Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Vampires and Zombies

Vampires, ghosts and zombies are staples of the horror genre. Could they have a basis in reality? Physicist Costas Efthimiou, of the University of Central Florida says "no".

According to an article by the Associated Press:
Efthimiou takes out the calculator to prove that if a vampire sucked one person's blood each month -- turning each victim into an equally hungry vampire -- after a couple of years there would be no people left, just vampires. He started his calculations with just one vampire and 537 million humans on Jan. 1, 1600 and shows that the human population would be down to zero by July 1602.
Of course, the problem with that calculation is that it assumes that vampires need to suck the blood of a different person each month. In Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Count feeds on poor Lucy multiple times. In fact, red blood cells only live about four months, and must be constantly replaced. That's why you can safely donate blood every eight weeks or so. So for vampires to be "realistic", all they need to do is feed off the same people multiple times.

Efthimiou points out that the best known example of zombification, Wilfred Doricent, was actually a case of paralysis due to tetrodotoxin poisoning. Tetrodotoxin is found in the liver of pufferfish, and is the chemical that makes Japanese fugu potentially lethal. The poison causes paralysis while the victim remains fully conscious. Death comes eventually by asphyxiation. People can "wake up" from apparent death after a relatively mild case of tetrodotoxin poisoning. An ex-voodoo priest has apparently confirmed that zombification indeed involves a potion which contains extract from the liver of a Hatian pufferfish.

Other studies have noted that some people considered zombies by their families really have brain damage or suffer from mental disorders such as catatonic schizophrenia.

So while a science-based story could certainly include "vampires" and "zombies", they would have to be different than the way they are depicted in popular horror movies.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mighty Blue Science!

Science writer Jennifer Ouellette reports good news in her excellent blog, Cocktail Party Physics: Season 1 of the animated version of The Tick is now on DVD. It's clever and funny, and, as Jennifer points out, full of twisted science:
And there's lots of science! Of a particularly twisted nonsensical sort, granted, but science nonetheless. For people like me, who adore finding pop culture tie-ins as an excuse to talk about science, this is a very exciting thing. Consider the case of a slime-based organism called Thrakkorzog, inventor of the Clonerizer. His cloning process involves mixing together a "secret cloning sauce," a pinch of a oregano, and a toenail from the subject to be cloned. Talk about being ripped from the headlines! Or perhaps the menu of an Italian restaurant...
Read her whole post for more mighty blue science. Spoon!

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Teaching tools: Bad Biology Movies: X-men, Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes

Another interesting biology in fiction site: When Good Biology Goes Bad at the Movies

This site has teaching tools based on a course taught during the Independent Activities Period at MIT and is a product of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Master Educatoin Group. There are downloadable presentations (all PowerPoint) on "Cloning and Jurassic Park", "Evolution and X-men II" and "Speciation and Planet of the Apes".

Good stuff if you want an interesting twist for your biology class.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006


alien plant life on earthI looking around for biology-related science fiction sites on the web, I came across a few that focus on plant life.

- Damon's Fascination with Plants in Science Fiction. He describes his favorites, including Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham), Midworld and Mid-flinx (Alan Dean Foster), the Word for World is Forest (Ursula LeGuin) and several others.

- There are the beginnings of a Botany in Science Fiction Page, which appears to be a project for an English class on Science Fiction at Clemson taught by Elisa Sparks.

- An article by a team of scientists from the Carnegie Institution, Princeton and UC Berkeley have proposed that extraterrestrial plants might be detected by the wavelength of light they reflect. Earth's vegetation gives Earthshine a "red edge". Even if extraterrestrial plants don't reflect the same color as those on earth, the methods they describe could be used for detection. (see Seager et al. Astrobiology 5:372-390 (2005))

- NASA has an interesting article about engineering Arabadopsis (thale cress) for planting on Mars. Such plants carrying a fluorescent jellyfish protein can be used to understand the effect of different atmospheric and light conditions.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading People Like a Bene Gesserit

In Frank Herbert's Dune, the Bene Gesserit "witches" are so adept at reading people's faces and body language that they can appear almost psychic. According to a couple of articles in this month's Scientific American Mind those are learnable skills.

