What can humans learn from fictional extraterrestrials?

From Air & Space

Mohamed Noor, a professor in the biology department at Duke University, combines his love of genetics and Star Trek in a new book that uses science fiction as a guide to exploring the possible existence of extraterrestrial species. Noor spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in December.

Air & Space: Why did you write this book?

Noor: My aim was to pique readers’ interest in the subjects of evolutionary biology and genetics, and to have them learn more about these subjects using a medium in which they might already be interested: science fiction.” I had been giving talks at science fiction and comic conventions and other venues about the science behind science fiction (and Star Trek in particular) for a few years, and this book was a natural follow-up for me to put thoughts together in a comprehensive manner. The book’s coverage mirrors what I present in my general introductory biology course at Duke University and online in Coursera, but the book examines and assesses the principles covered via Star Trek examples as well as real-world ones. It was a delightfully fun experience connecting my teaching and research topics with my love of Trek.

What is an example of something that Star Trek gets right in terms of its grounding in science?

Episodes across the Star Trek series have used genetics terms like “dominant” and “recessive” correctly, and many episodes used examples of genetic testing quite accurately. For example, in the “Star Trek: Voyager” episode “State of Flux,” there was discussion about why a particular character might not be of the species that she claimed based on a DNA test of her blood. She tried to explain it away by noting that she had gotten a bone marrow transfusion from the other species. Blood cells are produced by bone marrow, and if one received a bone marrow transplant, then at least some of their blood cells may bear the foreign DNA from the donor. This was a creative idea with a good scientific basis.

Have your ever seen a depiction of science in Star Trek that was laughable?

Oh, my goodness yes. A lot of the depictions of “evolution” in particular are problematic. In the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode “Genesis,” the crew were infected with a virus that purportedly caused them to “de-evolve” into very distantly related life forms. One person even became a spider. Among its many, many problems, the episode script reflects a popular misconception that our ancestors look like other present-day life. Humans have a common ancestor with chimpanzees, but we did not evolve from chimpanzees (or spiders). Using an analogy with a shorter time-scale, we have first-cousins and share common ancestors with them (our grandparents), but we do not descend from our first-cousins.

Read more at https://www.airspacemag.com/space/if-only-vulcans-were-real-book-180971218/#MOoBcALOSXoxaYYT.99

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