Home » Darwinism, Evolution » When Will Sci-Fi Push Evolution’s Envelope?

When Will Sci-Fi Push Evolution’s Envelope?

[From an acquaintance:] “Sci-Fi authors have no problem pushing the envelope on physics, chemistry, astrophysics, cosmology, planetology, genetics, nanotech, biotech, neurotechnology, information technology, longevity, robotics, xenology etc. They regularly eat Einstein, or the speed-of-light barrier, for breakfast. But one staple of modern science is consistently taken for granted, never questioned, never paradigm shifted, pushed beyond its current state: the Neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution. In the science-fiction literature, every thing seems to evolve: physics, politics, language, culture, philosophy, fashion, morality, religion, entertainment, transportation, music, psychology, sociology, etc. etc. But there’s one glaring exception: the science and theory of biological evolution! How ironic. The science and theory evolution itself is an axiomatic constant.”

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22 Responses to When Will Sci-Fi Push Evolution’s Envelope?

  1. I remember a Sci-Fi movie entitled Epoch: Evolution, where an alien intelligence visited earth every few million years to “re-teraform” the planet, magically “evolving” all organisms over the barriers that chance could not bridge.

    It was quite humorous. The creationists were actually represented as a terrorist group named “The Genesis Coalition.” Of course, they were eventually defeated by the paragons of objectivity and righteousness, the evolutionists.

  2. I don’t really watch much sci-fi, but I know that there is an episode in Star Trek where the “Q” takes Piccard back to the beginning of time. They travel to a chaotic earth where within the primorial soup are all of the essential elements necessary for the emergence of all life. “Q” shows Piccard where life began and eventually diversified. I guess the authors didn’t believe in panspermia, so all of the other creatures they encounter on other planets must have traveled from earth, or originated from entirely separate creative events. Weird.

  3. I’m not sure I agree with the premise. There’s lots of sci-fi that deals with Intelligent Design.

    There are countless books in which humans design and create life forms. “Frankenstein” is the first one that comes to mind.

    Clarke’s “2001″ and “Childhood’s End” both have aliens manipulating human evolution.

    Clarke’s “Rama” books and Brin’s “Uplift” books have clearly-designed lifeforms created by unseen aliens.

    An ominipotent intelligent designer appears in Asimov’s “The Last Question”, Varley’s “Millenium”, and Simmons’ “Hyperion” novels.

    That said, the intelligent designer is almost always an alien race or a computer, and not what we’d call a god. I think that’s due to the conventions of the genre. Sci-fi tends to be naturalistic; even when it introduces elements like precognition or ESP it tends to assume that they work in a predictable and understandable sort of way.

    So inserting a god-like being doesn’t fit well. Of course the author could work his own religious beliefs into the story, but a lot of readers take religion very seriously, and if the author gets too specific then he risks alienating them. (Modern literature tends to be religion-neutral for this reason.) C. S. Lewis did write some sci-fi novels set in a specifically Christian universe.

    Stories with gods are more common in the fantasy novels. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and Donaldson’s “Thomas Covenant” books are set in intelligently designed universes. Pratchett’s “Diskworld” saga explores a universe that was designed but maybe not-so-intelligently.

    That’s all the examples I can come up with in 15 minutes. Anyone else have recommendations?

  4. Check out sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle’s blog:

    http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/view393.html#ID

  5. Stargate the television series has all current life in the our galaxy designed by the alterrans (and so explain why the ‘second evolution’ of humans, us, looks exactly the same as the first, the alterrans) via a machine that could essentially front load the galaxies evolution. If that’s not an intelligent design message of sorts, I don’t know what is.

    I’ve found a lot of scifi actually pays incidental homage to intelligent design; the possibility of aliens tampering with evolution in earth’s past is just too sexy for writers (and becomes impossible to rule out as authors tend to include both time travel and genetic manipulation in the same universe).

  6. Darwinian scientists are nothing but hypocrites!

  7. [This comment was emailed to me. --WmAD]

    Regarding your post: http://www.uncommondescent.com.....chives/600

    Star Trek: The Next Generation endorsed directed (pre-programmed) evolution. This is clearest in “The Chase” (Season 6, Episode 20).
    http://www.startrek.com/startr.....68598.html

    Script from http://www.twiztv.com/scripts/.....ng-620.txt
    ——————
    You are wondering who we are; why we have done this; how it has come that I stand before you, the image of a being from so long ago.

