3 Dec 2023

Sebastian Faulks: On being Homo sapiens

From Sunday Morning, 10:10 am on 3 December 2023

Three decades after the publication of global best-seller Birdsong, British author Sebastian Faulks is back with a new book inspired by a tweet.

The Seventh Son tells the story of a young American academic, Talissa Adam, who offers to carry another woman's child with no idea of the life-changing consequences. The baby boy, Seth, has mostly Neanderthal DNA.

Sebastian Faulks The Seventh Son book and author composite

Photo: Supplied

Set between New York, London, and the Scottish Highlands, The Seventh Son deals in unrequited love, unearned power and what it means to be human. 

“People are very surprised that I actually got something from Twitter," Faulks tells Jim Mora.

“Most people think of Twitter [now known as X] is just this awful place where Fascists and lunatics scream abuse at each other.

“But if you just dip a little toe in now, and again, you'll occasionally find something interesting, or you get a link to an interesting article or a book.”

In this case evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins tweeted about what might happen if an extinct species’ DNA was implanted into the egg of a living human, he says.

“And I thought well maybe if it wasn't a long-extinct species, but a recent species that we know we did breed with anyway, like the Neanderthals. And suppose it wasn't a clone which is what he was suggesting, but a hybrid.

“And after all, our ancestors at some point were hybrids of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal, then that could be that could be interesting. That could be less way out and a bit more to do with human beings and parents and children and the way we are today.”

Seth, at the centre of the book, was born as a result of sleight of hand and appears much like anyone else around him, Faulks says.

“He lives in a very, very multicultural part of London, where all the kids look different from one another, there's no kind of normal standard.”

But things about him start to leak out, Faulks says. And the reaction is ugly.

“There is the reaction initially from the press, tabloid newspapers, I don't know how bad they are in New Zealand but they’re pretty bad here.

"And also, of course, new media, social media has turned the whole world into a pack of braying hounds really.”

Human history is one long story of deep distrust of others, he says.

“Going back, many, many centuries, humans have been far more likely to be friends with their dogs or their cows or their horses, than with any strangers or incomers.”

Homo sapiens prevailed through a “fantastically good” ability to breed and a great explorative drive, he says.

“We're terribly good at breeding and we are very ruthless with other creatures, with competitors. So, we are also very, very given to killing one another.

“In my continent, Europe, in the 20th century, we killed maybe 100 million of ourselves in two world wars. Although we're brilliant at killing, we're even better at breeding.”

He is intrigued, he says, by the idea that we are the last remaining example of the human genus.

“It's rather as if the pug was the last remaining dog. There's nothing wrong with a pug, but it's not really terribly representative of dogs as a whole.

“We are a freak of nature. I mean, we really are. And poor old world who has been landed with us. Wouldn't it have been better for the world if it had been landed with a half a dozen human types all living together? Or if there had to be just one, did it have to be so extreme and weird and unstable as we are?”

Neandertals were a hardy, resourceful people, he says.

“They finally went extinct, we think about 40,000 BC, but they they'd had a run of 300,000 years, across Eurasia, from the very west of Spain, to the far east of Siberia, or what is now Russia, and up near the polar regions, and down into the warm regions of the Mediterranean.

“So we know that they were resourceful. We know that they were very, very tough. But they never bred in huge numbers from what we do know they seem to have been a hardy and, you know, reasonably peaceable, and creatures who were very well-adapted to the world in a way that Homo sapien is increasingly maladapted.”

Homo sapiens have a tremendous drive, he says.

“This planet, which we're in the process of, I hope not destroying completely, but we're not doing much good to it.

“But we're not satisfied with that, we want to go to other planets. And if there's somewhere beyond the Moon that was even harder to get to? Well, we'll go there. Sure, why not?”

This insane drive comes with profound benefits, he says.

“Isaac Newton looked up at the heavens and by the brilliance of his deductive imagination, realised that all objects attract all other objects in inverse proportion to the square of the difference between them. There's drive for you.”

His books, from Birdsong and Charlotte Gray on, have explored how a species can achieve such wonderful things yet be so unstable, he says.

“I have, obviously, terribly grave misgivings about the nature of the species to which I belong and our propensity to cruelty and violence is just so depressing, I can't bear to read the paper or watch the television.

“But you know, there is goodness in us, and there is humour in us. And there is a sense of meaning.

“The only reason I'm a writer is because through books, if I express the inner lives and thoughts and weaknesses and fears and hopes of imaginary characters, I know that readers around the world will find something of themselves in them and will respond to them.

“And I feel joined-up and connected to people in a really peaceful and positive way through the communion of the printed page.

“And that may sound terribly pompous. But that's been my life. And it's been the best thing about my life.”