A bad book about humanzees

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

25 Comments

  1. Posted July 6, 2010 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    Well, it’s fiction. One can allow for a certain amount of implausible “science” in fiction — if the story is good. Of course it’s better if the science is accurate since the reader learns while being entertained.

    The latter comments don’t give a good impression of the story, do they?

  2. mike m
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    I’ve read “Deep Survival”, by Laurence Gonzales. A non-fiction book about what it is in some individuals that makes them more likely to survive in life threatening situations. I’m not sure if it is standard reading for this crowd, but I found it engaging and thought provoking enough to spur conversations with my friends. I have read a number of book on survival and found this to be the best and at least enough to make me consider “Lucy”. Gonzales’ father survived a five mile fall out of the sky in WWII and survived. (If I remember right he was shot and left for dead by farmers that found him). Gonzales’ father became a biophysicist (his flying career cut short), taught at Northwestern University medical school for 20 some years.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Interesting, but not quite: Gonzales’ retelling indicates he fell strapped inside the plane, and that the farmer’s gun misfired.

      IIRC there was someone in WWII who fell free roughly the same height and survived with a broken leg or so.

      • Microraptor
        Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

        That sounds like Nicholas Alkemade, though according to Wikipedia, he didn’t break his leg, he merely sprained it.

  3. Chris Davis
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    They reviewed this book in Entertainment Weekly this week. After lauding the author as a cross between Michael Chricton and Cormac McCarthy, they gave an example of his writing(Lucy is watching her first TV show):

    “She pushed a button and some sort of drama began. People were arguing. Lucy recognized one of them as an old dominant female, but something had been done to her to make her face look younger. Lucy was puzzled that someone would wish to look younger and give up the status that age conferred.”

    After this eye-rolling, groan-inducing bit (for me at least) they gave the book an “A”! I’m sure it’s a page turner and will someday become a heavy-handed summer “message” movie; but after reading just this little bit, I’ll probably pass…

    • Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Oy. So Lucy is old enough to watch tv and think about it…yet she somehow hasn’t picked up any cultural knowledge during the time she spent reaching that age. Riiiiiiight.

    • Microraptor
      Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      *Facepalm*

    • Posted July 7, 2010 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      “and old dominant female, but something had been done to her to make her face look younger” It didn’t work, then, did it?

  4. Chris Davis
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    They reviewed this book in Entertainment Weekly this week as well. After lauding the author as a cross between Michael Chricton and Cormac McCarthy, they gave an example of his writing(Lucy is watching her first TV show):

    “She pushed a button and some sort of drama began. People were arguing. Lucy recognized one of them as an old dominant female, but something had been done to her to make her face look younger. Lucy was puzzled that someone would wish to look younger and give up the status that age conferred.”

    After this eye-rolling, groan-inducing bit (for me at least) they gave the book an “A”. I’m sure it’s a page turner and will someday become a heavy-handed summer “message” movie; but after reading just this little bit, I’ll probably pass…

  5. Posted July 6, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    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.

    Somebody hasn’t been keeping up on the news.

    • Jim
      Posted July 6, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Came here to say this.

  6. Raghu
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Have you seen this:

    “The Story of Evolution, Told in Graffiti”

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php
    /2010/07/06/big-bag-big-boom/

    The art is great; not so sure about the science.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    – Humanzees, as human does?

    Ouch! The reference to Chricton seems apt.

  8. Wayne Robinson
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I might buy it (just to review it of course). Amazon is releasing the Kindle edition on the 10th of July, so I’ll be able to read the start at least (I actually read John Olson’s “Fossil Hunter” advertised as an ID novel-actually it wasn’t too bad, once you realise the plot is ridiculous and the science mostly abysmal).
    I have just finished Guy P Harrison’s “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God”, and very, very good it was. I sampled the start of a similar book edited by Dembski from the opposite view, and the first 2 chapters on reasons to believe were appalling (so I passed).

  9. Kiwi Dave
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Sort of vaguely related.

    When an actress suggested to George Bernard Shaw that they copulate to produce a child with her looks and his brain, GBS demurred on the grounds that the child might have his looks and her brain.

  10. Grim
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Are mules sterile as you claim ? I understood that a percentage – though smallish – of ‘mollies’ (non-sterile female mules) can conceive naturally.

    So, after 7 million years, the species barrier is still not insurmountable between male donkeys and female horses.

    Kinda makes you wonder just how long it does take for unbridgeable speciation to occur, doesn’t it.

    • Microraptor
      Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      There is the occasional fertile mule, but the numbers are something like 1 in 10,000, so the exceptions are rare enough to be statistically irrelevant.

      • Grim
        Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        Mmm, so does “statistically irrelevant” equate fully to ‘scientifically irrelevant” ?

        The number you state of 1 in 10,000 is interesting – can you perhaps provide a link/pointer to how this number was established ? Did somebody conduct an exercise in attempting to breed with a defined subset of the female mule population, or is it merely an ‘anecdotal’ account based on irregular reporting of ‘molly’ pregnancies ? Does the same apply to hinnies ?

        How many people try to breed from female mules (or hinnies) on a regular and controlled basis ?

        • Microraptor
          Posted July 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

          No, I don’t know how that number was derived, but there are fewer than 100 recorded cases of a female mule giving birth to a foal, and (as far as I know) no confirmed cases of a male mule that was fertile.

          And “statistically irrelevant” means that the exceptions to the rule are so rare that they’re not a large enough factor that they deserve consideration.

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Um, lookit. When I first saw this this morning, the first thing that occurred to me is what description is given of the hybrid’s derriere. Having since then driven 415mi to a conference, and now seeing nothing posted on that subject, I have to conclude that any comment on that topic is missing in the book, and that therefore the book will fall vastly short of its sales potential.

  12. BrianPos
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Most irritating — it’s poorly written and gets a major publisher, whereas a much smarter and funnier book on the same theme came out last year from a tiny press and was buried without a Times review. (Monkey See by Walt Maguire)

  13. BrianPos
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Most frustrating is that this poorly written dopey thing came out from a major publisher while a good novel on the same subject came out last year from a small publisher and was buried without a Times review. (Monkey See by Walt Maguire) It was actually well-written, even funny, and probably about 10 people even knew about it. And then Lucy gets all the attention.

    • Microraptor
      Posted July 7, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      That happens a lot.

  14. everettattebury
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    This post reminded me of the 1988 movie “First Born” about an experimental hybrid of human and gorilla.

    He was intended to be a sort of super-soldier, but he instead turned out to be a pacifist.

    It was a very enjoyable movie.

  15. Delusional
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading a book that was vaguely similar to this, but involved a very different “humanzee”. I forget the name, but it involved a human girl who is paralyzed in a car accident, and in some experiment or other, has her neural self (soul?) implanted into the body of a chimpanzee. It actually gave a pretty interesting picture of how one would cope with such a thing.


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