Lost in science fiction: Evolution

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s as good an excuse as any to celebrate what we’re calling Lost in Science Fiction, aka science in the movies.

A great example is Evolution (2001), directed by Ivan Reitmann and starring David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones and Seann William Scott (what’s he been doing lately?), a comedy named after the well-known biological process.

The title here is fairly accurate, since the movie does in fact depict alien organisms that rapidly evolve into new forms. However, that’s pretty much where the accuracy stops.

The film illustrates a misrepresentation often seen in science fiction films, the idea that evolution is directed and predetermined in some way. The alien creatures quickly evolve from simple forms into large, complex vertebrates, mimicking the development of life on Earth.

However, there is no pre-set “direction” of evolution, and definitely no pre-programmed outcome. Organisms evolve characteristics that enable them to survive and reproduce in their particular environment at their particular time, through the process of natural selection. So simple organisms can survive for a long time perfectly well: after all, we still have bacteria and microorganisms around today.

Of course, there is the process of convergent evolution, where unrelated organisms develop the same traits under similar environmental pressures. And in theory it could account for alien lifeforms evolving characteristics similar to those of their Earth counterparts.

But in the movie, the creatures largely evolve in a cave, so at best you could expect them to turn out like other cave-dwelling animals, or troglobites (congratulations, you just learnt a new word!).

So no, the movie Evolution, not so accurate. Nice try, Ivan Reitmann – although I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from you…

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