    Life evolved on my planet before all others in this part of the galaxy. We left our world, explored the stars, and found none like ourselves. We were alone. Our civilization thrived for ages. But what is the life of one race, compared to the vast stretches of cosmic time? We knew that someday we would be gone. And that nothing of us would survive. So we left you.

    Our scientists seeded the primordial oceans of many worlds, where life was in its infancy. These seed codes directed your evolution toward a physical form resembling ours — this body you see before you.

    Which is, of course, shaped as yours is shaped. For you are the end result. The seed codes also contained this message, which we scattered in fragments on many different worlds. It was our hope that you would have to come together in cooperation and fellowship in order to activate this message. And if you can see and hear me, our hope has been fulfilled.

    You are a monument. Not to our greatness, but to our existence. That was our wish. That you too would know life, and would keep alive our memory. There is something of us in each of you, and so, something of you in each other.

    Remember us …

  8. Actually you should read Robert J Sawyers novel Calculatin God.

    Jason

  9. Not really conventional SF, but Douglas Adams plays with the idea of evolution a lot in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (the Haguennon, who think nothing of completely re-evolving during a lunch time – the Jatravartids [was it?] – with 50 arms, the first race to develop the aerosol deodorant before the wheel – etc).

  10. Fantastic evolution sci-fi from one of the modern masters of hard science fiction – Greg Bear. It’s a series called “Darwin’s Radio” and challenges the evolutionary dogma with a mechanism for saltation. Always remember the “three B’s” of hard science fiction – Benford, Bear, and Brin. You’ll never go wrong that way.

  11. I’m surprised no one have yet mentioned the film “Mission to Mars”, in which astronauts discover that life on Earth was designed by a Marsian civilization.

    PS. To Exile: Douglas Adams also played around with directed panspermia. In his lesser-known Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of the characters travel back in time to witness how the thrusters of an alien spaceship accidentally set the origin of life in motion.

  12. A few points about Sci-Fi and evolution.

    First, Star Trek jumps around with various explanations for the things that they do in the series’, and one of them was “The Chase,” as noted by Bill. The problem facing the Star Trek series was the biological reality that if life originated independently on thousands of planets, then 1. Why do they all look like human actors with weird ears or brow ridges or tattoos, and 2. How can they interbreed? Not only would there be no reason why the genes all have analogs in disparate species, but also it would be most likely that the genes wouldn’t even be translated the same way – different anticodon-amino acid correspondences.

    There was another Star Trek TNG episode where somehow the characters “devlolved” into a human-sized form similar to some ancestral state, such as Warf the Klingon into a huge angry Crab, and the Betazoid Troi into a big blue fish. The implication is that the life on each of these planets took different courses and arrived at very similar destinations.

    This is where The Chase comes in, where there is a sort of directed panspermia from an ancient species, which made the resulting intelligent life that evolved very similar to each other, I suppose enough to interbreed, somewhat.

    Not all Star Trek species could interbreed. For exmaple, Warf and Dax in DS9 were unable to interbreed, although just before Dax was killed during the war with the Dominion, they claimed that they had discovered a way, which presumably might have been splicing genes together manually. In DS9 there was instead a push towards more realistic interspecies boundaries, where relationships were recognized between species that could not interbreed, and in some cases, couldn’t share the same space, like living in totally different atmospheres.

    But Star Trek made it clear that in their universe life arose independently on many planets, but was later pushed towards a similar form. I think after a while Star Trek was attempting to make the franchise more realistic, and trying to come up with explanations for old dumb ideas they first had, as well as their steadily increasing makeup budgets.

  13. On the other SciFi bits mentioned.

    In David Brin’s uplift trilogies, the intelligent organisms were “uplifted,” I’m not sure you could say that they were fully “designed.” Galactic civilizations existed that searched planets for native life that were pre-sapient, which they would then tweak until the life could be considered sapient, at which point this new uplifted species would be in servitude for like 250,000 years or so. Some species were strange, such as the G*kek, which had wheels instead of legs, which might imply that those wheels were designed into them, but it was never made explicit as far as I can remember.
    What was interesting about the Uplift series was that there was a sort of galactic religion where they believed it was impossible for species to evolve sapience, but everything else was fine. They were so dogmatic about it that they had over time, wiped out every “wolfling” species that entered into spacefaring and claimed to have evolved on their own. That is, everyone except for humans. The story centers around how various species either tried to claim that they secretly uplifted humans, or instead how they were trying to wipe us out to keep their universe dogmatically simple. Very good reading.

