Mohamed Noor on Live Long and Evolve

Live Long and Evolve CoverIn Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

You teach courses introducing genetics and evolution, yet rather than writing a book that simply presented the science from your courses, you wrote this book that uses examples from a fictional TV show. Why?

My aim is to try to reach people who may be less inclined to read something that seems like a textbook, but who may consider a different “entry-point” to learning about science and evolution in particular. Science fiction is popular and often quite approachable, so leveraging interest in science fiction may be a means for getting people excited about learning the scientific truths (or fallacies) underlying in what’s presented. Reading or watching science fiction is often what inspired people to become scientists, so why not use its popularity to have people learn more science?

But why Star Trek? Isn’t that about space travel in the far future? Do they really cover much genetics and evolution?

Part of the stated mission of the spaceship in many Star Trek series is “to seek out new life”. You may be surprised at how much genetics and evolution crop up across the series given this emphasis: for example, roughly one quarter of the episodes of the 2001-2005 series Star Trek Enterprise had the word “DNA” in the script, and an episode of the current series Star Trek: Discovery references results from a 2015 genome sequencing study. Importantly,Star Trek tries to explain observations in the context of science rather than falling back on magic or “the Force.” More generally, Star Trek offers a very large and mostly internally consistent volume from which to draw examples. Over 700 non-animated Star Trek episodes and 13 movies have aired so far (with one series continuing). That’s a lot of material, making it possible to find examples of almost anything you could want to explain! Of course, while what I’ve told you above is all true, a big added reason for me is that I just love Star Trek, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

How do you approach the science in your book?

The book follows the structure and topics of an introductory biology course at Duke University, where I teach. Each chapter is devoted to a broader idea, like “common ancestry of species” or “microevolutionary processes”. Within each chapter, I start sections by describing a scene from a Trek episode or movie that is relevant. The scene is described in enough detail that someone who hasn’t seen the episode gets the gist of what happened. I then talk about the underlying science that was described using real examples and analogies, and I try to mention recent research in these areas when appropriate. Finally, I return to the focal scene as well as other depictions in Star Trek and assess the accuracy of what was shown and/ or speculate on what may not have been shown (or suggest a tweak to what was shown) that would make it more precise. I follow this approach for several specific topics within each broader chapter idea to help the reader learn the underlying biology.

But how good is the science in Star Trek? Presumably it often gets things quite wrong in terms of biology, like showing hybrids between alien species. Don’t these errors make it hard to teach people your science if you’re using flawed material as your source of examples?

Trek definitely takes some liberties with the biology. There are also times when it gets things quite wrong. However, these errors often reflect broader misunderstandings the public (and sometimes scientists as well) have about genetics and evolution, and thus they provide teachable moments. For example, there’s an episode in which the cast are infected with a virus that caused them to “de-evolve” into various other life-forms (e.g., a spider), due to activating the introns within genes. This example is ludicrous, but it then opens the door to discussing misconceptions about evolution and ancestry and why they are wrong. For instance, humans share a common ancestor with spiders, but none of our direct ancestors were spiders. This is analogous to how we share a common ancestor with our second-cousins, but none of our second-cousins was a direct ancestor of ours. I discuss the evidence for evolution and common ancestry in some detail to try to combat these misconceptions. Later in the book, I also discuss what introns are and why they do not retain instructions for earlier evolutionary states.

How has your background in genetics and evolution informed this book?

While my intent is to cover some basics principles of evolution, one cannot understand evolution without a grasp of genetics, so I present a lot of genetics in the book as well. Genetics and genetics-related terms also seem to crop up in the public eye frequently: DNA sequencing, cloning, personal genotypes, epigenetics, CRISPR, etc. Even beyond explaining evolution, I am eager to have readers learn some basic genetics so they understand what is and what is not possible in real life.

If you wanted people to learn just one thing about evolution, what would it be, and is that one thing covered in your book?

The most basic evolutionary concept is the truth of all species on Earth sharing a common ancestor. We are related to other animals, to plants, and even to bacteria, and the evidence for these relationships is overwhelming. I cover this at some length in the book. However, another idea which I personally have found fascinating since college is how evolution by natural selection is a “mathematical inevitability” if a species has three simple features: heredity (offspring typically resemble parents more than random other individuals), variation (offspring vary in their traits), and differences in survival or reproduction associated with the varying traits. This concept, too, is covered in the book using examples from reproducing “nanites” in an episode of Star Trek.

I apologize— that’s TWO things about evolution rather than one, but there’s so much fascinating science in this field that it is hard to pick a single example. To quote the last line of Darwin’s most famous book, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

 

Mohamed Nooris a professor and former department chair of the Biology Department at Duke University. He previously wrote the book You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Browse Our New Biology 2018-2019 Catalog

In our Biology 2018-2019 catalog you will find a host of new books, from a look at how genes are not the only basis of heredity, a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotions in humans and animals, and an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

If you will be at ESA in New Orleans, we will be in booth 303. Stop by any time to check out our full range of titles in biology and related fields.

For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes–and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.

 

The Neuroscience of Emotion presents a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotion across species. Written by Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson, two leading authorities on the study of emotion, this accessible and original book recasts the discipline and demonstrates that in order to understand emotion, we need to examine its biological roots in humans and animals. Only through a comparative approach that encompasses work at the molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive levels will we be able to comprehend what emotions do, how they evolved, how the brain shapes their development, and even how we might engineer them into robots in the future.

In Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.