Live Long and Evolve

July 12, 2019 • 10:15 am

by Greg Mayer

Much of the time while Jerry was in Hawaii, I was traveling in New York and New England, including attending Evolution 2019 in Providence, RI, the annual joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biology. The opening night is highlighted by the Stephen Jay Gould Prize Public Outreach Lecture. The Prize is given for “sustained and exemplary efforts [that] have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life”. This year’s Prize winner was Jerry’s erstwhile Ph.D. student Mohamed Noor of Duke University.

Mohamed Noor in his Starfleet uniform. (Which show is the uniform from?)

The title of his lecture was “Evolution in the Final Frontier: Why Might We See So Many Humanoid Aliens in Star Trek?” He delivered it to a packed house, some in Starfleet uniform. (The opening night is open to and advertised to the general public.) Mohamed is the author of Live Long and Evolve (Princeton University Press, 2018), and his talk dealt with one of the topics in the book.


Some of Star Trek‘s writers have been renowned science fiction authors, and the franchise has long been known to pay attention to the scientific commentary about the series. My favorite example of this is the “Heisenberg compensator“. When it was pointed out that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (which states that either the position or the velocity of a particle could be known, but not both) meant that transporters would have a hard time doing what they are supposed to do, Star Trek writers invented the “compensators”, which, in some unknown fashion, overcame this difficulty.

Mohamed’s talk dealt with another such issue: why do alien species from all over the galaxy look so much alike? And so much like us? You know—roughly bilaterally symmetric, 4-limbed, bipedal, encephalized, the head with eyes, ears, nostrils, a mouth. The aliens might be a different color, or have head ridges, even antennae, but they look very human. The short, and probably pragmatically correct, answer is that the aliens had to be played by human actors, and anything else would be either undoable, prohibitively expensive for a TV series, or both. But Star Trek wanted a principled answer.

Image result for star trek humanoid aliens
A diversity of humanoid Star Trek aliens. From

The principled answer that I knew of came from The Next Generation series, in which a species-diverse group of current humanoids encounter a recording made by an “ancient humanoid“, which explains that they had “seeded” planets across the galaxy with DNA that would drive evolution on those planets in a humanoid direction. It was never explained how this would work.

Mohamed’s careful study of Star Trek encountered two other explanations, both in the original series: humans derive fairly recently from visiting alien astronauts; or, aliens (most of them anyway) are derived from life on Earth. Rather than give Mohamed’s choice from among these three which is most plausible given what we know about evolution and genetics, I’ll leave it as an exercise for readers to think about, or debate in the comments (or, you could read his book!).

I’m about halfway through the book now, and as a long time Star Trek fan, I am fascinated. I have not yet gotten to the chapter which discusses all those interplanetary hybrids (like Mr. Spock), and am looking forward to it. In the book, Mohamed usually introduces each topic with a Star Trek scene touching on an evolutionary or genetic topic, and uses that as a launching point to discuss the biological principles involved. Among the topics he covers are common ancestry, phylogenetic trees, natural selection, convergence, genetic drift, what DNA is, and how DNA ‘works’. And I’m not finished yet!

The book is aimed at the general public (i.e., it is not a textbook), and Mohamed gives the most generous reading possible to Star Trek‘s scientific forays—it is not a compilation of errors. Footnotes give references to further Star trek episodes, and references in the comprehensive endnotes cover the scientific literature very well, including in areas outside Mohamed’s own areas of research. Many of these references are to the latest literature; the suggested reading adds more accessible works, including Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, and, of course, his mentor’s Why Evolution Is True. In fact, near the beginning of his lecture, he gave a shout-out for WEIT (the book).

Mohamed has long used science fiction to teach science, and been much involved in outreach activities, as regular WEIT readers will recall. In 2017, the Evolution meetings and Heroes and Villains Fan Fest/Walker Stalker Con were both being held simultaneously in Oregon Convention Center, and Mohamed attended both! You can see videos of him engaging scientific topics through science fiction here, here, and here, and a Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. There are also a number of videos of his students making presentations at his Youtube channel.

Live long and prosper

February 28, 2015 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry of course has already noted the passing yesterday of Leonard Nimoy, and many readers have weighed in with memories and encomia in the comments. Jerry was not a big Star Trek fan, so I thought I’d add a few thoughts here above the fold.

Star Trek, with Spock at its moral core, became a cultural touchstone for multiple generations. In a statement yesterday, President Obama (perhaps thinking of himself a little too!), said

[Spock was] Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

It is this latter aspect of Star Trek— it’s vision– that I wish to comment on here. Star Trek‘s basic message, continued over 36 years of films and television shows, is this: When sentient beings of good will act together, there is no problem in the Universe that cannot be overcome. The Star Trek world was a meditation on, and most often a celebration of, humanism, in the broad philosophical sense– the capacity of the human species, by reason and reflection and good works to come to know the world and to establish a just social order. What Nimoy’s Spock gave to this world was, among other things, its inclusivity. It was not just for us, or just the human species– it was for everyone.

