JANUARY 12, 2019
IN THE ’60S, Martin Luther King Jr. told Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series, that her show was the only one he let his kids stay up late watching. His rationale: The positive depiction of an African-American woman. Thirty years later, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the show I was allowed to stay up late watching. Crammed next to my father in an old easy chair, I was mesmerized. The portrayals of brave, competent women conducting scientific experiments and exploratory missions nudged me toward imagining a career in science. But unlike the majority of scientists for whom Star Trek was an inspiration, I didn’t choose physics or engineering or computing. I chose evolutionary biology. My fascination for Star Trek life forms sparked my curiosity about how life on our world works.
A biology professor at Duke University, Mohamed A. F. Noor might have had a similar experience. Indeed, in his new book, Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek Can Teach Us about Evolution, Genetics, and Life on Other Worlds, he thinks the series has a lot to teach us about the evolution of life on our planet. He’s not actually the first to make this point. Two other books, both published in 1998, explored aspects of this same topic, but they were overshadowed from the get-go by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss’s 1995 best-selling The Physics of Star Trek. This is not surprising: the show was still associated at that time with space and feats of engineering — and so with the physical-sciences-focused, Sputnik-infused mid-20th-century “golden age” of science fiction. Now, however, life itself is our most rapidly changing frontier, and for this reason, Noor’s book is timely in a way the other two books weren’t.
To be sure, dissecting the alien life forms featured in a campy science fiction show that began over 50 years ago seems like an odd intellectual exercise. But, to Noor, Star Trek presents golden opportunities to transmit important knowledge painlessly, even surreptitiously, to those who might not want to learn about biology — and in particular, evolution. In short, the series is a tool for imaginatively grappling with a fraught field (one that many Americans misunderstand, willfully ignore, or even denounce if they’re creationists).
Life on Earth is itself becoming alien; we can now tinker with the basic code of life, edit our genes, and create three-parent babies, and much more is on the horizon, like the creation of children from the genomes of two mothers. With these feats in mind, it’s worth revisiting what the human imagination dreamt up and dramatized decades ago. After all, we know that science fiction inspires real technology down the road — which means today’s Star Trek may very well help produce the next generation of scientists, including its experimental biologists, seeding their imaginations. It’s also worth asking what challenges the show faces, particularly now, in this time of frenetic innovation.
Noor doesn’t tell us if Star Trek influenced his own career path, but it’s hardly a stretch to suppose it did. Exploring its universe in granular detail, he draws from the vast trove of non-animated Star Trek series and movies, including the current Discovery, which amounts to over 700 episodes in all. At Duke University, he teaches a basic course on the biology behind popular science fiction in general, and plans to teach a course based on his book starting next year. Clearly, he understands its power to attract students, including those who might otherwise shun STEM and bio-related subjects.
“My aim with this book is to pique [the public’s] interest in biology,” Noor writes, “by leveraging a different medium in which they may be already interested: science fiction.” With a light, accessible style, he juxtaposes Star Trek scenarios with near-alien examples of life on Earth. Some examples include: How the thumbs of pandas develop from an enlargement of the wristbone, which he explains as a case of convergent evolution with primates; and, considerably more startling: How a species of all-female Amazonian fish mate with males of other species, but then produce young who are clones of the mother, a rare phenomenon also seen in mole salamanders. How did this come about in evolutionary terms? Follow the clues: the fish are an all-female hybrid species; and, before creating clones of themselves, they invariably copulate with a male, leading researchers to understand that they actually require sperm to kick-start the cloning process. The downside: Asexual reproduction is often a one-way ticket to extinction, since a disease or disorder that can kill one clonal fish can kill them all. The upside: The fish can reproduce quickly and at a lower energy cost. Earth-based biology, you see, can seem as odd as Trek biology, and that’s without even taking into account what’s happening in the lab. Noor wants his readers to understand that science, like fiction, is rife with intrigue.
