#ContactForm1 { display: none ! important; }

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Founding a New World

What happens when you settle a new colony in space?

The usual list begins with finding water, building a new home, setting up a new government, and establishing new laws.

Very few people will mention S-E-X, because it's a background detail. Of course couples will go off and, well, copulate. New babies will be added to the general population, which is all well and good.

And acts of genetic mischief will be perpetrated.

What so many authors forget is the Founder Effect. And when you're plotting future chaos and fun you really need to understand how this works.

What is it? The Founder Effect is the term used to describe the genetic drift, over time, caused by isolating a small population of a given species. Here's the Wikipedia definition:

In population genetics, the founder effect is the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a new population is established by a very small number of individuals from a larger population. It was first fully outlined by Ernst Mayr in 1952,[1] using existing theoretical work by those such as Sewall Wright.[2] As a result of the loss of genetic variation, the new population may be distinctively different, both genetically and phenotypically, from the parent population from which it is derived. In extreme cases, the founder effect is thought to lead to the speciation and subsequent evolution of new species.

Clear as mud?

Where does this happen? This will happen anywhere the starting genetic population is limited. Without a wide gene pool to pull from the population breeds down to set features. This eventually leads to new breeds (think dogs) or races (humans and aliens). And can lead to speciation (new species forming).

How It Works: See the picture above

The large circle is the starting population for an alien race named the Lianas that I just made up for this experiment. In the first generation of the colony there are some Lianas with red teeth, and some with blue skin, but no one has both.

As life moves on and biology happens the population can split one of three ways.
1. Red teeth become dominant and almost all Lianas have red teeth. (little circle one)
2. Blue skin becomes dominant and almost all Lianas have blue skin. (little circle three)
3. All Lianas have both blue skin and red teeth and variations are rare. (little circle two)

What will eventually happen is the colonial population of Lianas will all start to look alike. Without even intentionally breeding for a certain variety the population will slowly drift toward one set phenotupe (physical appearance).

What does this mean for me?
Are you settling a planet? Do you need some aliens? How about some nice tension between two distant human colonies? Or a really nice genetic disease?

Because of Founders Effect certain genetic anomalies that occur very rarely in a large, mixed population can become overwhelming in a smaller population. Think of twins, in the American population the incidents of twins is fairly low. But if you settled a colony with just twin, you would have a population where having twins became the norm.

It would be a population explosion.

Or consider rare genetic diseases. If the colony is settled by people who all carry the rare gene defect that causes their tongues to turn green at age 12 than the majority of the population will have that disease in a few generations.

For a writer, this opens up the possibility of an odd color combination from certain settlements, or high rates of genetic inheritance. Maybe telepathy is a recessive trait, with Founder Effect you could have an entire population of telepaths and still have scientific evidence for this.

And because the gene pool originally had outliers, there is a chance of having a "Chosen One" who has a throwback outlier phenotype or genotype. Perhaps you have a population where everyone has pale yellow skin and red eyes and once in a very great while recessive genes combine and a child with dark green skin and yellow eyes is born and destined to rule over everyone. Or be thrown in a volcano, depending on the population.

Any Questions?


  1. And in jr. high, every single kid feels like the throwback. :)

  2. LOL! Don't they though? I hated jr high for just that reason. Awkward, skinny, too brainy for my own good. Thank goodness there's a niche for geeky girls who like really fast cars. :o)

    FYI- Holler if you see a typo. I was writing this with "help" from a baby on my lap.

  3. Oh this is so interesting! My current WIP is set on earth but it's on an island that's been isolated from the rest of the world for generations. I've been focusing mainly on how their society would change, but I'll have to think about genetics too!

  4. Anna- Definitely include the genetic factors. There are very few isolated populations on Earth today. And very few of those are physically isolated. But when they are everything from genetics to language is affected.

    Idioms are different. Gene selection tends toward the recessive factors because you have a small population. And world references revolve around local events rather than world events that might be more familiar to us.

    Let me know how it goes :o)