7 Totally AWESOME Theories Of Evolution From Scifi

If Ben Stein really wants to convince us all that evolution is a crock, he doesn't need to make a documentary and play semantic games with Richard Dawkins. He just has to sit us down and make us watch this episode of Star Trek: Voyager, where traveling at super-warp speed causes Janeway and Paris to super-evolve into lizards (and make lizard babies.) But it's not just Voyager — science fiction provides a ton of evolution theories that make intelligent design seem downright sensible.

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7. When one person displays a new and bizarre ability, that's the work of evolution, because survival of the fittest is making only the strongest genes survive. Actually, if there's only one person in the entire world who can shoot cherry-colored death rays out of his eyes, that's not evolution — that's a mutation. It's evolution if the cherry-eyebeam guy has a easier time mating with Famke Janssen than anyone else, and thus makes tons of babies, all of whom can do the red-eyeblast thing. Mutations are only the building blocks of evolution, not the result of evolution. Go back to school, Mohinder.

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6. Evolution is puberty. In the X-Men, for some reason, bizarre powers always manifest themselves whenever they first start getting hair in new and unusual places. And it's always treated as though the person's development as an individual is a form of, or a manifestation of, evolution. It's like puberty goes hand in hand with the sudden emergence of weird new genes, and your changes as an individual is confused with the transformation of your whole species. I also love the idea that there's one X-gene, which somehow activates a whole range of powers, from heat-vision to being a chicken-man.

5. Creatures with totally different ancestors will end up looking sorta the same, just because. Biologist and science fiction author Joan Slonczewski says a big problem with most science fiction is that it depicts convergent evolution as happening all the time — that's why aliens look sort of human, and aliens and humans can inter-breed. In fact, divergent evolution is way, way more common than convergent evolution. Divergent evolution is when creatures who share a single ancestor — like, say, mammals — evolve to be very different from each other over time. You're not likely to get just one unique creature in an ecosystem, like the great worm in Dune. Instead, you're likely to get a diversity of creatures from one ancestor. Convergent evolution, when creatures with different ancestors evolve to be similar because they're filling a similar evolutionary niche, is much rarer. (An example of convergent evolution, says Slonczewski: birds, bats and flying fish.)

4. Your children will inherit your body-mods. Maybe the earliest evolutionary theorist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) who believed in the idea of "soft inheritance," where you pass on your acquired characteristics to your kids. If your body adapts to circumstances during your life — for example, if a particular organ gets smaller because you use it less — then your children will inherit it. (That organ will be smaller in your kids.) In fact, only genetic changes are passed on. But that doesn't stop science fiction from presenting changes to a creature's body, or non-genetic adaptations that you make in the course of your life, as being heritable. (Lamarck's ideas are sometimes mischaracterized as, "if you lose a leg, you'll have one-legged children," but he wasn't that silly.) In David Cronenberg's 1979 classic The Brood, a cutting-edge psychotherapy causes patients to manifest their darkest emotions in their own bodies — and one transformed woman gives birth to monster children that she can control telepathically.

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3. Humans could evolve overnight into a new species in just one generation. In Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, humans' junk DNA suddenly starts expressing, and certain people are strongly sexually attracted to each other. These chosen people's children, the ones who survive, are a radically different species from homo sapiens. And Bear shows how this is just like when homo sapiens suddenly sprung up overnight, nearly 200,000 years ago. The new breed of humans are super-intelligent and mega-awesome. But it's pretty unlikely that super-rapid evolution would happen within only one generation.

2. It's possible to de-evolve people with rayguns or whatnot. Because evolution is a straight line and always happens in totally predictable ways, it's also a reversible process. You just need the right "de-evolution" device, like in the totally radical movie Mario Bros., where Dennis Hopper's King Koopa, who turns anyone who opposes him into a primordial sludge. Or, in the Next Generation episode "Genesis," a mutated T-virus from whiner-in-chief Reg Barclay causes everybody on the ship to start devolving — including Captain Picard, who starts turning into a lemur/pygmy/marmoset hybrid. Because Picard's too multi-faceted a guy to devolve into just one type of creature. Something similar also happens in the Doctor Who episode "Ghost Light," where an evolution-doubting clergyman is somehow de-evolved into an ape.

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(Which reminds me: How exactly did "Ghost Light"'s interplanetary explorer/surveyor character travel all the way across the galaxy to survey Earth, but manage to be unaware of evolution? Is Earth the only planet where creatures don't just stay the same forever?)

1. We can predict evolution and accelerate it with technobabble. Random weird things, like going really really fast, or getting exposed to weird radiation, or just eating some weird fish, will cause you to evolve 1,000,000 years into the future, like in that Voyager clip above. And then there's the totally AWESOME Voyager episode where the crew meets the long-distant descendants of Earth's dinosaurs, who are spacefaring and intelligent. Janeway deduces they're the great-great-great-great-grandkids of the dinos by asking the computer to predict dinosaur evolution millions of years ahead. Because, of course, evolution is completely predictable in a vacuum, and you don't need to know anything about enviornmental factors.

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4 can also be (sort-of) debated. Epigenetics (heritable information other than DNA sequence, such as gene methylation) can be acquired during an organism's life, and then passed on to its progeny. In some cases, this could even be the result of evolutionary pressure. There was a study of Irish immigrants, which found that those who had grandfathers who had been in Ireland during the famine when they (the gradfathers) were about 10, the individuals being studied had more efficient metabolisms, and lower rates of heart disease. The theory was that the famine conditions sent a signal to the grandfathers' cellular machinery to inactivate or activate expression of certain genes, which was heritable in a regular fashion. It's a bit of a stretch from that to "body mods" in general, but in theory applicable. i.e. don't feed your kids, and your great-grandkids might be healthier.