    I’ll have to agree that you can’t go wrong with Brin, and I’d like to add that his ideas about alien species are THE BEST I have ever read.

    There’s also another very fun SciFi movie that everyone’s forgetting: EVOLUTION. In that one, hyper-evolving life lands on the planet, powered by heat, and starts changing the environment to suit itself.

    I think I disagree with Bill’s suggestion that SciFi never toys around with evolution, implying that it’s some sort of sacrosanct idea in the genre. I think just like with every other idea that science fiction plays with – there’s a far greater diversity of possible explanations or discoveries explored concerning evolution than most people presently argue for today. Maybe not enough angels descending to make flagella in the stories?

  14. What do you think the X-Men series is all about?! Mutants. Personally, I am a fan of the comics and the movies. But the interpretation of material by director Bryan Singer has been one of evolution meeting civil rights. I just saw the trailer for X3 in front of Kong. As an action movie it looked good but we’ll see what the essence of the content has to say.

    The other blatant example is Planet of the Apes. I believe the Tim Burton remake even has Marky Mark Wohlberg (sp?) saying as he heads into battle that he needs to teach the apes about evolution. Ironically, what wins out in the end? A biblical type mythology caught in a circle of time.

    I believe the Fifth Element plays with some ID aspects in the creation of the female messiah character.

    Bill, if you want to demonstrate ID in the movies, follow James Bond. How many situations does he extract himself through serendipitous circumstances. The only way someone could be that lucky is if their is a scriptwriter. The Bond Filter is waiting to be created.

  15. I think the Kubrick “2001″ movie implicitly challenges the idea of undirected evolution.

  16. “But one staple of modern science is consistently taken for granted, never questioned, never paradigm shifted, pushed beyond its current state:….evolution. In the science-fiction literature, every thing seems to evolve: physics, politics, language, culture, philosophy, fashion, morality, religion, entertainment, transportation, music, psychology, sociology, etc. etc. But there’s one glaring exception: the science and theory of biological evolution!”

    I think Dr. D’s acquaintance has noticed something that I’m not seeing in the comments so far: in science fiction, everything evolves EXCEPT evolution. The process of evolution is a given, a constant, an ongoing process. One might even say that evolution is the underpinning of science fiction. (The questions answered by SF: What will the world look like if physics evolves, if politics evolves, if language evolves? What happenes when we run into life that has evolved on other planets? How will music evolve? How will religion evole?)

    And of course I have a theory for why this is so. Darwinian evolution is a pervasive worldview. The genre of SF is the literay exploration and thought-experiment reinforcement of that worldview. Modern SF just “assumes” the process of biological macro-evolution will continue on earth as it has on the other worlds and then proceeds to examine it from every conceivable angle.

    When the worldview changes (which it will), SF will change. I think FANTASY SF will disappear. There won’t be a wookie named Chewbacca in a Star Wars movie. There won’t be a monolith from 2001 guiding human evolution. SF itself may disappear; if SF’s primary reason for being is it’s ability to imaginatively and philosophically reinforce the current naturalistic worldview, then it will be replaced by whatever genre best reinforces the replacement worldview.

    My hope is that we are moving toward a more fact based worldview where we can observe “what is” regardless of whether or not the existence of “what is” can best be explained by natural or “supernatural” causes–where “facts” can be tested by all scientific means including mathematical probabilities. (Why even have a mathematics of probability if it can’t be used to test current theories?)

  17. On Star Trek again,

    The myriad of episodes and positions on life and its origins and devleopment given in Star Trek could be best described as retroactive continuities. These are explanations for events given after-the-fact to cover up for how those events don’t match up with previously established facts. This concept is also known as retcon.

  18. Science fiction has been challenging the standard evolotionary narrative for a hundred years and quite regularly. The predominant theme is of course direction from an alien civilization. Greg Bear broke out of that mold recently by postulating an ancient intelligence in the form of a neural network embedded in the genome itself which periodically causes instantaneous speciation in response to wide-scale stress.

    As far as I know anytime a deity is in the plot as directing evolution then it’s not science fiction. It’s then fantasy.

