Speciation and the Biological Imperatives of the Ringworld (And Known Space)
Once upon a time, Larry Niven wrote “When a species begins to use tools, evolution stops. […] Environment no longer shapes that species. The species shapes its environment to suit itself. Beyond this the species does not develop. “ This was from the story “Passerby” in 1969. This was not set in the same fictional universe as “Ringworld,” of course, but it does point out several of his basic working assumptions in the period he was working on it. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but it is not inherently untrue. Famines and pestilence and inclement weather are no longer so devastating as they once were thanks to our clever tool-using abilities. Thus many of the people who would have died in these events survived to pass their genes on. The driving force of evolution is the death of the weak, but the handier we get, the better we are at protecting the week, thereby rendering natural selection rather toothless. Niven addressed this in the same story, observing “It even begins to take care of its feebleminded and its genetically deficient.” We also control the other end of the equation, choosing when and how many children to have. The net effect on our species is that the evolution of humanity - if not completely tabled - has certainly been slowed by about a zillion percent.
This is, of course, exactly as it should be. It’s humane, sensible, and what really is the point of sapience if you’re still at the mercy of an uncaring universe? Yet if natural selection is no longer possible, what about unnatural selection? This is a fairly obvious extrapolation from the basic Nivenian assumption cited above, and the author gives us a series of quite intriguing explorations of the concept. Indeed, Ringworld can be argued to be primarily a playground for different avenues of directed evolution.
The genius of the book is its methodology. While the future of evolution has been a cliché of Science Fiction pretty much from the moment after Darwin’s publisher checked his mailbox, the subject has almost invariably been handled in some hokey manner. Genetic manipulation, alien fiddledy-diddledy, secret chemicals, magical unexplained technology, or the sudden - and always hilarious - Roddenberryesque transformation from an actor to a gaudy special effect: the bottom line is always doubletalk above actual science. Niven, however, tackles this in a way that is simultaneously plausible, brilliant, and obviously overlooked: he *harnesses* nature, and forces it to do his bidding. In essence, he tricks natural selection into working against itself.
Science fiction readers with a handle on older S.F. will no doubt think of the noteworthy exception to this trend: Robert Heinlein’s “Howard Families,” and I do, in fact, think there is a debt owed there. But if Heinlein first fiddled with the concept of directed breeding of humans for fun and profit, Niven has turned it into a full orchestra, and this book is his symphony.
The aptly-named Puppeteers have manipulated human reproduction subtly for centuries in order to produce a preternaturally lucky human. They manipulated Kzin evolution grossly for centuries in order to produce a more restrained, thoughtful Kzin; using humanity to unwittingly do the dirty work in a kind of sub-contracted genocide. There is the very vague allusion that the Puppeteers may have altered themselves to some extent in the process. Nessus actually kills an opponent at one point in an instinct so old and so disturbing that he refuses to talk about it. Was this a vestigial reflex from a bestial past when flight or fight ruled the day, or was in a subtle example of a more aggressive past that has been selectively bred out of their speices? Either way, it points at the Puppeteer controlling their baser instincts, and thereby shaping their own evolution, either by custom or medicine.
It’s an open question as to whether the Kzin are really the same species they were before the meddling began. In humanity’s case, the answer is clearer: We’re the same as we’ve always been, but we’re in the process of speciation, dividing from one species into two: Homo Sapiens and the people with the Teela Brown gene, let’s call them “Homo Fortunatus,” or perhaps “Teeloids.” We discussed them at the end of last year, asking why it was so all-fired important for Teela Brown to get to the Ringworld in the first place, as you may recall.
And then there’s the question of the people on the Ringworld itself: Who are they? Where did they come from? There is some speculation that they’re an offshoot of humanity, that they came from Human Space at some period in the very distant past, though how this is possible is an unresolved question, and ultimately a very annoying one. Niven himself has further obfuscated things by saying all of the protagonists’s theorizing in “Ringworld” itself is wrong. In any event, there are five species of humanity - normal Humans, Homo Fortunatus, the “Hairy Ones,” the City Builders, and the “Zrillir” - all from a common ancestor, represented in the novel, and very possibly two species of Kzin, or, at the very least an untampered strain of them. We’ll meet more in subsequent books, but for now let’s content ourselves tih “Ringworld” itself.
Which brings us to the environmental effects of evolution. Both the Ringworld and the Puppeteer Fleet of Worlds represent a refusal to have one’s destiny dictated by nature. The puppeteers have superattenuated their own planet to serve their needs, moving it out from its sun so the waste heat from their civilization wouldn’t destroy the environment, and moving other planets around to provide food. Ultimately, they abandoned their solar system entirely, to find their destiny among the stars. This, of course, led to a population of Puppeteers in the trillions, which is far, far more than nature could ever have intended. Likewise, the Ringworld is an artificial environment conducive to human life that has more useable space than a trillion worlds. When it’s running properly, it’s capable of supporting a population in the quadrillions. Even in ruins, its population is almost unquestionably greater than all of the Sapients in Known Space combined.
What effect must that have on the evolution of beings deposited on the thing? This is explored in more details in the other books in the series, and that supports my basic theory, but as we’re concentrating on Ringworld, I’ll ignore that for now.
The bottom line is - disturbingly - that every single one of these attempts at directed evolution *worked.* Of course all of them worked in very unpredictable ways: a trillion puppeteers are far more vulnerable than just a few billion (As displayed by how many humans must have died in the fall of the Cities) A Kzin with impulse control is vastly more dangerous than the leap-and-scream type. If a person is lucky enough they’re a threat to the nature of reality itself. This raises the fascinating - yet never overtly discussed here or elsewhere in the series - that Random Chance might yet be rearing its irritating head, even if it is clearly no longer in the driver’s seat.
All these people (And aliens. For our purposes, Aliens are people, too) living in vast safe habitats, with no natural predators, no reliance on the vagaries of nature, nearly complete control over their own biology and birth, banishing death for centuries at a time. This is the logical, probably unavoidable extension of a sapient species. The Puppeteers and the Ringworlders have done this, Humanity is clearly on its way towards it, and the Kzin - by having their expansion limited - have been forced on to it. Our destiny is to control our own destiny.
The novel provides an unflinching look at what this, something that will no doubt be seen by some as a unnatural, and of course they‘re right. The book *is* a unnatural, and deliberately so. And yet how unnatural is unnatural anyway? When you get right down to it, humanity is defined by its exceptions (Real and perceived) to nature, and always has been. This has been detailed countless times from Genesis through Sir Thomas Moore on down to our own time. It is the nature of our beast to never quite fit in with the natural order. The message of the book is that perhaps the natural order isn’t all that well suited to us in the first place.
Some may find this a blasphemy against nature, but I’ve always found it extremely hopeful: If we don’t fit, perhaps we can build a place where do fit.