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Science Fiction Round 27: Evolution Does Not Work That Way

There is something that we’ve touched on in several previous posts, but I’d like to talk about in a bit more detail: how biological evolution as a process and evolutionary biology as a model of it are misrepresented in media in general and in science fiction in particular.  Again, almost all of what I’ve written here is not original.  And as you’ll see, the particular misunderstandings I’m discussing here are based on two problems: many people not understanding evolutionary biology, and the human tendency to assume intent and direction even in entirely random processes.

Evolution Works Only On Populations

Evolution.  You keep using that word.  It does not mean what you think it means.

Evolution. You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

No, individual organisms do not evolve.  Nor are acquired characteristics passed from creatures to their offspring.  And nor does evolution allow violations of the laws of physics.  Got it?

Evolution Has No Goals

It should be obvious, but evolution is not a conscious entity.  Evolution is simply the set of processes that drive changes in the frequency of inherited characteristics in populations over time.  This means that evolution has no goals and no design.  Crucially, humans in particular and intelligence in general are not intended outcomes of a system in which evolution can occur.  I’m thinking of Star Trek and the new Battlestar Galactica in particular here, but the same mistake is made in a lot of science fiction.

Likewise, while symbiotic and cooperative behavior can certainly evolve, nothing like the entire-biosphere-is-one-organism of Avatar or various other misunderstandings of the Gaia hypothesis can actually happen without comprehensive engineering – a system like that only works when imposed top-down on the whole biosphere, and since evolution has no goals all that can occur are bottom-up emergent properties.

Evolution Has No Direction

Since there is no goal to evolutionary processes, it isn’t the orderly progression from pond scum to bilateria to basal amniote to mammalia to simian to ape to human to glowing space being seen in 2001 and Babylon 5 and on far too many t-shirts.  Species aren’t “more evolved” or “less evolved” than one another.  All things currently alive on Earth (and a few things that are alive off of Earth) come from different lineages that have survived for the same amount of time (3.8 billion years, give or take).  Over 99.9% of species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct – or rather the distribution of traits in any living descendants they had has changed to the point that interbreeding and producing fertile offspring with their ancestors would be impossible.  Either way, the current set of living organisms isn’t anything inherently special in evolutionary terms; we’re simply the current state of a constantly-changing and boundly-chaotic system.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( http://itol.embl.de/ ).  We all are buried in the "Animalia" line.  Note how similar we and all other animals are genetically and how different the microbes can be.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( http://itol.embl.de/ ). We all are buried in the “Animalia” line. Note how similar we and all other animals are and how different the microbes can be.  Genetically speaking, you and me and a slime mold have more in common than the slime mold does with blue-green algae.

And even the messiness of the phylogenetic tree above and the full version that it is drawn from only begins to capture the chaotic complexities of evolutionary processes.  For example, it takes no account of populations with incomplete divergence, where the definition of “species” gets fuzzy because creatures can still have offspring with one another – be those critters flowers or gulls forming ring species populations; bears that were thought to be several different species before genetic sequencing came in; or the various different clades of H. sapiens – the main H. sapiens sapiens plus neanderthalensis, Denisova, and possibly others that we all are descended from.

But the data this chart is based on illustrate something very important.  The chart is based on the genomes of the organisms concerned; charting the statistical similarity between the sequences of their component genes.  Those genes have changed in many different ways after the ancestral population of each pair of lineages split.  Sometimes, genetic information is copied.  Sometimes, it is added to.  And sometimes it is deleted.  Fundamentally, many of those alterations are random: a cosmic ray hit scatters a base pair; a DNA polymerase makes an error that is not corrected by a proofreader; and so on.  That makes them impossible to predict.  While you can put limits on the possible traits that could appear and spread in a population, there is no way to predict exactly what a population’s descendants will evolve into in the future (and if we were able to run history twice from the same starting point, we’d get two very different outcomes).  Nor can you say exactly what a population’s ancestors were like.  At best, you could do a statistical best-guess reconstruction.   There is no latent amphibian in your genome.

Evolution Is More Than Natural Selection

This one is really annoying, because it tends to show up among people who nominally have learned something of evolutionary biology.  Basically, it is the tendency to assume that every observed trait of every population must be the direct product of natural selection.

Certainly natural selection is important, even over relatively short timescales.  The spread of lactase-persistence genes in the human population over the last several thousand years is a classic example.  Even in populations where lactase production does not usually continue into adulthood, a few random people with mutations that keep it active are born.  In cultures where animals that can be used to produce dairy products have been domesticated, being able to eat those products gives a big advantage in terms of calorie and protein intake.  And so the lactase-persistence mutations that happened to be around when and where humans started keeping herds have spread throughout the population (although even now, most people worldwide don’t have lactase-persistence and many people who do continue to produce lactase in adulthood don’t produce it at the same level as in childhood).