The Star Trek world did not come to the full realization of this ethos on first pass, but like all human institutions, grew into its fuller development over time. It was at the end of the film The Undiscovered Country from 1991, after concluding peace with the Klingons, that Captain Kirk repeats Star Trek‘s mantra, but alters it: “To boldly go where no man– where no one— has gone before”, not as a reference to the decreasing usage of “man” in the sense of the whole species, but as the inclusion of all sentient beings– including the previously implacable foe, the Klingons– in the community that was to be grown and perfected. Star Trek maintained this optimistic, inclusive vision for over three decades.

(The Star Wars universe, introduced a decade after Star Trek, paled in comparison– it was, at best, Nordic in it’s resignation in the face of humanity’s inabilities and failings, but in fact nearer a mystical cult in its Colbertesque obeisance to the “force” as a feeling in the gut, to be embraced against the false lure of skill and reason.)

While many (including me) have commented on how Nimoy’s Spock served as an inspiration to budding scientists, some have also commented on his later hosting of a rather wacko show devoted to pseudoscience and paranormal claims called In Search of…. I’ve never investigated Nimoy’s personal views on these subjects, nor much watched the show, but I would like to think that Nimoy’s views are reflected in his guest appearance on one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, a parody of the paranormal police procedural, The X-files, in which Nimoy also parodies In Search of…:

Star Trek, and Nimoy in particular, have given us (including here at WEIT, where you can get your evolutionary biology and Star Trek jokes all in one place) much to enjoy, and to think about, over the years. To paraphrase T’Pring, we have been honored.

Can the supernatural be studied? Kiri-kin-tha’s first law of metaphysics

May 18, 2009 • 9:37 pm

by Greg Mayer

A tactic pursued vigorously by cdesign proponentsists is to claim that scientists assume that God (and other supernatural beings) doesn’t exist, and that this assumption is just that: an assumption, with no empirical basis. Roger Pennock has responded to this claim, most notably in his book Tower of Babel, noting that it confuses metaphysical naturalism (claims about the existence of entities) with methodological naturalism (forgoing explanatory appeals to the supernatural, because such appeals squelch further inquiry), and that all science must adopt the latter, lest it give up investigation whenever a problem proves recalcitrant. Its converse, “methodological supernaturalism”, is essentially a God of the gaps argument: what we do not understand, we attribute to the supernatural.  The fallacy of this argument has been known for millenia, and it has perhaps never been better said than by Hippocrates:

Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.

It’s also always seemed to me a rather parlous position for a religious person to adopt, because by identifying the works of God with ignorance, the realm of the divine is on a continual retreat before expanding knowledge. A weaker but related claim made by some accommodationists is that science must be silent about existential claims about God(s), because it cannot contemplate supernatural entities, being bound to consider only natural explanations.

I think Pennock’s response is compelling, but I’ve always thought more could be said.  Is it really true that science cannot investigate the supernatural?

If the goal of science is identified, as it sometimes is, as the explanation of phenomena by recourse to general laws (or some such formulation) then it would appear that supernatural events or entities, being unbound by such laws, could not be scientifically investigated. While this characterization of science is not without merit, it ignores a large part of science– much of astronomy, geology, and biology, for starters– which is concerned with history: what has happened.  They are, as R.J. O’Hara has put it, “those sciences which have as their object the reconstruction of the past based on the evidence of the present.”

For these sciences, supernatural events are not beyond their ken. For if supernatural entities have interacted with the world in a way to produce observable effects (and if they have not, then to posit their existence is vain), then we can surely know of them by the methods of the historical sciences.

In light of the latest box office smash, an example from Star Trek is enlightening.  In the Next Generation and some later series, the crew of the Enterprise periodically encountered a being called Q. Q is immortal and apparently omnipotent: he can do anything. The source and nature of his power is unknown to the Federation or any other galactic civilization.  But was he supernatural? Well maybe in some sense he was, but in another sense he wasn’t: he could be observed, studied, and recorded by all the normal biological senses and scientific instruments.  His actions were known, recorded, and part of documented history. His activities were never explained by general laws, but that his activities took place was well attested.  So although he was not (at least yet) a subject of the sciences of general laws, he was certainly a subject of the historical sciences.

That the supernatural, as exemplified in my example by Q, is not unstudiable, has been proposed in a piece by Russell Blackford and in one of Jerry’s pieces in The New Republic.

But if any supernatural entity in observable contact with the world (i.e. a contact that has consequences) can be studied by the methods of the historical sciences, even if the effects of its contact cannot be subsumed under general laws, is it still supernatural? I would say no. To back me up on this I call on the great Vulcan philosopher, Kiri-kin-tha, and his first law of metaphysics:

Nothing unreal exists.

Or, as I would rephrase his law, anything which exists is natural.