Of course I believe in evolution; haven’t you played Pokemon?

JDN 2455778.

Or, the incredibly dire state of popular media depictions of evolutionary biology.

It’s really no surprise that Americans don’t understand evolution. They are surrounded by popular media representations that mislead, distort, and outright make up ideas about evolution. It’s probably a feedback loop—public ignorance leads to media ridiculousness, which perpetuates popular ignorance. What follows are some of the worst offenders (and also some of my favorite media).

I seem to be making a lot of  lists. I won’t always do this, I promise.

5. Pokemon

You knew it was coming, so let’s get it over with. At least in Pokemon, evolution isn’t voluntary (we’ll get to that in a moment). But other than that, it’s completely wrong. One organism always evolves into one specific other organism in an entirely predictable way—there is no mutation, no selection, and above all, it happens at the level of individuals. This process is not evolution at all; it’s more like development. A caterpillar transforms into a pupa, which transforms into an adult butterfly, and so Caterpie becomes Metapod becomes Butterfree. If they had simply characterized it that way, it wouldn’t bother me so much (though mammals with larval stages is still kinda weird). But by calling it “evolution”, they send precisely the wrong message about how evolution works.

Yes, it’s just a silly game for kids, and I’d be a curmudgeon to complain about the animals that have magical powers and are captured for cockfighting purposes. But I still get Creationists arguing that evolution predicts eagles turning into pigeons; where did they get this idea? Perhaps it was Pokemon.

4. Star Trek

Okay, we know you have to use human actors—it’s inevitable. So your aliens are going to end up being Rubber Forehead Aliens, that’s just how it has to work out. This also adds some drama, because it’s a lot more fun to have a battle between high-tech warships or a passionate negotiation between competing interests than it would be to have our intrepid explorers cataloguing varieties of insects. We want the aliens to have close enough levels of culture, biology, and technology that we can relate to them; that’s what keeps the show interesting.

But what you should have done is either not tried to explain it (just lampshade it as “isn’t it amazing how similar we all are?”), or else hand-wave it with some talk about convergent evolution or the weak anthropic principle (“In order to be spacefaring, you just have to be bilaterally-symmetrical bipedal cephalized tetrapods!”). Instead, you tried to find a really satisfying explanation, and the result is a complete distortion of evolution.

The idea is this: We were “seeded” somehow, by some ancient, advanced race which planned our evolution so that we would turn out (at least vaguely) human, just as they were. They planted the amino acids, we did the rest apparently.

Yup, that’s right; INTELLIGENT DESIGN. Star Trek’s official explanation for why Vulcans are so much like humans is Intelligent Design. This would indeed work—if ID were remotely plausible. Yet of course ID can’t explain vestigial traits, extinction, homologues, or lots of other obvious facts about evolution. This is why one thing we know for sure about aliens is that they weren’t seeded by some ancient race trying to make them look like us. They probably won’t look like us at all; but if they do, it won’t be because of such a “seeding”.

3. Avatar

Again, I’m with you on the Rubber Forehead thing, and even with making them sexy felinoids—that’s a classic trope, it strikes deep into human psychology, and it will live on forever. (My own Terlaroni, who I may someday actually publish about—maybe—are similar, though I make a point of the fact that Terlaroni females only have breasts when lactating.)

But Avatar made some really glaring evolutionary mistakes, and they must be addressed. First of all, the Na’vi should not be tetrapods. Every other large mammal on the planet is a hexapod, and this makes good sense because the hexapod bodyplan is a very good, adaptive one. (It’s also been established that Pandora has low gravity, so in fact the “mammals” could have insect physiology, since the main limiting factor on Earth is the scaling effects of gravity. Of course, that makes the Na’vi’s breasts even harder to explain.) It wouldn’t even have made them hard to emote; District 9 did a perfectly good job of emoting with hexapods—those little vestigial arms were pretty awesome actually. (Note that District 9 is not on this list; they didn’t make any truly egregious errors of biology.)

Secondly, what a bizarre ecosystem. On the one hand, everything is linked into the same neural network infrastructure (USB writ large?). On the other hand, there is war, predation, parasitism, all the usual features of nature red in tooth and claw. How is this possible? I was almost prepared to believe that the whole ecosystem is actually one grand superorganism Eywa supersapiens, and the Na’vi are effectively her immune system; but then, why are some of her organs (those doglike things) trying to eat other organs (the Na’vi)? This is not an adaptive trait! Either Eywa has a massive autoimmune disorder, or something is fishy here.

Alternatively, we could say that there is no superorganism, it’s just an ecosystem—but then what’s with the neural uplinks? We can’t uplink to chimpanzees, let alone birds or trees. You’re probably thinking right now, “We can’t uplink to humans either!” but in fact we sort of can—I’m doing it right now. (This also raises questions about why a species capable of neural uplink would bother with speech. In terms of bandwidth, this would be like humans forgoing speech in favor of binary hand-signals.)