  19. Remember that David Duchovny movie “Evolution” from a few years back? A meteor crashes to earth and brings some organisms that start “evolving” at a fantasicially increased rate, so they go through all the stages of life’s history in a matter of weeks. What I thought was interesting about it was that the evolution portrayed was not neo-darwinian, but teleological – the “tape” of evolution proceeded in the same way it has on earth, until they ended up with primate-type organisms – and there didn’t seem to be any “selection”, just an unfolding of a built-in program…

  20. “and there didn’t seem to be any “selection”, just an unfolding of a built-in program…”

    Ontogenesis and phylogenesis are too similar for coincidence IMO. We KNOW ontogenesis is a front-loaded process. To presume phylogenesis is not a front-loaded process makes no sense in the absence of specific knowledge that it is not (or was not) a front-loaded process. The default presumption should be the same as that for ontogenesis. Everything comes from an egg (a parent cell) and all eggs are pre-programmed to unfold in a certain manner into an adult form.

    This starts lining up with the gaia hypothesis, that the entire biosphere is a single organism on a planetary size scale. What would its purpose be? Why to reproduce of course. That’s what the adult form of all organisms do! How does it reproduce? Like a cosmic dandelion – it sends out seeds to other planets. How does it do that? Using human built spacecraft! We are Gaia’s reproductive organ. I don’t suppose I’m going to escape smartass remarks for that last line am I?

    So how did we arrive here? By a seed from our parent of course, like everything else. Don’t care for the chicken/egg paradox that creates? Tough luck. Deal with it.

  21. DaveScot writes:
    “To presume phylogenesis is not a front-loaded process makes no sense in the absence of specific knowledge that it is not (or was not) a front-loaded process.”

    Ontogenesis is mostly front-loaded via genetics, although there appear to be some extragenetic components. Since you say that “the default presumption should be the same” for ontogenesis and phylogenesis, may I presume that you believe phylogenesis is primarily genetically front-loaded as well?

    If so, I believe that the same objections apply that I raised when you first described your notion of front-loaded panspermia. Here’s a comment from that thread to which I never received a reply:

    (Original comment is #74 at http://www.uncommondescent.com.....chives/587 )

    DaveScot,

    If I understand your front-loaded version of the panspermia hypothesis, you’re suggesting that a “seed” for all of life might have been planted on (or drifted to) Earth, and that all of the genetic information needed for the subsequent development of increasingly complex organisms was already present in the seed, just waiting to be “switched on”.

    Is that a fair synopsis?

    If so, I see some potential problems with the idea:

    1. In the case of the seed drifting randomly to Earth, the designers wouldn’t have known in advance what kind of planet the seed would land on. The adaptations appropriate for one habitable planet wouldn’t necessarily be the same as for another with different atmospheric pressure or composition, different ocean salinity, a different length of day, etc. Front-loading in this case would have to cover all possible target planets.

    2. Following up on #1, how would the organisms “know” how to select the appropriate genetic information for the planet they were developing on?

    3. How would organisms know when to “switch on” various chunks of genetic information? For example, how would the genes for the human brain remain “off” for billions of years, then suddenly turn on when needed?

    4. Unexpressed genetic material is subject to mutation. Selection can’t weed out the mutants, because it can only operate on genes that ARE expressed. Over millions or even billions of years, the unexpressed material would mutate so badly that it would be useless when it was finally switched on.

    Comments?

    Comment by keiths — December 18, 2005 @ 2:03 pm

    “We are Gaia’s reproductive organ. I don’t suppose I’m going to escape smartass remarks for that last line am I?”

    I’ll refrain from commenting except to say that analogously, it has occurred to me that humans are the reproductive organs of navel oranges. Think about it.

  22. Dave,

    Another objection just occurred to me. There are pairs of organisms that are highly adapted to each other, such as Darwin’s famous orchid and moth (see below). Front-loaded phylogenesis would have to provide a mechanism for “turning on” the adaptations in orchid and moth simultaneously. How would it do so?

    (From http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature.....ivers.html )

    Darwin’s insights into co-evolution allowed him to foretell the discovery of a new species. In a famous example, he described an orchid from Madagascar that had a foot-deep nectar well that kept the sweet liquid far out of reach of all known butterflies and moths. But the existence of the flower led him to predict the existence of a specialized moth with a foot-long proboscis that, like a straw, could reach the deep reward. Indeed, after Darwin’s death, researchers discovered just such an insect, and named it the “Predicta moth” in honor of Darwin’s educated guess.