Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"Is Darwinism Too Good for SF?" panel at Readercon

Robert Sawyer, guest blogging for Borders, writes about an upcoming panel at Readercon in Boston that asks "Is Darwinism Too Good for SF?"* The panelists will be Jeff Hecht (science writer, primarily about lasers and optics and occasional SF writer), Caitlin Kiernan (primarily a horror writer with a background in vertebrate paleontology), Anil Menon (SF writer with background in computer science), James Morrow (SF writer who often satirizes organized religion), Steven Popkes (SF writer and software engineer) and Sawyer (whose Neanderthal trilogy does touch on evolutionary themes). I hope I'm mistaken, but the panel seems dominated by people who likely don't know much about modern biology. When SF panels focus on physics it seems that physicists usually participate, so it's a shame they couldn't find more panelists with a biology background.

Anyway, here's the description:
This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Considering the importance of the scientific idea, there has been surprisingly little great sf inspired by it. We wonder whether, in fact, if the theory has been too good, too unassailable and too full of explanatory power, to leave the wiggle room where speculative minds can play in. After all, physics not only has FTL and time travel, but mechanisms like wormholes that might conceivably make them possible. What are their equivalents in evolutionary theory, if any?
It's an interesting question and Sawyer is asking for comments and suggestions. Here's the comment I left:
I don't think that comparing FTL and time travel are really analogous to evolutionary theory (which - the former are primarily technologies while the latter is an explanation of how the natural world works. Evolution should be as much a part of good world building as gravitation.

That being said, in the science fiction context I think there are multiple ways evolutionary theory can be used, such as stories that look at our evolutionary descendants in the far future (Wells' "The Time Machine", Silverberg's "Son of Man"), alternative evolution on Earth (Wilson's "Darwinia", Harrison's "West of Eden"), and evolution on other planets (Niven & Pournelle's "Mote in God's Eye", Blish's "A Case of Conscience").

I'd also argue that evolutionary theory is so tightly intertwined with modern genetics that human-directed evolution using genetic engineering should also be included (Atwood's "Oryx and Crake", Kagan's "Mirabile" ). I'd wager those are more realistic than FTL travel.

That's off the top of my head - there are certainly other novels that should be included in the list.

Go add your own suggestions.



Gayle Surrette @ A Curious Statistical Anomaly has a report on the panel. An excerpt:

The problem is that with science and physics you can look at the rules and the equations and they work just about anywhere and you know what would happen if you changed any one bit. But for biology we don't have a handle on things. We've only got Earth to see how things work. One sample just isn't enough. We need another planet to have some comparisons. If we found life on another planet and the DNA matched bits of ours that would tell us a lot. But we don't, and things aren't solid.
I'm not sure if she noted it wrong or if this is what the panelists really said, because this sounds like a whole lot of stupid. Leaving aside the fact that evolution is science, it makes no sense that we need life on another planet to make biology "solid". Life on another planet would give us insight into how biology operates given completely separate evolution, but that doesn't mean we "don't have a handle" on Earthly biology.

* I really hate the panel title. I don't want novels with "Darwinism", I want novels with modern evolutionary theory. "Darwinism" is what the creationists call it.
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  1. The concept of evolution especially the biological evolution is a milestone in human thought and perception of the world -Time Machine is a classical example how this concept was incorporated in Sf .
    Peggy ,I fully endorse your views that physicists who often have vague ideas regarding biology can not do justice with a subject like the one in question.

  2. I agree with you both about the moniker Darwinism (versus using the more neutral and accurate term evolution) and about the dearth of biologists not only in SF panels but also in NASA.

    Some of it is good ol' hierarchic thinking -- physicists feel automatically qualified to hold forth not only on physics but also on biology. The trend is obvious in popular science books. Some is nerd love of gizmos, instead of the "squishy" stuff. Some of it is politics: biology (broadly defined) is more tightly tied to morality than, say, cosmology.

  3. Here's a word I wish more world-builders knew -- 'cladistics.' I'd suggest looking at L. Sprague deCamp's fiction. It ain't deep, but at least he knows that alien animals should have common ancestors.

    I've just about worn out my copy of Mirabile. I wish Kagen had written more.

    But I'd like to point out a sub-genre that's one of my favorites -- imaginary nature books. Expedition by Wayne Barlow had great art, not so great science. Dougal Dixon's After Man and The New Dinosaurs are both well worth perusing. (Man After Man not so much.)

    But my personal favorite and one of my all time favorite books is The Snouters by Harald Stumpke. It's quite whimsical -- and I hate whimsy -- but its science is rock-hard. And the illustrations are lovely.

    I'm glad you complained about the title of the panel. When I hear the word 'darwinism' I expect it to be followed with: "Just a theory," "No transitional species," "Irreducible complexity," "Micro- vs. macro-evolution," and other such signals of a deficient education.

    (And Peggy! I got into the Viable Paradise writer's workshop!)

  4. Arvind: If you can think of any other examples, be sure to add a comment on Sawyer's post.

    Athena: What I find particularly galling is that the Con is in the Boston area which is jam-packed with bioscientists. Too bad you aren't on the panel!

    Sean: I haven't read any of de Camp's novels, so I can't comment directly on his work, but I agree that it should just be standard world building to give alien species a biological history.

    (and congrats on being accepted for Viable Paradise!)

  5. de Camp was one of the first people to regularly use biological themes in his fiction. Stories like Hyperpilosity, The Command, and The Blue Giraffe are proto-ribofunk. They still hold up quite well.

    I'd lay odds that at least some of his stuff would appeal to you -- but I'd suggest checking out some of his early short fiction rather than his later novels, which are mostly enjoyable lightweight potboilers.

    Avoid his Conan as though it was dusted with anthrax.

  6. One of my favorite examples of evolution in science fiction is found in "The Book of Dreams" by Jack Vance. The planet "New Concept" was colonized by vegetarians who, after several centuries, can be found happily grazing in the fields.

  7. John: Humans evolving into herbivores is an interesting premise. It's far-fetched to think that the massive anatomical changes required for us to become grazers would evolve in a few hundred years, but maybe genetic engineering could solve that problem.

    Sean: I'll see if my library has any de Camp.

  8. Vance was depicting human evolution in the same mode that a new dog breed might be made by artificial selection, similar to the Klesh in M. A. Foster's Ler books. One of the "human herbivores" is shown by Vance after having been taken in from the wild and raised by conventional humans....she is anatomically similar to "normal" humans....not too much genetic change is apparent.

  9. Thanks for letting them know about all the good fiction that makes use of evolutionary biology. Keep in mind, too, that any Speculative Fiction which makes use of Artificial Life algorithms, clanking replicators, nanomachines, memetics, or biowarfare is also implicitly making use of evolutionary theory, because all of these technologies (real or imagined) rely on mimicking the principles of biological evolution in a cultural/technological sphere instead of a biosphere.

    Simply substituting the substrate of a process does not necessarily change the underlying mechanics. Understood this way, quite a bit of recent SF involves Darwin's big idea.

  10. Well, evolution is just a part of biology, just as wormholes are a part of physics. And biology can offer more than evolution; genetics, eugenics, extraterrestrial life, concepts of life and DNA still not known by science and more. Biology is about life and its interactions with the world, and should have lots of opportunity. But other than that, I agree that there are not many satisfying science fiction novels dealing with the concept of evolution, which as already mentioned above is not restricted to just biology, but can also include computer programs, robotics and nanotechnology.


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