But there are many common traits that haven’t become so due to natural selection.  Genetic drift means that an allelle or trait that is neutral or even somewhat negative in terms of whatever metric of fitness is being used can still spread throughout the population, simply by random fluctuations and sampling.  This is particularly relevant during population bottlenecks and when small populations split off from larger ones.  Among many other examples, the latter is why American Sign Language exists: there was a high incidence of hereditary deafness among the population of Martha’s Vineyard, primarily among the descendants of a few deaf immigrants in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.  Colors indicate different alleles, all of which have exactly the same fitness: each model organism has an equal chance of passing its allele to the next generation.  Initially, all organisms in the population have the same allele.  Occasional random mutations occur, one of which eventually dominates the population by random chance.  I ran the model forward 21 generations, at which point the new allele was universally fixed, but there is nothing special about that point.  In another 20 generations or so, it would most likely be replaced by something else.

Genetic hitchhiking means that alleles associated with a gene that is being selected for can increase in frequency even when they themselves provide no benefit.  And “associated” can simply mean “nearby on the same chromosome” – for example, sections of human chromosome 5 may have been selected for, but hitchhiking caused a nearby part of the chromosome carrying an allele that gives a genetic predisposition to Crohn’s disease to spread at the same time.

And exaptation means that an allele originally serving one purpose may be selected for or against for some other reason – some dinosaurs with unusual scales for better thermoregulation and showing off to one another found that they were useful when jumping, and we got flying birds.

This all means that we and most other lifeforms on Earth are carrying around a lot of baggage that no longer serves or never served any useful purpose – be that an unused appendix or endogenous retroviruses – because there is not any sufficient cost to their presence and/or sufficient benefit to their removal.  Bottom line: many things about humans and other life on Earth, and about any alien life that we might encounter, will be the legacy of random events and we should not construct just-so stories just because we are uncomfortable with being the outcomes of a chaotic system.

Evolution Is Not Fate

Related to much of above:

It’s particularly grating and harmful when “evolution made it so” or “it’s natural” is used to in an attempt to justify cultural innovations or in an attempt to defend harmful behavior by individual people and characters.  I could use Star Trek references again here, but there are far too many other examples in fiction – fantasy as well as scifi.

Here’s one: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game setting fails all over the place because he creates characters that are defined almost entirely in terms of psychology by their supposed evolutionary history (although Card personally ambiguously endorses intelligent design).  The Hive-Queens are unable to recognize that individual humans are intelligent even after observing our behavior covertly for an extended period of time before invading – they only get the hint after they’ve gotten into a massive fight with humans.  That makes no sense.  Evolution is not fate, and anyone capable enough to be traveling over interstellar distances and establishing colonies on dozens of planets with their own local biospheres will be able to parse “not all intelligences are exactly like me”.  Card also extends his own personal bigotry to his characters, and this as a device to endorse his own particular and dangerously wrong ideas of sexual ethics, falsely claiming as “biological imperatives” things that are entirely the inventions of certain groups of humans.

Nor are such actively-harmful misunderstandings of evolution restricted to fiction.  Evolutionary psychology does contain some valid and important insights – such as where some cognitive biases come from – but it is also invoked in misguided attempts to excuse both harmful individual behavior and elements of current culture that are both recent in time and restricted in space.  One particularly absurd example, although it’s very far from the most harmful:  The claim that the current US-centered gendering of the color pink as feminine is due to Paleolithic foraging habits and therefore justified.  In fact, that’s only an invention of the last 60 years or so – and in the US, it was preceded by a few decades where pink (along with red) was seen as masculine.

I hope the problem here is abundantly clear.  “Evolution says so!” is being wrongly used to hold aspects of culture / behaviors above question.  First, evolution doesn’t say anythingno goals and no direction, remember?  And, second, evolution is not fate.  We not irrevocably bound to any particular culture or set of behaviors out of the incredibly wide range that we can choose from.  If we can change things to make the world a better place, we should do so – regardless of how the frequencies of different alleles changed among our ancestors.   It is dishonest and harmful to claim otherwise.

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Superheros Round 7.0; Fantasy League Round 9.0; SciFi Round 16.0: Time Travel

Time travel is a popular theme in all three of our main categories here, so this will be a cross-category post.  This time, we’re only discussing time travel that preserves a single timeline; the many-worlds interpretation version will be discussed in a later post.

First, Reality:

In all currently-verified models of physics, backwards time travel is impossible.  There are many reasons why this is true.  Thanks to relativity, traveling backwards in time in any reference frame is equivalent to going faster than the speed of light, which is impossible for any particle with positive or zero mass.  The laws of physics are also not time symmetric (although they are charge-parity-time symmetric).  Time has a direction.  And statistical mechanics lets us derive the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the overall entropy of the universe must increase monotonically with time in all reference frames.

