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Yelena

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 19

Alison Christy 1 March 2009

www.lablit.com/article/475

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She learned to care less about each experiment, to repeat what she had already produced and to forget that she once imagined she could contribute to science in a way that would change the world

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 19

Adaptation and Selection in Evolutionary and Developmental Biology: A Review

Soviet scientists promoted the idea of Lamarckian evolution, that inheritance was based on characteristics acquired during an organism’s lifetime as it adapted to its environment. If a person were raised entirely in water, for example, their children or their children’s children would naturally be better swimmers, maybe picking up some flippers or gills in a generation or two. Darwinian evolution, by contrast, tells us that in order for a change to take place, a random mutation would have to occur in the person’s DNA and would have to give that person more children or a better chance of survival to be selected.

It’s easy to see why the Soviets rejected Darwinian genetics, with its capitalist creed of survival of the fittest. Genetics itself was determined a “bourgeois pseudoscience” in 1948. And the embrace of Lamarckism led to the adoption of the agricultural techniques of Trofim Lysenko, who exposed plants to cold conditions in the expectation that their offspring would inherit the ability to adapt to cold, and who would be blamed for massive setbacks in the Soviet scientific community as well as painful crop failures and starvation. But more on that later.

Had the Soviet scientists really thought about it, they would have realized that they had a great argument against Lamarckian evolution right within her own borders, in the southern region called Chechnya. Since the time of Peter the Great, the Chechen mountain people have been rebelling against Russian authority and having their rebellions quashed, declaring themselves independent and being forced to succumb. Finally Stalin shipped almost half a million of them out to Siberia during the winter of 1944, where twenty-five percent – one in four – of the Chechens died. The rest were allowed to return after Stalin’s death in 1956.

If Lamarckian evolution worked, the Chechens would have hard metal exoskeletons by now and the ability to shoot lasers from their eyes. Even by regular old Darwinian evolution, we have to imagine that the ones who survived harsh mountain climates, war after war after war, and deportation to Siberia were the ones who are hard as steel, capable of surviving anything, and they must breed children with similar characteristics.

– Michael Perch, page 167, We Will Be Sure To Express Your Concerns To Moscow: A Long Look at the New Russia, Houghton-Mifflin, 1999.

Tomsk, August 12, 2000: Yelena, a small blonde woman in slim high heels, meets Anna at the Hotel Sibir and drives her to the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute, taking her immediately to a small auditorium to set up for her talk.

The Hotel Sibir has no hot water, which the man at the counter downstairs insisted was completely normal for this time of year. So Anna, coming from four days in a train with only a tiny communal sink to bathe in, had to wash her hair in icy water that stopped her breath, and she still feels greasy and unclean. She is wearing the pants she brought with her for this purpose, carefully folded in her duffel with dryer sheets to keep them smelling fresh, but they are wrinkled now and cling strangely to her legs. Yelena, in her shiny blonde bob and slim skirt, makes her feel huge and heavy, frumpy and awkward.

“You have had a good trip,” Yelena says in the car, but it isn’t a question, and Anna can’t bring herself to contradict her.

The auditorium looks like it was designed in the seventies, with blocky construction and a hand-carved podium. Anna takes out the overheads she had specially made for this presentation and gives them to Yelena.

“Oh,” she says. “We thought you would have slides for the computer?”

“Oh, I have that too,” Anna says. She gives a disk to Yelena.

Yelena takes the disc and laughs, tossing her hair. “This is university,” she says. “We do have computers.” She unlocks a door in the podium and takes out a laptop for Anna to use. “Tomsk is a science-centered city,” she says, smiling at Anna. “Did you think we have bears in the streets?”

Anna wants to ask Yelena how much English her audience will understand, or whether they know anything at all about genetics, but she is afraid of offending her again. It never occurred to her that there might be bears in the streets, but now she wonders if, given everything else, she should have thought of that before she came.

She silently flips through her slides, making sure the pictures are all there: all of the work she did over the last six years of her life.

**********

When Anna was little, science meant pouring a clear liquid into another clear liquid and watching it turn pink. Science meant surprises: it was always supposed to be fun. Later, science meant the memorization of facts, and this too was fun, because she was good at it, and she liked learning a way to look at the world through this collection of facts. This was science all the way through college: a parade of facts, presented as though they had emerged fully writ on imposing stone tablets.

And then Anna faced a choice: medical school, where more facts would be trotted out and memorized, or graduate school, where she could contribute to that parade of facts. And she chose graduate school.

She took classes for the first two years of grad school, which were like her undergraduate classes but with a greater pretense of teaching her to think. And then she chose John’s lab and began her own research, and the world of science that seemed endlessly fascinating and diverse and challenging, with new facts to be learned every day, slowed to a crawl.

She found there to be little actual thinking involved in research. She worked out techniques, calculations and protocols. She pipetted a tiny amount of one liquid into a tiny amount of another liquid, which never turned pink like it did when she was in elementary school. There was animal breeding and changing media in sterile cell cultures. There was repetition of other people’s work, and re-repetition, and experiments that were dropped on the floor or ruined by the most mindless error. There was, occasionally, that exciting discovery – but then that finding had to be replicated again and again and then made prettier for the publishable graph, so that by the time she felt sure enough of her data to shout “Eureka!” she had already lived with it for months.

Mostly, there was just physical work: pipetting, centrifuging, mixing solutions, pouring gels. The happiest research scientists were, to her surprise, the ones who liked music: the radio was always on in the lab and music was always playing.

She adapted; she learned to care less about each experiment, to listen to the radio and repeat what she had already produced and to forget that she once imagined she could contribute to science in a way that would change the world and alter the course of humanity.

**********

Anna looks over at Yelena, who has picked up Anna’s copy of The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia and opened the book to Michael Perch’s author photo, which Anna knows by heart: black and white, a birch-tree forest, a face with dark eyes, soft lips, a gentle curve of hair over a smooth forehead. Yelena looks up and sees Anna watching her. She quickly drops the book and smiles nervously, running her fingers through her blonde hair.

“Have you read it?” Anna asks with a friendly smile.

“No,” Yelena looks back at the book on the table, opening the cover again. “But I knew the writer. Michael Perch? He used to come here. To university.” She looks at Anna and smiles, timidly.

“Really?” Anna asks. Frank’s book is apparently magic: a magnet for all women who knew Michael Perch. Maybe, she thinks, the book will lead her to him. “What was he like?”

“Oh,” Yelena sighs, fidgeting with the cover. “He was wonderful.”

{Continued next week}