1950s Science Fiction Loved Neanderthals, Feared PolioS

Did you know we made scientific advances in the last half century? It amazed me, too. Step back into a carefree world of spaceships, human-neanderthal orgies, and polio as I pick up a fifty-five-year-old copy of Astounding Science Fiction.

The November 1954 issue begins with a big swing-and-a-miss by editor John Campbell, who writes in his editorial,

I am willing to bet that the next major advance in human understanding – the really big advance – will be initiated by working with something that is detected by organic entities . . . probably human detection systems.

He goes on to talk about how the first device used to detect electric current was a pair of frogs legs and how science has become more about meter reading than human inventiveness.

Campbell's sentiment echoes, though never directly references, Ernest Rutherford's famous statement "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." An unsubtle jab, this statement ridiculed the orthodoxy and classification that Rutherford believed characterized biology and chemistry, representing physics as the only branch of science which allowed for true scientific exploration.

Campbell's idea that human perception cannot be usurped by mechanical tools is perhaps inspired by one of the stories in the issue. "Pilot's License," by William T Powers tells the story of Lysle Cruthers, the son of a disgraced spaceship pilot, who spends fifteen years working to get his own pilot's license. He makes a difficult landing, detached from the danger of the situation, and tells the doctor who checks him out afterward that he was "flying the instrument panel," and not the ship. After a final confrontation with Lysle, the doctor walks off thinking about what a fantastic pilot Lysle will be since "no man with that degree of presbyopia could have read his instruments accurately enough to fly on them."

The human spirit, not cold, precise instrumentation, will be the next breakthrough in science, the issue seems to declare. Read in its own time, it would have made a very good case. Read fifty-five years later, though, the most memorable part of "Pilot's License" is the blurb which gives us the emotional thrust of the story; "The only man who you can be sure won't get polio is the one who's had it – and won the battle."

This was a true statement at the time. Five months later, Doctor Jonas Salk announced to the world that there was going to be a very reliable way to be sure that a man wouldn't get polio. While the polio vaccine didn't usher in the golden age of biochemistry, in which our focus has literally turned from our stars to ourselves, it could be seen as one of its early heralds. As for modern research, we turn to scanning electron microscopes, the Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, which all detect things that we can never hope to witness with our own eyes.

What struck me, the first time I read this issue, was how antiquated much of the science seemed and how contemporary the capitalism felt. Sure, the ad that said "Prepare Now for Leadership in the New Industrial Revolution," was a scam, but it was a prescient one. And sure, the ad on the back cover that promises "Free Round Trip Reservations to the Moon," looks quaint. Until you read it a little closer and see that it's basically an early forbearer of the current Star Registry programs. You know the ones. You pay a company to tell you that, as far as they are concerned, such-and-such star is named after you, International Astronomical Union be damned. In 1954, they were selling the same thing, only this time it was labeled as an application to be on the ‘list' of the first company selling commercial flights to the moon.

Capitalism isn't the only thing that stands the test of time more than science does. Reading an article entitled "Our Hairy Ancestors," by Poul Anderson, the most contemporary sentence is, "These days, the subject of race is so touchy that intelligent discussion is almost impossible." The sociological awkwardness, and the carefully-worded-to-seem-off-hand disclaimer have held up far more than the scientific content of the article. Poul claims that despite evidence of "Australopithicus, the mysterious South African fire ape," the modern human race originated in Southeast Asia. Africans are, therefore, the "youngest race," having broken off last from the main Homo sapiens group. Europeans, meanwhile, have almost doubtlessly interbred with Neanderthals. It makes sense, since Neanderthals weren't too different from modern humans. They had developed stone tools, speech, and religion. They had much to offer, and their genes may be the reason some modern Europeans have fair hair.

To my mind, this essay was as much science fiction as "Pilot's License" was. While most of what Anderson wrote was at the time backed by solid scientific evidence, almost none of it is regarded as fact anymore. In Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Nicholas Wade summarizes various genetic studies to paint a very different portrait of both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. Wade uses various studies to dismiss the idea that Neanderthals had anything worth contributing to the gene pool, let alone the thought that they might actually have a relative or two alive today. There is no genetic evidence that shows Neanderthals and humans interbred, Wade writes. More damningly, analysis shows that Neanderthals lack the FOXP2 gene, the so-called language gene. A population that lacked the capacity for language, and therefore long-term planning, religion, and creative development, would be unlikely to have contributed much to the human race.

"The title's not even right," I said to one of my friends, as I looked over the issue. "They aren't our ancestors."

"Actually," he replied. "They might be."

1950s Science Fiction Loved Neanderthals, Feared Polio

While reading Before the Dawn, I was again doing a little time-traveling, though this time only to 2006 instead of 1954. Since 2006, there have been a few developments that put Anderson's essay back in the running for scientific fact again. In 2006 and 2007, scientists discovered bone fragments which suggested that human-Neanderthal interbreeding was a possibility after all. In early 2009, though, studies in Germany, Spain, and Italy, ruled out the idea that Homo sapiens inherited any traits from Neanderthals. This looked to support Wade's theory, until it was discovered that Neanderthals did, in fact, have the FOXP2 language gene. Now, despite Wade's probably-correct assertion that Neanderthals did not interbreed with humans to any significant degree, Anderson's view of Neanderthal society, complete with language and religion, looks to be the correct one. At least, this year it does.

(Left: Nicholas Wade, seen here being wrong about Neanderthals.)

It was sometime between sorting through articles on Neanderthals and looking up studies on the FOXP2 gene that I understood why the science seemed so hokey and antiquated while the social issues and shameless marketing did not. Social strife and human acquisitiveness might not change much in fifty-five years, but scientific knowledge does. Constant inquiry and the rigorous testing of ideas, theories, methods and facts, has produced an stream of knowledge that might meander or loop back, but never stops progressing.

What we see in this issue of Astounding Science Fiction is the reason why science fiction will never surrender its grip on the human imagination. While most other genres focus on the static human condition, science fiction utilizes social themes while turning our gaze outward, on the ever-changing, ever-expanding field of scientific discovery. Perhaps, in time, John Campbell will be proven right about his faith in "organic detection systems." Perhaps, in fifty-five years, we'll be detecting dark matter with a pair of frog's legs.