The first of six chapters includes thought experiments on how life might function in extremes of temperature, moisture, and radiation, and explores non-carbon options for building life. Is silicon, often portrayed in Star Trek as an alternative scaffold element of life, a realistic option? Noor thinks not. According to him, the element’s tendency to bind to elements other than itself means it’s unlikely to create the long chains necessary for life. By contrast, on a high temperature world, silicone — repeating units of silicon and oxygen — might function even better than the carbon chains we ourselves are based on. That’s a heady thought, though such creatures would likely be primitive, and only found in extreme environments like those occupied by “extremophile” bacteria in our own world.
While Noor occasionally gets bogged down by scientific information, he expertly weaves plot lines of individual episodes into his explanations. We gain an understanding in the middle chapters of what the hominid “family tree” might look like if humans and Vulcans had descended from a recent common ancestor, as well as the likelihood of hybrid offspring, such as the half-human, half-Betazoid counselor Deanna Troi being sterile in the manner of mules. These speculations feel quite topical: interbreeding hominids are in the news right now, with recently identified Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrids joining previously discovered human-Neanderthal hybrids in the prehistoric genetic melting pot of the genus Homo. Also entertaining are Noor’s musings on the long-term survival of Tribbles, those fuzzy critters made famous in the 1967 original series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” given how inbred they likely are. Though the prognosis is better than if the little fuzz balls were straight-up clones, Noor tells us that they must generate staggering numbers of offspring in order to produce a few who aren’t carrying damaging mutations, which tend to accumulate with each round of inbreeding.
How reasonable is it, asks Noor, to suppose that Shinzon, a clone created of Captain Picard in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis, is dying from cellular breakdown related to his sped-up aging, a side effect of the cloning process? Can he only be saved by an infusion of Picard’s blood? Noor takes this opportunity to show us how DNA is transcribed into RNA and to explain RNA’s relationship to aging. “Specific genes’ RNA production changes with advancing age, and these changes can be manipulated,” he writes, giving the real-world example of caloric restriction diets reducing age-related changes. “Such manipulation could be done with targeted drugs as well, and if such a manipulation were done poorly or incompletely, the procedure could result in Shinzon having severe health issues.” The plot can be seen as one of many cases of science fiction anticipating reality, given current research interest in anti-aging supplements to combat Alzheimer’s, and even alleged interest in infusions of young donor blood for anti-aging purposes by technocrat Peter Thiel and others. Noor, for his part, is at a loss to explain why an infusion of the much-older Picard’s blood would help the young clone.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, even if the details aren’t always quite right. Star Trek writers are taking inspiration from what’s happening in earth-bound labs — or among some Silicon Valley types. It has always had science advisors to help steer the ship — the famous biochemist Isaac Asimov, for instance, filled this role in the late 1970s, at one point presciently advocating for a sentient robot in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To be sure, concerns of plot and entertainment more often than not trump getting the science right. But still, actual science inspires the writers and producers. Noor chooses to highlight the good science, using the poor science as an opportunity to explore misconceptions, or think of what conditions might make it plausible. A prime example: The laughable The Next Generation episode “Genesis,” which gets the basics of evolution wrong when Lieutenant Commander Data’s cat “devolves” into a modern-day iguana. Rather than look down his nose at the error, Noor patiently explains that evolution isn’t unidirectional or goal-oriented: all living things currently occupying the planet are equally “evolved,” and no present-day animal could have evolved from another present-day animal.
The final chapter of Live asks how science fiction might have an impact on real-world science. Noor makes the case that science fiction’s positive depiction of basic research helps the public appreciate its worth at a time when it has become a partisan issue. He could of course cite plenty of examples from our current regime, but he chooses to return to Sarah Palin’s mockery of basic research spending in a 2008 election speech: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” He then describes Wolbachia, a bacterium discovered in fruit flies during basic research that, upon infecting a mosquito, reduces its ability to transmit such devastating diseases as dengue fever and Zika.
