3. Evolution in Popular Culture

So-called "pop culture" may be a poor barometer of reality or logic, but it is an excellent indicator of public perception. So how is evolution portrayed in movies and television shows? As it turns out, it is portrayed in an extremely inaccurate fashion.

The single worst offender is probably Star Trek, which is particularly irksome since many people believe it to be a scientifically literate show (many of its fans even claim that they learn more science from Star Trek than from school, which is disturbing on many levels). In the Voyager episode "Threshold", two humans were subjected to a strange energy field which made them "evolve" into salamander-like creatures (leaving aside the impossibility of this event, it would be metamorphosis, not evolution). In the Next Generation episode "Transfigurations", a wounded member of an alien race called the "Zalkonians" underwent a dramatic transformation into a being of light. He described it as the "next stage of Zalkonian evolution" (once again, this is metamorphosis, not evolution).

But Star Trek doesn't stop at confusing metamorphosis with evolution. In the Voyager episode "Distant Origin", the crew discovered a species of intelligent bipedal dinosaurs. They took a 65 million year old dinosaur skull from Earth and "projected its evolution" to discover that it would look just like these intelligent dinosaurs, so they concluded that the space-faring dinosaurs had come from Earth millions of years ago. This falsely assumes that evolution naturally progresses toward a human-like form, as if humans are the pinnacle of biology. It also assumes that you can actually predict the long-term outcome of evolution based on secret information locked in the genetic code, even though evolutionary development is actually directed by environmental interaction. But the greatest insult of all came in the Next Generation episode "The Chase", in which we learn that humans were intelligently designed 4 billion years ago by a super-race called "The Progenitors"! They supposedly encoded secret genetic information into the DNA of single-celled organisms so that they would eventually evolve into humans, and they left behind "clues" in our DNA (which somehow survived unaltered through 4 billion years of evolution) for us to find. To call this a misleading depiction of evolution would be far too charitable; it is an outright mockery of the concept.

Even so-called "family" entertainment echoes the false themes promoted by Star Trek, and with disturbing consistency. In the cartoon series "Pokemon", creatures can "evolve" from one form into another in a quasi-magical transformation. In the comic book series "X-Men" (recently made into a series of successful motion pictures), evolution is depicted as the abrupt appearance of completely new features with no precedent whatsoever in preceding generations. In the "Jurassic Park" movie series, evolution is described as "life finds a way", as if evolution inevitably responds to any and all immediate obstacles rather than selecting from variations which are better-suited to environmental conditions over the long term. The character "Malcolm" even goes on an extended tirade against scientists, accusing them of "not earning" their knowledge because they built on the work of previous generations of science, and he believes he has been proven correct when a staggeringly incompetent park design leads to disaster.

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