Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Biology of Star Trek Revisited

In anticipation of the release of the new Star Trek movie, neuroscientist Athena Andreadis has posted an epilogue to her 1998 book, To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. Despite the show's tendency toward pseudoscientific technobabble, she notes that some of the biology depicted - like human genetic engineering and organ regeneration - are not only possible, but may be feasible in the near future. And she makes what I think is a very good point: the real value of Star Trek in promoting science lies in its positive depiction of science and technology, rather than the actual scientific details in each episode.

On the other hand, technobabble and all, Star Trek fulfills a very imporant role. It shows and endorses the value of science and technology — the only popular TV series to do so, at a time when science has lost both appeal and prestige. With the increasing depth of each scientific field, and the burgeoning of specialized jargon, it is distressingly easy for us scientists to isolate ourselves within our small niches and forget to share the wonders of our discoveries with our fellow passengers on the starship Earth. Despite its errors, Star Trek’s greatest contribution is that it has made us dream of possibilities, and that it has made that dream accessible to people both inside and outside science.

You should read her entire post, Forever Young, at Starship Reckless. I also recommend her article Making Aliens: The Repercussions of Planetary Settlement, which proposes that human settlements on other planets will end up evolving into new non-human species.

Athena is guest blogger at Sentient Developments this month, and I'm looking forward to reading her posts.

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  1. I've always felt that the biology of Star Trek made it clear that it was an alternate universe just as much as the physics (FTL travel) did.

    In particular, in the Star Trek universe evolution is clearly teleological and goal oriented. In our universe evolution is undirected. In the Star Trek universe evolution tends towards the creation of intelligent beings of pure energy (such as the Organians).

  2. Dear Peggy,

    many thanks for the wonderful words! Your blog has given me much pleasure and food for thought.

    And Larry, you are right about evolution in Star Trek -- in addition, it's often Lamarckian.

  3. Larry: I like the idea that Star Trek exists in an alternative universe that is only superficially similar to our own. It definitely makes sense!

    Athena: I hadn't really noticed it, but yes, their evolution often appears Lamarckian.

  4. Oh, and since the evolution in the Star Trek universe is goal oriented, I wonder who, or what, is setting those goals. The Q?

  5. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I am rather partial to tielhard de Chardain's version of evolution myself.

    You say evolution is undirected. If that is so, then why did the microbes ever bother to become more complex at all?

    I know it seems dated to support progress for a better species and society, but don't let that color your views and plans for our future.

    Personally I have had more than enough of the Back to Nature movement by people who still live in nice houses and would die if they had to give up their blackberries.

  6. Set transporter coordinates to Centauri Dreams, where my friend Paul Gilster is graciously hosting my more extended take on the new Star Trek film.

    To Anonymous: I'm with you on the back to nature movement, insofar as it seems to be a niche leisure activity of the privileged. However, evolution is undirected, except by selection after the fact.


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