"Gestures Offer Insight", describes the work of David McNeill at the University of Chicago and Spencer Kelly at Colgate University on interpretation of gestures.
McNeill's work, and numerous studies since then, has shown that the body can underscore, undermine or even contradict what a person says. Experts increasingly agree that gestures and speech spring from a common cognitive process to become inextricably interwoven. Understanding the relationship is crucial to understanding how people communicate overall.
"A Look Tells All" profiles UCSF psychology professor emeritus Paul Ekman, who has catalogued more than 10,000 different human facial muscle movements, and taught himself to recognize those microexpressions that can reveal what a person is feeling. These facial expressions are universal: he found the same expressions recognizable in North Americans, Japanese, Argentinians, and even in isolated tribes on the island of New Guinea. (You can see the kinds of expressions Ekman looks for in the Facial Action Coding System.)

He cautions that recognizing what a person is feeling is not the same as knowing what they are thinking.
Does his talent make him a mind reader? "No," he says candidly. "The most I can do is tell how you are feeling at the moment but not what you are thinking." He is not being modest or coy; he is simply addressing the psychological bottom line behind facial expressions: "Anxiety always looks like anxiety," he explains, "regardless of whether a person fears that I'm seeing through their lie or that I don't believe them when they're telling the truth."

The professor calls the ever present risk we all take of misreading a person's visage "Othello's error." In Shakespeare's drama, Othello misinterprets the fear in his wife Desdemona's face as a sign of her supposed infidelity. In truth, the poor woman is genuinely alarmed at her husband's unjust, jealous rage. Othello's subsequent decision to kill Desdemona is a fatal error, and Ekman wants to make sure that police, security personnel and secret service agents do not make the same mistake.
Even Jessica Atreides fell into that trap. Shortly after arriving on Arrakis, Jessica had a discussion with the Suk Doctor Wellington Yueh .
Jessica dropped her arms, crossed to the hall door and stood there a moment, hesitating, then let herself out. All the time we talked he was hiding something, holding something back, she thought. To save my feelings, no doubt. He's a good man. Again, she hesitated, almost turned back to confront Yueh and drag the hidden thing from him. But that would only shame him, frighten him to learn he's so easily read. I should placed more trust in my friends.
Of course if Jessica had confronted Yueh, there wouldn't have been much story.

(Scientific American links via Mind Hacks)

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Real Elves?

Remember pixies, elves, and the wee folk of legend? They were generally small, musical characters with playful natures, given to singing and dancing. In the Scandinavian folklore, elves were so musically inspired that they could dance a man to death. Were these diminutive characters originally inspired by real humans who carried a genetic variation, namely a deletion of the elastin gene that produces humans of short stature, elfin features, and intense emotional responses to music?
The Examining Room of Dr. Charles has an interesting discussion of the elf-like traits of people with Williams Syndrome. Dr. Charles concludes:
Whether this condition inspired the legends of Nordic, Scandinavian, and English culture that became the "elves" is unclear, but it is an interesting thought. Many other legendary figures have been rooted in human variation, exaggerated and aggrandized for the purpose of story. Or we might be retrofitting this syndrome to the mythical constructs we learned as children.
While magical elves are staples in fantasy, perhaps science fiction has a place for people who look and behave like creatures of myth for natural reasons.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Human Hybridomas and Biochips

Cesar Milstein's first hybridoma
When I think of William Gibson, I think of the interface between man and electronics; people who plug directly into the matrix, people who carry chips in their brain, and people with Zeiss-Ikon eyes that record all they see, not to mention self-aware artificial intelligence. I don't think so much about basic biology. It's clear though, that Gibson has kept an eye on biological developments.

In Count Zero, the second book in Gibson's "Sprawl trilogy", Turner, the corporate mercenary, orchestrates the defection of top scientist Christopher Mitchell from the fictional Maas Biolabs. Mitchell is described as their "head hybridoma man":
Somewhere near [Maas's] core [Mitchell] had perfected the hybridoma techniques that had eluded other researchers for almost a century; working with human cancer cells and a neglected, nearly forgotten model of DNA synthesis, he had produced the immortal hybrid cells that were the basic production tools of the new technology, minute biochemical factories endlessly reproducing the engineered molecules that were linked and built up into biochips.
I suspect it's no coincidence that Count Zero was first published in 1986, two short years after Jerne, Köhler and Milstein won the Nobel Prize for the development of hybridoma technology. If nothing else, it must have sounded cool to include.

