Case in point: Christopher O'Brien at Northstate Science expressed dismay that creationists assume a engineers can comment on biology with the same expertise that biologists can comment on biology. In response, a commenter responded that "admission scores for doctors and engineers were far in excess of biologists." As Christopher points out
. . . the sentence nonetheless reflects an commonly arrogant attitude on the part of engineers and many doctors - that those fields somehow require greater intellectual capacity than biology or anthropology. It also implies that their viewpoints should carry more weight.He argues, that while it might seem simple on the surface, biology is much more complex than physics or engineering:
The point, I tell my students, is that we often think it is easy to grasp biology (and make substantial claims about it) because it does not appear on the surface to be as difficult a subject as physics. But biology deals with systems infinitely more complicated than those in physics (or engineering) and the ability to study and explain those systems requires grasping a body of knowledge inconceivable to most lay people and to many others in different disciplines.Reproductive biologist and alien-design consultant Jack Cohen made a similar point in a 2002 essay:
That arrogance affects the way the biological sciences are portrayed in science fiction.
In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.At the same Festival, a ‘Making Science Available’ discussion produced a chain of cliches, where several science journalists explained how they knew all about genetic modification - when it was transparently clear to a few of us that they would score less than zero in a first-year university biology exam. Conservation, artificial reproductive techniques, these were "simple in substance"(but biochemistry was "complex").
Authors, film producers and directors, special-effects teams go to physicists, especially astrophysicists, to check that their worlds are workable, credible; they go to astronomers to check how far from their sun a planet should be, and so on. They even go to chemists to check atmospheres, rocket fuels, pheromones (apparently they’re not biology….), even the materials that future everyday clothes (not only spacesuits) will be made of. They do go to self-styled "astrobiologists", who are usually astronomers or astrophysicists who remember some Biology 1.01 (or think they could if pressed). Between them they invent reptiloid "aliens" (who are cold-blooded enough to do all those dastardly things no warm-blooded American male could do…), feline aliens (who have the psychology of the household cat writ large, especially by more mature female authors…), dinosaur "aliens"…. Or giant ants. Or were they mut-ants, I don’t remember (but how many screen mutations have you seen that change the recipient, not its progeny?). [ . . . ] Biology questions don’t seem professional to the people who design these scenarios; it’s like folk psychology or philosophy – everyone has "a right to" an opinion.The solution seems clear to me: science fiction writers* should realize that realistic (or at least consistent) biology is just as important to a science fiction story as the physics. In the age of the internet, there's really no excuse for not getting expert advice on the science in your stories. Here are just a few places to start:
- Ask a Biologist (answered by an international team of biologists)
- Ask a Biologist (USGS Wildlife Research Center)
- Ask a Geneticist (via )
- Ask a Scientist (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, answering questions on neuroscience, developmental biology, molecular biology, genetics, immunology, infectious disease)
- Ask a Neuroscientist (Neuroscience for Kids)
- Ask a Smithsonian Human Origins Program Researcher
Anyway, be sure to read Cohen's whole rant. For more on his views of alien life - real and fictional, check out his Astrobiology interview. He particularly likes the aliens in Brin's uplift books. There are also collected notes on Cohen's SF convention talks.
* and policy makers and politicians should get expert advice before making pronouncements or passing laws on scientific issues .
Tags:science fiction, biology