By the way, those flying mountains are beautiful to look at… but they make no physical or geological sense. Yes, it’s possible to levitate things magnetically under very controlled conditions; but first, mountains are natural formations, and hence the very opposite of controlled conditions, and second, the amount of magnetism required would not screw up instruments, it would generate tidal forces that rip metal ships into tiny little pieces.

2. X-Men

“Every few hundred millennia… evolution leaps forward.” Uh, no, actually it doesn’t. At all. Even punctuated equilibrium theory doesn’t predict this sort of “hopeful monster” with fully-built new traits that appear in a single generation. This is of course because that’s stupid, and obviously impossible. (In fact, the most plausible punctuated equilibrium is pretty much a variable-speed gradualism.)

Originally, the X-Men were the product of various radioactive tests and genetic experiments. This is still implausible (especially for physics-bending abilities like Cyclops or Storm), but it doesn’t completely miss the entire point of what evolution is. On this model, the X-Men are almost technology, which does in fact grow in leaps and bounds in a single generation.

But when you insist that this is natural evolution (as the newest X-Men films positively ram down your throat), you have just graduated to a whole new level of crazy. It’s bad enough that there is a gene for making you telepathic and/or healing super-fast and/or looking and acting like a toad; but now you’re saying it’s a natural mutation? And it has popped up spontaneously all over the world, the exact same mutation? Clearly the writers do not understand evolution whatsoever.

By the way, the attempt at an analogy to gay rights is cute, but gays aren’t blowing up cities, breaking apart bridges, posing as high-level officials or breaking into the White House. Indeed, if we were, I can see why people wouldn’t like us. (As it is, I don’t much get it; why is what I do in bed so important to you?) The analogy is more apt to terrorists (who do actually do such things, or at least try), but I don’t think you meant to say that terrorism is a life choice that we should respect. Maybe the analogy is to Muslims (a few are bad, most are not)? Now I’m just reading too much into it. You meant gays—“Have you tried not being a mutant?”—and it makes no sense.

1. Stargate

I love the Stargate saga, but seriously guys, you Fail Evolution Forever. Not only do you have that “seeding” thing they have on Star Trek (the Ancients seeded us); oh, no, you kick it up a notch from there.

When Stargate started, the whole point of its awesomeness was its message that religion is bullshit, it’s just what the aliens wanted us to believe so they could control us. This is an amazing and entertaining plotline, and they got away with it by wisely staying away from mainstream Abrahamaic religions. (By the way, it is probably false—but it is more likely than actual religion.)

But as the shows progressed, that message got lost, and was gradually replaced with, actually religion is true but it involves aliens. See the difference? By Stargate: Atlantis, we had the Wraith, who eat people’s souls (Which is also apparently how aging works or something? Your soul wears out?), and the Ancients, who “ascended” into beings of pure energy and light.

So you see folks, you do have a soul, and immortality is possible, if only you shed your mortal form and “ascend”. Indeed, ascended beings look almost exactly like angels—coincidence?

To be fair, I think the writers struggled with this issue, because sometimes they waffle about whether these are really the same kinds of souls and immortality that religion is used to. The Ori are defeated when the Ark of Truth is asked the question, “Are the Ori gods?” and the answer is “No” (and now everyone knows, because it’s The Ark of Truth. It’s true, dammit! Though… how do we know that, actually? My favorite fan theory is that it’s actually just an Ankaran Wikipedia). So apparently the Ori are not gods—just your everyday, run-of-the-mill, super-powerful, super-wise, omnipresent, immortal beings who demand worship. Yeah, totally not gods at all.

It gets the evolution fail specifically because “ascension” is presented as both a voluntary process—you have to want it, and be good at it—and an evolutionary process—the next phase in our biological evolution. This makes it completely oxymoronical (not to mention moronical); evolution is not voluntary. No Neanderthal chose to become Homo sapiens. I cannot will myself or meditate into becoming some new species.

Moreover, evolution is not progressive in any straightforward sense; yes, one can become better adapted, or more distant from the common ancestor, and in some sense we might say these things are “advanced”; but they only apply to a specific environment and evolutionary history. Alternatively, we could say that intelligence and sociality are “advanced” traits; there’s something to be said for that, though it seems a bit self-serving. But now the problem is that there is no reason for evolution to always seek these things; in some niches, stupidity and solitary life are most adaptive.

This in a show that prides itself on being scientifically accurate—and I must say, I didn’t think the ZPM was possible until DARPA started funding research into it. Even their hyperspace physics, while speculative, is self-consistent and based on serious theories of quantum gravity. Even the shields are one-way in exactly the same way as the stargate, suggesting that they too use wormhole physics. (There is some Fridge Logic about the fact that lasers can get through the stargate but visible light can’t—what, it is only transparent if the light is coherent? And lasers can’t get through shields, or they wouldn’t be much good.)

Of course, they often use time travel (though again, fairly consistently—stargate through a solar flare). And I probably shouldn’t let it bother me, because it’s just a television show.

But still, is it too much to ask that the media depict evolution with some basic degree of accuracy?

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