So what are hybridomas? First a little background on B-cells. B-cells are a type of white blood cell, and are the antibody-producing component of the immune system. Antibodies are proteins composed of two heavy chains and two light chains. Segments of the genes that encode the heavy and light chains recombine during B-cell development, resulting in a population of B-cells that can produce many different antibodies. When a foreign molecules ("antigen") or foreign cell bearing an antigen finds its way into the blood stream, B-cells that produce antibodies capable of binding the antigen are stimulated to start dividing as part of the bodies defense system. This response is typically "polyclonal", meaning that several different B-cells, each producing a different antibody, respond. Of course it's more complicated than that, but I think that covers the key points (for more details, watch this flash movie of B-cell development).

Because of their ability to specifically bind bacteria, viruses and other antigens, antibodies were long considered to have promise as a "magic bullet" therapeutic and diagnostic agent. Because the immune response is polyclonal it wasn't possible to isolate a single type of antibody from the serum of immunized animals. B-cells don't survive very long outside the body, so it wasn't possible to simply grow clones in culture. In 1975, Kohler and Milstein figured out a way of culturing cells making a monoclonal, or a single type of antibody. They took B-cells from immunized mice, fused the cells with bone marrow tumor (myeloma) cells, and grew them under conditions in which only B-cell-myeloma fusions, or hybridomas, would proliferate (more details about monoclonal antibodies and hybridomas). Each hybridoma produces a unique mouse monoclonal antibody.

What about human hybridomas? There are, of course, ethical problems with injecting people with antigens to create human monoclonal antibody producing cell lines, limiting the availability of human antibody producing cells. Another problem is the limited number (and quality) of human myeloma cell lines to use as fusion partners. To get around these problems, early as the mid-1980s scientists had begun to develop methods to use recombinant DNA technology to engineer human and partially-"humanized" antibodies (some of the earliest experiments are mentioned in Kohler's 1984 Nobel lecture, for a recent review see Smith et al. (2004)). Successful human hybridomas equivalent to Milstein and Kohler's mouse hybridomas weren't reported until 2001 (Karpas et al.).

OK, so there are ways of generating monoclonal antibodies from human hybridomas. How would they be used in biochips? The term "biochip" as used today typically refers to miniaturized arrays of DNA, proteins, antibodies, or even cells. These are used for screening compounds, analyzing gene expression, and other, similar, assays. I think it's fair to say that hybridomas could be used to make the antibodies on antibody biochips. Similar cell fusion technology could be used to immortalize cells producing other proteins as well, even though recombinant DNA technology is likely a more practical method of creating cellular protein factories. That isn't the type of biochip that Gibson had in mind, however. His biochips form circuits that can interface with both electronics and the human brain.
The second table supported the cyberspace gear. The deck was identical with the one he'd seen on the oil rig, a Maas-Neotek prototype. The deck configuration was standard, but Conroy had said that it was built up from the new biochips.
"I don't know, man. I just don't know. What is it, some kind of cancer?
Turner followed him down the room, past a worktable where a micromanipulator waited beneath its dustcover, past the dusty rectangular eyes of a bank of aged monitors, one of them with a shattered screen.
"It's all through her head," Rudy said "Like long chains of it. It doesn't look like anything I've ever seen, ever. Nothing
"How much do you know about biochips, Rudy?"
Rudy grunted. He seemed very sober now, but tense, agitated. He kept running his hands back through his hair "That's what I thought. It's some kind of . . . Not an implant. Graft."
visible man brain sectionTheodore Barger at USC is working on chips that can actually replace the hippocampus, part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Just a few months ago, it was reported that brain implants can be used as a direct computer interface, both in monkeys and people. These experiments use traditional electronics and silcon chips.