That last point is important.  If backwards time travel occurs at any point, then there are a set of world-lines that have infinite duration – closed loops looping back through the time travel device.  But overall entropy has to increase monotonically with time along those paths, which is a contradiction since they are closed curves.  The only way for this to work is for the universe to have already reached a state of maximum possible entropy.  That’s called heat death – which means the universe has run down to thermodynamic equilibrium and time has lost all meaning because nothing can change, which means nobody exists to build time machines.

General and special relativity produce interesting effects on how fast time advances in difference reference frames, but there is no way to make time go backwards.  But that hasn’t stopped people at various times from writing time-travel stories.

Closed Time Loops

Although they are already breaking the laws of physics, a lot of time travel stories make an effort to ensure that the time travel that does occur does not produce/has not produced/is not producing a causal paradox (yes, there will be tense trouble – I direct you to Streetmentioner’s book).  This gets invoked to make prophecy work.  In Babylon 5, the Minbari leadership know that the Babylon 4 station will be was their main starbase 1000 years ago, and so are the only ones unsurprised when it vanishes – with a momentary pause a few years in the future to drop off the human crew.  It is sent back in time with one person, Jeffrey Sinclair, who received a letter he had will have written to himself 1000 years ago explaining everything that was going to have happen.

The problem is that it is very hard to make a closed loop consistent in terms of the characters.  In Babylon 5, it takes a planet-sized machine several days of output to send a few-kilometer-long space station back 1000 years.  But why couldn’t the Great Machine also have been used to send back equal or smaller masses back shorter times and win the Shadow War before it started or stop EarthGov from going sideways, or be used in the future for the same purpose?  The in-universe answer is “nobody did that back then, so nobody can do that now”, but that doesn’t really make sense.  The real reason is that closed-loop time travel makes some plots impossible to do consisently.

For another example: in Harry Potter, Hermione is given a Time Turner so that she can attend more classes than there are hours in the day (and be chronically sleep-deprived, subtracting from her expected subjective and external lifespan, and perpetually running into her past/future self).  That is a relatively trivial use of a time machine, so they must be fairly common in the wizarding world and we see a vault full of them at the Ministry of Magic.  But the Ministry isn’t using them for anything useful.  Fans of the Potterverse have already dissected this from every possible angle, so I will just copy this photo:

This is what can happen when an author doesn't think through the implications of time travel for a story.

This is what can happen when an author doesn’t think through the implications of time travel for a story (the time turner does get used to save Buckbeak).

When authors do think through all of the possibilities for closed-loop time travel, things get strange.  Heinlein wrote a story called By His Bootstraps, where a 20th-century college student transports himself into a 20,000-year-or-so distant future.  He is abducted by his subjective-future self, who sends him through the time machine’s portal to his subjective-further-future self.  Further-future guy sends the guy back to pick up now-past guy and various other 20th century items.  When he gets back from shopping, he tries to double-cross further-future guy by taking control of the time machine and sending himself back from 20,000 years in the future to 19,990 years in the future.  But that only means that he spends ten years in the future until he becomes further-future guy.

Setting Right What Once Went Wrong

Since closed loops are hard to set up correctly, and pose annoying questions about freedom of action and if random events are truly random, many authors have the past be malleable and just conveniently ignore the paradoxes that that would imply.

Terminator starts out with an apparent closed loop, but in the second and later movies the future is specifically malleable.  And even in the first movie, Skynet is trying to change the past by sending back its assassin (although it does not succeed).  In the original Superman movie, Superman acquires new powers as the plot demands and flies faster than the speed of light, sending himself back in time to save Lois Lane.  The Back to the Future movies took this sort of plot further, with multiple changes to the timeline from 1885 to 2015.

But there a lot of problems with this sort of plot.  The first is the causal paradox again.  Marty McFly goes back in time by accident, and spends a lot of time in 1955 ensuring that his parents actually do get together.  Until he fixes it, he sees his siblings and himself slowly vanishing from a picture he brought back from 1985.  But that doesn’t make sense – if the timeline had already been changed when the picture was taken, why does it take subjective time for it to change?

A second problem is ethics.  In Schlock Mercenary, Kevyn Andreyasn goes back in time to save the entire Milky Way from being completely destroyed.  Ethically, that’s pretty good.  But consider Superman.  He goes back in time and saves Lois Lane.  But couldn’t he have gone back in time a little further and prevented the whole two-missiles-can’t-catch-them-both dilemma in the first place?  And if he can go that fast, why didn’t he just do that in the first place and avoid the missile hitting New York at all?  Back to the Future is even worse in that respect – all Marty changes is making his parents happier and more successful in life, making Biff less successful, and saving Doc Brown from getting shot.  But there are more important things that could be changed.  Even if Marty was unable to get things right on his first trip, he could go back again and relieve a huge amount of human suffering.

