Evolution: We’re Doing It Wrong

A primer into theory of evolution for authors of fiction and game developers


I may not be an evolutionary biologist, but I do possess scientific training and during my years of research into sciences relevant in science fiction, I have learned that basically, we’re all misunderstanding how evolution works. As long as authors will keep using the theory of evolution incorrectly in what we create, it’s likely that everyone will keep misunderstanding it. Let’s fix it.

The Troubles With Mutants

After the introduction of the evolutionary theory, probably the most popular notion to take root in science fiction was mutation. Just to use extremely popular examples, the universes of X-Men and Fallout are crawling with them. In both of these, radiation has been utilized as the driving force of rapid mass mutation. While that’s not strictly impossible, it would have limits.

First of all, mutation is not really the same thing as evolution. Many mutants, especially if radiation was involved, would end up being sterile, and even if not, chances of interbreeding between different mutants would not be very high. While radiation can cause dramatic mutation quickly, it is precisely the discontinuous nature of the change that would not make X-Men into a new species.

Species take a very long time to evolve through many small changes, continuous changes. If something terrestrial is to evolve wings, it would have had ever longer wing-like appendages that would allow it to glide better and better, before it would have something that can do full flight. Even eyesight, believe it or not, evolved gradually, starting from little light-sensitive spots.

Fallout is in this sense more realistic, including the fact that most dramatic mutations would not be pretty, but it may still overestimate the survivability of such mutations, or the possibility of humans reproducing enough to survive in a heavily irradiated environment, or that radiation caused mutations would somehow be empowering those afflicted. In short, it would be much worse.

To see how it’s done right, look back to Asimov (surprise, I know). He had one significantly empowered mutant in his stories, in a galaxy. Beneficial mutations would be rare, but if you have trillions of humans, anything rare is bound to happen. Even so, the mutant still looked misshapen and was sterile. But that’s just mutation, we haven’t really started discussing evolution yet.

Gee, I wonder why they put the pretty ones in the front and stuck the blue ones in the back

Evolution Is a Negative Process

What I’ll attempt to explain now is the main driving force of evolution, the natural selection. From reading, watching, or playing most science fiction works, you’d probably get a sense of this selection as a positive selection of cool new useful traits that the organism does. While organisms may be able to make choices, that’s not the point of natural selection. It’s about survival.

In each generation, any species that reproduces sexually will produce a population of unique individuals, each a result of random mutation, and what you need to focus on is that some will survive and procreate, while some will not. Those who for any reason die or do not procreate will not pass on their genetic information, and that means that their mutation will not be passed on.

None of these creatures wanted or decided their mutations, and anything that’s compatible with survival and procreation will get passed on. The only selection is of things that didn’t work. If a creature had only one of trait that didn’t work, the whole would be scrapped. It’s all or nothing. Also, survival makes no one stronger, it only eliminates the relatively weakest individuals.

There are a few important conclusions to draw from that for the purposes of writing and game design. Mainly, evolution has no direction. You cannot evolve a species forward, like people on Star Trek like to attempt, because there’s no absolute forward — in different environments, same species would evolve differently. You can never disconnect evolution from the environment.

That means that every sci-fi strategy game that allows the player to choose traits of their species and choose the aspects of their homeworld separately of each other is simply wrong. You cannot get a badass, hard to kill, natural born killer species on a cozy, peaceful, nicely habitable planet, because it would have been adversity that would have hardened it. And that’s only the start.

The Inconvenient Truths About the Evolution of Species

Since evolution doesn’t really go forward, many successfully passed on traits may simply be rubbish. For example, if a creature never meets a predator, like it happens on some islands on Earth, it wouldn’t evolve fear of being eaten. When some predator gets introduced to that species later, that species is simply a goner, because it cannot live in the new environmental paradigm.

Conversely, something that seems to be a rubbish trait, like a mating call in a low frequency of sound that makes you very hard to locate, may under certain circumstances be excellent. For instance when you’re living on an island with limited resources, where any species with high reproduction rate would balloon up, peak, and die out en masse. I learned this from Douglas Adams of all people.

For humans or intelligent beings in general, there’s a similar controversy surrounding our tendency towards religious belief. It may have evolved to help survival as the ability to imagine that everything is an intelligent agent who’s out to get us, because not being paranoid when we had predators was apparently a less successful survival strategy. This is evolutionary psychology.

Even the mental nature of the species you create needs to be explicable by what it had to deal with during its formation in a given environment. However, a once useful trait may not be useful forever, but it won’t change on a physical level unless all creatures with that trait for some reason die off or stop procreating. One can even think of ideas as inheritable via memetics.

With all of this understanding, there are objections you still can make and room to speculate, but you have to get very clever in explaining what an evolutionary “direction” might be so that it accounts for all of these proven realities. Or you can use breaking of these laws as clues that something more than evolution has taken place. Hard sci-fi may be hard, but it’s so worth it.

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