A "chip" made purely of biological matter has not yet been achieved. Yael Hanein of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues have made progress in that direction, by figuring out a method to direct rat neurons to form regular patterns and make connections on a sheet of quartz. Getting those artificial neural networks to control electronics or interface with the neurons in the brain still lies within the realm of science fiction. In any case, it's unlikely that that the technical solution will lie within the field of hybridoma technology.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hormones, size and long life

Nate Sutter and his colleagues at the Human Genome Research Institute has found a correlation between a variant of the insulin like growth factor-1 (igf-1) gene and dog size. The research team started out by studying the genes of tiny Portuguese water dogs and found that they carried the variant gene. They then compared the sequence of this gene in 350 dogs from very large (such as Great Danes and St. Bernards) to very small (Yorkshire terriers and pomeranians).
They found that almost all of the 18 small breeds carried the identical variant of the gene as small Portuguese water dogs. But almost none of the 15 giant breeds carried this gene variant. That suggested that the gene plays a major role in controlling dog body size, Sutter said on 11 October at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Igf-1 appears to regulate the amount of growth factor made, with smaller breeds making less growth factor than larger breeds. In theory, introduction of the "larger" variant could create large chihuahuas. (For more background information see the canine genetics primer.)

Igf-1 regulation of growth is not unique to dog; "knocking out" the Igf-1 gene in mice results in dwarf "mini mice" (abstract). Other studies of genetically-manupulated mice has helped reveal another effect of low Igf-1: longer life spans (articles: Holzenberger (2004), Shimokawa et al (2002)). In contrast, high levels of Igf-1 are associated with increased risk of cancer (Chan et al. (1998) abstract). There is evidence that Igf-1 plays a similar role in humans.

What is the significance of all this to science fiction? We've all read or seen stories that use a "mutation" to create characters with new shapes or abilities. In some stories the "mutants" have amazing non-human abilities (e.g., X-men and the new TV series Heroes). I'll have a lot more to say about "mutants" and mutation in a later post, but for this one I'd like to point out that human physiology is a complex and carefully balanced system. Any mutation is going to potentially have wide-ranging and unexpected effects: longer lifespan but smaller size; larger size, but more likely to get cancer. Realistic science fiction takes such issues into account.

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Parasites favor baby boys

As a follow-up to my post about parasites, a recent study shows that women with latent Toxiplasma infections are much more likely to have baby boys that girls. The normal sex ratio is 0.51 in favor of boys (104 boys are born for every 100 girls), but in toxiplasma-infected women the ratio is as high as 0.72 (260 boys for every 100 girls).

A new or alien disease doesn't have to kill the infected population to wreak havoc on the population. Imagine* the social changes that would take place if most of the babies were boys.

*Actually there is no need to imagine - this scenario is playing out in some parts of China today, by choice, rather than infection.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Cartoon Anatomy

Just for fun: From September 2 - October 8, Arario Gallery in Seoul had an exhibition titled "Animatus", by artist Hyungkoo Lee. Lee's show is focused on the (hypothetical) anatomy of Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Roadrunner, and other cartoon characters. The exhibition is made up of realistic looking skeletons and sketches.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Realistic Extraterrestrials

Mia Molvray is a science fiction writer and botanist*. Her web site has some excellent resources on the biology of "realistic" extraterrestrials.

In "They Came From Outer Space: Real Aliens" (originally published in the Winter 1997 SFWA Bulletin), Molvray points out that extraterrestrial life would likely evolve under the rules of natural selection, just like life here on earth.
The first rule of biology is that life evolves by natural selection. Characteristics that help an organism survive and reproduce get passed on to the next generation. Conversely, any characteristic that increases mortality (either of parents or their offspring) disappears with the individuals it did not help. Except for worlds run by angels or genetic engineers, even aliens will be ruled by natural selection. Though this may seem obvious, the implications are rarely considered. What would be wrong, for instance, in describing an alien species as having three eyes--just to make them a tad more weird?
She goes on to discuss how alien anatomy and physiology would necessarily be intertwined with the environment in which they evolved. She concludes:
Their biology is the sum of millions of responses to natural selection. Their minds will be based on their biology and ecology. Their cultures will be influenced by their biology as well as their dreams. If the reader gets to glimpse the forces that shaped them, those aliens will feel real.
Molvray's web site also has a section devoted to biological factors in the evolution of intelligence. This is set up in the form of a course at the level of advanced high school students or college freshmen. It's got great material if you are interested in the question of whether there is other intelligent life in the universe.

