A Romp* through Science Fiction, Theory and Fact

Wonderful stories about a new theory on menopause appeared in the media yesterday. I first saw it here.

Menopause, as a topic, is about as socially awkward as puberty with saggier skin, but at least the drinking is legal. When faced with this topic, I do what writers do when they wouldn’t be caught dead admitting something directly effects them, I make up stories about it. Two of my published short works were inspired by menopause.

But enough about me. As a scientist, menopause fascinates me. Humans are the only species who lose the ability to reproduce as they age – every other old female animal (and plant, bug, starfish etc.) is still biologically capable of producing babies till the day she dies. From basic scientific theory**, this makes sense for the living world, so why have humans opted out? In order for living things to keep being living things, they must reproduce. The purpose of any given organism is to propagate its genes through its offspring. And, in order to adapt to changes in the environment, certain genetic traits are selected through time – survival of the fittest.

If you accept that these biological theories apply to people, then the question is – Why? Why do 50-ish women shut down hormonally, lose the ability to conceive and all the other nasty physical and emotional consequences that come with it? Evolutionary theory insists there must be some selective pressure for this, some survival advantage that genes dictating the shut down must have. Why would it be better for the survival of the species and a person’s own genes to stop making more of them?

Some theories relate to the ability to raise children. Rather than dying in childbirth at 48, a woman who goes through menopause and survives into her sixties is there to raise her younger children and help with her grandchildren, thereby propagating her own genes. This makes sense to me. The new theory that inspired this blog post suggests that the selective pressure relates to men choosing younger women as the mothers of their children and menopause genes becoming prevalent in humans because there was no resultant pressure to weed them out. But I think there has to be more to it than that. There needs to be a positive selection pressure.

This is where I get to leap into science fiction. Post menopausal women are different, their goals and perspectives on life are not the same as those driven by breeding urges. Maybe the survival advantage older women have is the ability to provide wisdom, to tell good stories. In ancient times, they were protected and revered, ensuring the survival of the post-menopausal.

My stories inspired by menopause appear in :

Twisted Tails III  In ‘Post Apocalypse’, a woman who cannot have children must find her purpose in a small, isolated tribe of people.

In the Amprosia anthology, my story ‘What Ails You’ is about a woman in a future society who tries to retain her youth and the price she pays for imitating the biology of other species.

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*And when I say romp, I mean a tumultuous, random, mostly fun with a few serious bits, kind of brief outing. This video of tigers playing is the perfect metaphor for the way I see science fiction, theory and fact interacting. There’s a lot of weight being thrown around, sometimes the three are going in the same direction, sometimes not. It looks like fun, until someone tries to exert dominance and then the teeth and claws come out. Besides, who doesn’t want a story to end with a cute animal video?

** (For more background on these theories, this is a start  )

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