Welcome back to Ask a Biogeek, a column where biology researcher Terry Johnson answers questions about biology — no matter how weird. Back when I discussed our unlikeliest futures as a species, one commenter added to the list of improbabilities our eventual transcendence into a non-corporeal form. That's hardly the only evolutionary myth propagated by science fiction. Misunderstandings of basic evolutionary theory are often so egregious they make "hearing explosions in space" seem mild in comparison. Warning: In discussing a few of the worst and most common offenses against evolutionary common sense, I'm going to spoil the hell out of a lot of old science fiction.Let's get this out of the way - evolution does not have a destination in mind. There is no end boss, no level of development after which evolution retires and takes up shuffleboard. Evolution works via natural selection - organisms that are well-suited to their environment are more likely to have offspring, passing along those heritable traits that give rise to success. Traits that are favorable in one environment may be neutral or even disadvantageous in another. A variant of one of the genes that produces hemoglobin grants protection against malaria to anyone possessing a single copy of that variant. Possess two copies, and you're stuck with sickle cell anemia. In an environment rife with malaria, the advantages of having a single copy of the variant may outweigh the risk that you'll shack up with someone who likewise carries the variant, occasionally producing a child with sickle-cell anemia. In a malaria-free environment, there's no advantage to the variant at all (that we know of). Evolution has no "master plan" for hemoglobin - natural selection simply favors what works in a given situation. Change the situation, and you'll very likely change the result. Even a trait as useful as intelligence is not universally favorable. Take the humble fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and select for a breed that more quickly learns to avoid foods spiked with bitter quinine. Pit these flies against normal flies in an environment where food is scarce, and the normal flies will out-compete them, hands down. We aren't exactly sure why - it could be that learning is energetically and biologically expensive. Too expensive, under some conditions - sometimes, maybe, it pays to be dumb.

Not smart enough to resent the insinuation. Even if evolution did favor what we would consider a progression to a more "advanced" state (and it doesn't), there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that we'd end up clouds of pure energy, despite numerous fictional examples to the contrary. From the Vorlons in Babylon 5 to the Arisians in the Lensman series, SF loves its non-corporeal beings, most of whom evolved to shed their physical bodies in favor of floaty glowy bits. Star Trek alone has so many non-corporeal races, they could hold tea parties together (if they had mouths).

Organians, a Dikironium cloud creature (which technically contains some matter), and the Beta XII-a entity. Together they form the lava lamp brigade. The fact of the matter is - matter. The information that defines or influences our traits is stored by matter (specifically, by molecules of DNA), and that information is put to use inside the cell to rearrange matter into other forms. Setting aside the difficulty of conceiving of a non-corporeal lifeform in the first place - and that's no mean feat - trying to get to that lifeform starting with a considerably corporeal organism like us via evolution requires a staggering suspension of disbelief. Despite this, some of the Ascended in Stargate switch back and forth between energy and matter more frequently than I take vacations. Similarly, evolution does not favor remorseless logic, nor does our evolutionary past suggest any noble savages in our ancestry. Easily my least favorite episode of Farscapehas the lead character messed with by an alien probe, producing a hyperintelligent "evolved" Crichton (who's also a bit of a bastard) and a beastly yet admirable "devolved" Crichton. SF is full of races that have evolved into powerful but amoral, calculating beings - despite evidence that much our recent evolution has seemingly been devoted to communication and language.


In the future, humanity will have no use for compassion. Nor, evidently, a skull. Lastly, tinkering with evolution's work is not necessarily a bad thing. (Full disclosure: that's kind of my day job.) Personally, if I were an alien species contacted by a United Federation of Planets so freaked out by their Eugenics Wars and Forehead Plagues that they'd outlawed genetic engineering for anything other than eliminating genetic diseases - I wouldn't be terribly impressed. A more advanced culture would probably look askance at Starfleet's "don't sequence, don't tell" policy towards genetically enhanced organisms serving in the military. It seems like every week or so someone's being regenerated by a transporter accident, but I have to satisfy myself with my race's natural lifespan? Like hell!