Finally, read one of her short stories, "They Toil Not", and decide for yourself if her extraterrestrials seem realistic.

* She has a nice section on her site about the Catalina mariposa lily. And be sure to check out her fantastic photos on flickr.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Taste in Space

Late last night, my husband and I turned on the TV to Emeril Live (I know that isn't science fiction, but bear with me). In this particular episode, Emeril developed recipes for astronauts on the International Space Station. It was pretty interesting to learn about how the food is prepared, dehydrated and vacuum sealed, and the kinds of limitations that puts on the recipes you choose.

One thing that was striking was that all of the astronauts that Emeril chatted with (both on the Space Station and here on terra firma) mentioned that they wanted spicy and well-seasoned dishes, because food simply doesn't have as much flavor in space. I hypothesized that for some reason your sense of smell is diminished in space, making food less tasty. Husband hypothesized that the redistribution of bodily fluids in the low gravity made the tongue swell and function differently. (They aren't great hypotheses, but heck, it was 3AM.)

First off, it turns out that we were both right and both wrong. Microgravity does indeed change the distribution of fluids and astronauts do have stuffed up nasal passages. When this hypothesis was tested in simulated microgravity here on earth, however, no change in taste was observed (PubMed abstract). Experiments on astronauts in space have been fairly consistent with those results. Other possible causes that have been proposed are that it's a side effect of space sickness, lower atmospheric pressure (which may affect the smell of foods), stress, or psychological effects of social and environmental isolation (Olabi 2002 (pdf)). Studies so far have been inconclusive, and I would bet that it turns out that the cause is a combination of different factors.

Why does this matter? I would say that it's a quality of life issue, especially for very long trips, such as the proposed manned mission to Mars. As Olabi and colleagues point out:
Eating is one of the basic needs of humans and any disturbance in the enjoyment of eating foods due to taste alterations can have an effect on the health and morale of astronauts in long term space missions, in a similar manner to what occurred with with individuals on Antarctic missions (Stuster, 1996).
Interestingly, the science fiction stories I've read that deal with human adaptation to low gravity largely focus on changes to bone and muscle mass. There are descriptions of space-"evolved" humans with longer, lighter limbs and feet adapted for gripping. However, I haven't read any that discussed changes in the chemical senses*. Would space-goers be more likely to eat alien foods simply for the novelty? Would they be less able to detect contaminated or spoiled food? Would there be changes in sexual attraction?

The entire culture of a human colony living in a low gravity environment might turn out to be very different from our own here on earth. (And I'm hoping that someday the Food Network will routinely carry shows on "space cuisine" with some of the answers. )

* There is a colorful description of a zero gravity formal banquet, with "finger foods" and "toe foods" in John C. Wright's story, Guest Law.

Review Article: Olabi et al. "The Effect of Microgravity and Space Flight on the Chemical Senses" J. Food Sci 67:468-478 (2002)"> (pdf)

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Parasites That Control Behavior

Sometimes real science is stranger than fiction. Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky describes a number of examples of parasites or infectious microbes that modify behavior in a Scientific American review article titled "Bugs in the Brain" (pdf)*. Some examples from the review and recent scientific literature:

• The rabies virus increases saliva production and makes the infected host aggressive. When a rabid animal bites a host the virus is spread via saliva in the wound.

Toxiplasma gondii causes infected rodents to specifically lose their inborn aversion to cat pheromones. This behavior is beneficial to toxiplasma, because it sexually reproduces in cats that have eaten infected mice and rats (original article). Infected cats in turn spread toxiplasma through their droppings. People infected with toxiplasma also exhibit behavioral changes, particularly a decrease in "novelty seeking". It's been proposed that toxiplasma infection has actually changed human culture, since there is a correlation between countries with a high rate of toxiplasma infection and increased neuroticism, uncertainty avoidance, and "masculine" sex roles.

• Grasshoppers infected with the hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii become more likely to jump into water where the hair worm reproduces. The parasite essentially makes its host suicidal to further its own reproduction.

• Some trematodes that infect the brackish water crustacean, gammaridean anthropod cause changes in behavior that make the hosts more likely to move towards light and exhibit aberrant "suicidal" evasive behaviors. These behavioral changes make the infected crustacean more likely to be eaten by birds, which the trematode uses as a host for the next stage in its life cycle (pdf).

