications presented in PLoS Biology today detail how scientists have recreated stages of our species’ evolutionary history for the first time. Researchers took advantage of new technologies and the fact organisms recapitulate their evolutionary history during their embryological development. By arresting development of an embryo at an early stage and ’knocking out’ genes inferred to have arisen at different times in humanity’s evolution researchers recovered the developmental program of two human ancestors.

Etienne Meckle, the head of the Human Ancestor Project (HAP), expressed his amazement at the achievement.

’ 150 years ago – when Ernst Haeckel presented the modern version of recapitulation theory – Darwin’s ideas of evolution were new, we didn’t know what a gene was and we didn’t understand embryology at all. Now, two human lifetimes after his work we’ve used his theory to recreate two of our ancestors’

The creatures so far created by the HAP had been separated by 600 million years. By halting development of a human embryo after four days, and removing the effects of all genes not shared by all animals, scientists created a simple filter-feeding animal. This early animal is similar to a modern sponge, and supports the long held theory that the first animals were sponge-like.

The second of the team’s creation is bound to prove more controversial. Merca is a 3 foot tall ape, thought to similar to the last shared common ancestor of modern apes and not seen on earth for 32 million years. She walks on two feet, a trait once thought to be unique to modern humans.

Scientific controversy aside these results have fueled a wider ethical debate, summarized by a comment by BioEthaciser121 on the PloS Biology website:

’Science has delivered us the ability to bring intelligent animals into a world they can’t possibly be prepared for. Society now needs to decide if we want to do that.’

Both recreated ancestors are on display at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.