Monday, August 06, 2007

Dalek Evolution and What It Means to Be Human

Well, my vacation-at-home-with-out-of-town-family is over, and I'm back to blogging. It's nice to have a week off to step back and rejuvenate and reflect a little. One thing I realized is that I probably give the impression that I require scientific authenticity (at least in the biosciences) to enjoy a science fiction story. That couldn't be further from the truth. I do get irritated when a TV show or novel makes the pretense of using "real science" that has no basis in reality, but usually the characters and plot are what determine whether I like a story a not. And I really do enjoy sci-fi that joyfully just makes stuff up.

A good example is Friday's episode of Doctor Who, Evolution of the Daleks. The Daleks are in depression-era Manhattan and are making an army of humans with Dalek DNA. Their genetic engineering laboratory is fantastic, with flasks of brightly-colored liquids, bubbling beakers and all the bunsen burners. The genetic engineering is accomplished by infusing the humans with a blue liquid. It has no basis in real science at all, but it's great fun.
"Trouble's brewing in the Transgenics Lab."
Listen to Martha exclaim "Humans with Dalek DNA?"

But just because the science is silly doesn't mean that the episode can't be used as a springboard for discussing serious biological issues. For example, Bioethics Bytes has used the episode to discus what it means to be "human."
Essentially, The Evolution of the Daleks attempts to establish relations of similarity and difference between humans and Daleks, though also between humans, Daleks, and the pig/human hybrid army that had been created in the preceding show The Daleks in Manhattan. Humanity is depicted as thinking and feeling, where the Daleks are single-minded and emotionless. Humans have the ability to appreciate music and feel compassion for others; they possess courage, determination and ambition; though also experience pain and fear. It is the lack of these characteristics that makes the Daleks “less than their enemies”. The pig/human army, on the other hand are referred to as “simple beasts”.
They've also compiled a list of clips from the episode (pdf) that touch on the boundary between "human" and "non-human". Even Doctor Who can be the basis of serious scientific and philosophical discussion.

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