• Plasmodium, the cause of malaria, affects both its mosquito and animal hosts. Mosquitoes that drink plasmodium-infected blood initially become more cautious about finding another victim, giving plasmodium time to replicate. Once the plasmodium is infective, mosquitoes become more likely to bite more than one person in a night, and spend more time drinking blood. In turn, once a person is infected with plasmodium, he become more attractive to mosquitoes, continuing the life cycle of the parasite. (See "Malaria Parasite Makes You More Attractive (To Parasites)" New York Times, August 9, 2005). Plasmodium can also affect the nervous system. Infection of juvenile canaries with plasmodium affects the song control pathway in the brain, resulting in simpler songs as adults. (Pubmed).

Of course this research is fertile ground for science fiction. Parasites are often used as a crude form of brain control; the brain-controlling parasites in The Wrath of Khan or the brain slugs in Futurama, are examples of this.

Personally, I prefer microbes with more subtle and interesting behavioral effects. An example of such a story is David Brin's, "The Giving Plague", in which a virus that causes altruism infects the human population. You can read "The Giving Plague" on David Brin's web site.

What other influences might parasites and microbes have had on the human species? For speculation on the possible effects of retrovirus infection on human evolution, see Couturnix's musings on Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children, asking "Did a virus make you smart?".

The possibilities are really endless.

* For a more technical review, see Thomas et al. "Parasitic manipulation: where are we and where should we go?" Beav. Proc. 68: 185-199 (2005) (pdf)

(For cool photos, check out the CDC's parasite image library.)

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Are hard science fiction readers squeamish?

Science fiction author Chris Moriarty (most recent book: Spin Control) has an essay on his web site about "hard" science fiction. He points out that until recently some considered the biological sciences were considered to be too "fantastic" to be science fiction. He speculates, though, that perhaps part of the problem that the biosciences have had in being accepted into the "hard science fiction" realm is that descriptions of biology (particularly human biology) make some readers uncomfortable.
Hard sf may be a broad field and getting broader daily -- I remember when people said C. J. Cherry's Cyteen wasn't hard sf because cloning was 'fantasy science' (5) -- but it will always be a genre written by and for people who are passionate (albeit at times foolishly passionate) about science and technology.

(5) Actually, I think there may be another, non-political factor behind the longstanding reluctance to include stories based on biology in the hard SF cannon. Part of it is a straightforward and perfectly understandable aesthetic impulse; until the advent of genetic engineering and mathematical biology, there was a truly deplorable absence of equations in most biology texts, which made biology-based sf stories a hard sell for the numerophilic hard-cord hard SF fan. However, I can't quite buck the suspicion that part of hard SF's historic biology phobia was mere squeamishness. The kind of squeamishness so entertainingly encapsulated in the old Star Trek episode, Amok Time, where Spock precedes a highly euphemistic discussion of salmon spawning procedures with the shamefaced admission that his illness "has to do with biology . . . Vulcan biology."

Is that true? It certainly sounds plausible to me. I've certainly met "engineering types" that are much happier in a simple universe made up of numbers and circuits and metal than the fluids and squishiness of the biological world.

Oh, and the dialog from Amok Time"? Here is a sample of the dialog where Spock dances around the basics of Vulcan biology:
"There are precedents in nature, Captain... the giant eel-birds of Regulus Five. Once each eleven years, they must return to the caverns where they hatched. On your Earth, the salmon. They must return to that one stream where they were born, to spawn – or die in trying."
"But you're not a fish, Mr. Spock–"
"No – nor am I a man... I'm a Vulcan. I had hoped I would be spared this, but the ancient drives are too strong. Eventually, they catch up with us... and we are driven by forces we cannot control – to return home, and take a wife... or die."
(pause) "I haven't heard a word you said – and I'll get you to Vulcan, somehow."
- Spock and Kirk
It's silly dialog, but I suspect it was written as much to get around television censorship of anything having to do with s-e-x as squeamishness on the part of the writers and fans. I could be wrong, of course, since Star Trek has a long history of really crappy biology. (But happily for me, lots of blog fodder).

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