Friday, June 29, 2007


To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, biology don't get no respect.

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:

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").
That arrogance affects the way the biological sciences are portrayed in science fiction.
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 theyre 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:
And heck, there are lots of us out here in blogland that love to talk about this stuff . . .

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 .



  1. Anonymous12:00 PM

    I have always found it interesting that everyone things their profession should be represented accurately in fiction. I'm a physics major, but I don't adhere to this universes rules on physics to indulge in my hobby of writing fiction.

    You might do well to remember the purpose of fiction is generally to escape reality, not be bogged down by it.

    I'll agree that there are a lot of people out there talking about biology that frankly don't know jack crap and are passing it off as science. That, I agree, is regrettable. But do not pretend for a moment that scientific accuracy is important to fiction. It's not.

    Case in point: The Day After tomorrow: The team writing it consulted many specialists on weather, global warming, and climatologists of all stripes before making the movie. They took the useful and interesting parts, dashed the parts that would have bogged down the movie, and made a work of fiction that wasn't half bad. Not great I'll admit, but still a decent story. I did not go to the movie expecting it to be a tour de force of science. I went to be entertained.

    So to everyone that wants scientific accuracy in movies, I say this: Go watch a documentary or read a text book and leave my movies and books alone.

    I'd like to reiterate that I have no qualms with your gripe with people talking on subjects authoritatively they know not much about, but I strongly disagree that I should have to give you a call before deciding to give someone a T.V. for a hear in a story I write just because it wouldn't be... "realistic."

  2. I'm not expecting my TV shows or movies or novels to be like textbooks come to life. That would indeed be boring. Heck, I'm a Star Trek fan and the Star Trek universe bears very little resemblance to scientific reality, biological or otherwise. Same goes for Stargate. And I understand that FTL travel is more fantasy than physics, and that truly alien aliens would be hard to depict.

    My complaint is the science fiction that uses biological plot points that make little sense at even the most basic level. You point to The Day After Tomorrow - at least they talked to the scientists and picked out the useful bits. That's a lot different that using "mutation" as a modern-day version of "then a miracle occurred."

  3. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Mutation to biology is like warp 5 to physicists. Neither one has much basis in reality, and both are cliché, trite, overused plot devices. But they are entertaining.

    I agree that sometimes the actual science is more interesting than the Hollywood science. I wouldn't be a science major if I did not. I am in complete agreement that people who don't know about Biology shouldn't talk about it as if they do *cough Behe cough*... But as far as movies go, I'm flat out in disagreement.

    With that, I leave you with a smiley ^.^

  4. Anonymous7:01 AM

    Much of the "complexity" of biology is more a case of "we don't understand" rather than "we can't understand".

    At a systems biology conference at MIT, the host made the comment "most of us went into biology because we hated math" - it got laughs, but probably because it was true.

    Modeling in biology is very primitive. Here's a great article written by a biologist that I think really nails it: Can a Biologist Fix a Radio?

  5. Anonymous2:32 PM

    This made me think of The Cold Equations, a story I liked at first, but which I've since realized is awful. I just Googled it and found an excellent discussion explaining what's wrong with it:

    Here's a cold equation from biology:
    N(t) = N(0) exp(rt)
    This one is much scarier than those in the story, but I don't think the solution physicists have come up with is optimal.

  6. Anonymous4:45 PM

    The whole 'Matrix' saga was ruined for me by the complete disregard it showed for tropism. Come on, energy from human metabolism?! Just where did they get the food for the humans? One shouldn't have to be a biologist to see through that.

  7. Even if your enjoyment is ruined by a lapse in consistency or understanding of science in a story, I find that one can recover if one considers the narrators or any characters in the story to be unrelible to a certain degree.

    In the Matrix, for example, the character who states that the Matrix is using people as batteries could be misinterpreting someone else who told him that the Matrix was using people for power, but meaning computing power; a much more interesting interpretation. (A pity the script-writers didn't think of it; the sequels might have better.)

    As to the critique of The Cold Equations mentioned above, by applying a 21st Century sensibility to a tale a couple of generations old, the critic has uncovered new depths to the story, giving it new depth and resonance with our own era. And what do they do? Conclude that the story was bad, despite it giving them the thrill of the melodrama on first reading. One would almost think that they read stories solely to find the flaws, and they're not really happy until they find them and can declare the story defective. Since writers are only human, such critics will nearly always find a flaw, and therefore will be constantly happy in their unhappiness.

  8. Anonymous10:52 AM

    I don't read for flaws, but I guess you're right about applying modern standards to an old story. It would probably make a great double feature with, say, "Houston, Houston, do you read?"

  9. It probably is unfair to judge stories that make a social point by contemporary standards. I find "Houston, Houston, do you read?" to be very heavy handed, but 30 years ago probably not as much. The same is true for many of the episodes of the original Star Trek that are meant to make a social point: the black/white vs. white/black aliens, the Nazi planet, etc. It's hard for me to fully understand what it was like at a time when some Southern TV stations wouldn't broadcast the episode where Kirk and Uhura involuntarily kiss.

  10. NelC, I like the idea of assuming that some of the information we get is via unreliable narrators. It's a little harder with written fiction, since often the "background" is given by a presumably omniscient narrator, but for TV and movies that would work fine.


I've turned on comment moderation on posts older than 30 days. Your (non-spammy) comment should appear when I've had a chance to review it.

Note: Links to are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.