As Noor puts it, “In the long run, basic research on a curious [phenomenon in] a fruit fly may well lead to disease control strategies that will save millions of human lives.” In much the same way that portrayals of women and people of color in Star Trek influenced young minds like mine, portrayals of science may influence the broader public at a time when research is vulnerable to political haymaking. According to a 2015 Pew Research report, nearly a quarter of all adult Americans feel that government funding of basic scientific research is “not worth it,” and those numbers are rising. The survey found what you’d expect: people with more knowledge about science are significantly more likely to see the benefits of research funding. The Star Trek fan base is overwhelmingly made up of those with post-secondary education; this is clearly about correlation and not causation, but the point still holds: good science fiction reinforces viewers’ interest in science.
Noor notes that Star Trek, despite some inaccuracies, does “a better job of embracing evolution than biology courses in several high schools in the United States.” The incomprehensibly massive timescales involved in evolutionary change make it all too easy, he thinks, to ascribe certain highly adapted aspects of modern organisms, such as the strong but lightweight bones of birds, to an intelligent creator. He hopes to disabuse at least a few people, but of course Noor is preaching to the choir: intelligent design proponents are hardly likely to pick up a book explicitly about evolution. He’s casting too wide a net and should focus on the indifferent or uninformed non-creationist rather than active opponents. The Pew report found that nearly three quarters of those with a religious affiliation reject evolution as a natural process, with white evangelical Protestants particularly hostile to the concept. This group won’t be swayed by an imaginative TV show. Maybe their kids will be, but it’s the dramatized story itself that will nudge them toward science, not Noor’s book.
Two more points are worth mentioning. First, the level of science-speak in each series reflects public understanding of science during the time it aired. Noor includes a graph of the proportion of episodes in each series using the words “DNA,” “genetic,” and “genome,” to show how they escalate with increases in research in those areas. “DNA” and “genetic” crop up often in Next Generation, which aired in the late ’80s and early ’90s, while “genome” did not appear until Voyager, which began in the mid-’90s and ran into the next century. In short, the series reflects the science of the times and, more importantly, helps make certain concepts feel familiar rather than alien or threatening.
Second, in these science-infused times, the current series, Discovery, has tried to keep up, basing a rather strange plot line on hot-off-the-press research suggesting that tardigrades are able to withstand extreme conditions because they incorporate massive amounts of foreign DNA into their genome. Before the episodes even aired, this finding was disproven — it had resulted from sample contamination. Noor is characteristically kind on this point, praising the writers’ efforts to stay current rather than chastising their poor science. The plot in question is so far out, however, that Noor is almost at a loss for how to address it, starting with a hesitant, “This idea is … creative?” before launching into a generous attempt to explain what the writers may have been trying to convey. As he told Duke Today, “It’s always easy to use science to say, oh, that’s stupid. But I try to challenge people to try to find a way that maybe it could work.” In other words: Embrace science, but don’t forget to use your imagination.
Noor may be preaching to the converted, but Trekkies remain a big group. Discovery has won enough viewership to warrant a second season. A new program focusing on Next Generation’s Captain Picard is in the works, and the new series of films continues to command massive budgets. In short: Trekkies are alive and well, and they are Noor’s audience, even if he intends a more general one. Since only a true Star Trek lover will ever pick up this book, a bit more geeky frolicking by way of meatier descriptions of actual episodes wouldn’t have gone amiss. After all, Krauss’s best seller The Physics of Star Trek does just this. Noor doesn’t quite have Krauss’s playful style, and his discussions don’t move as smoothly between hard scientific facts and the fantastical adventures of the Enterprise crew. His book is thus unlikely to be a best seller, but, this said, for the Trek fan, it will add to her understanding of evolution, and perhaps, dare we hope, bump up support for endeavors like fruit fly research in Paris.
Erin Zimmerman is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds an MSc in fungal genomics and a PhD in molecular systematics. Her work also appears in The Cut, Undark, Working Mother Magazine, and elsewhere.