There is a countering ethical consideration, of course: history is complex and chaotic.  Go back in time and step on a butterfly, and humanity may not exist anymore.  You just killed everyone.  Oops.  But you can go back and fix it again, as long as there is any possible solution.  If there isn’t, you go back and reset everything and it all reverts back to the prior timeline.

We’ll talk more about the complex nature of history in the next post.  But for now, be grateful that backwards time travel is impossible.

SciFi Round Fifteen: Gender Roles in SciFi & Fantasy

I’m a bit uncertain about writing this post, in part because I am not particularly qualified to discuss the material and in part because there is already a considerable literature on it.  Much of what I’ll talk about here has been described already elsewhere, and I’m only giving a few examples of a very complicated problem that connects to a lot of overt and subtle social phenomena.  But here we go: some thoughts on gender roles in scifi and fantasy works.

A brief review of terminology: humans are a species with significant sexual dimorphism, but neither biological sex nor gender identity are binary qualities.  That is, most but not all humans can be conveniently called women or men.  But most human societies also have non-equal gender roles: people are assigned to a gender and stereotyped into a particular set of behaviors on that basis.  A lot of merchandise and even words are gender-coded as well.  The details of how gender roles are assigned differ greatly from one culture to another.

The problem I’m considering here is how such stereotypes and gender-coding are reflected in sci-fi and fantasy works.  This matters because gender roles as portrayed in media affect how we understand gender roles in real life.  And gender stereotyping is a serious social problem.  We’ve touched on this before, but the basic point is that restrictions on people’s perceived abilities solely based on gender are wrong and put artificial limits on what we can do.

Right now, a lot of gender role codification centers on artificially limiting what women are allowed to do – sometimes in the form of obvious sexism and sometimes more subtly.  This set of patriarchal patterns causes a lot of problems for women in everyday life, and also for men and for people of all other genders or no gender at all.  And while there have been some efforts to counter this in various media, patriarchal patterns are far too common in fiction.

Examples of the Problem

Consider Star Wars.  George Lucas wrote the plot deliberately based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – which outlines a very old and wide-spread plot, a coming-of-age story almost always featuring a man as the hero.  And that’s reflected in the Star Wars setting and story: Leia has to be rescued (twice, but the second was part of a rather silly plan); most of the Jedi and all of those who are major characters are men; the Imperial military is all men; and so on.  While this is pretty bad, there is something to note: works often reflect the gender roles of the real-life society in which they were written, sometimes deliberately but also out of inertia or simply unthinking assumption.  Lucas wrote the plot of Star Wars in the mid-1970’s USA, when women weren’t allowed in many regular military units (although integration was starting to happen).  In some sense, Star Wars is a product of its time.  And generally speaking, the further back we go the worse the mismatch between a positive egalitarian ideal and what is portrayed in works from the time will be.  But there are some exceptions to that pattern.

The bridge of a Venator-class Imperial Star Destroyer.  Why has the Empire artificially decreased its pool of potential personnel by 50%?

The bridge of a Venator-class Imperial Star Destroyer. Why has the Empire artificially decreased its pool of potential personnel by 50%?  (It’s actually worse than that, since the Empire is profoundly racist too.)

Gene Roddenberry wanted the society of the Federation in Star Trek to reflect a future nearly-utopian ideal, and made the crew of the Enterprise multicultural and also included women as characters in serious heroic roles.  The original second-in-command of the Enterprise was a woman, “Number One”, an intelligent and capable commander who takes charge of the ship while Captain Christopher Pike is not on board.  But the character was rejected by NBC executives, who felt that a show with a woman as a senior officer would be rejected by 1960s American TV audiences (Edit: That Majel Barrett was Roddenberry’s girlfriend when she was cast as Number One is a problem, but not the one we’re considering here).  Roddenberry did still include Uhura on the main cast, so the egalitarian message was not entirely killed, but there are still many gender-role problems with Star Trek.  The uniform uniforms from the pilot were changed to be impractically gender-coded; James Kirk goes around seducing/being seduced by anyone of any species as long as they are attractive and identify as a woman; and many episodes are loaded with Unfortunate Implications.  The later series are somewhat better, but even during Voyager the Federation’s society is not actually entirely egalitarian.  So while Star Trek included attempts at defying gender stereotyping, that was limited and significantly stymied.

Majel Barret as Number One, executive officer of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek pilot.

Majel Barret as Number One, executive officer of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek pilot.

Let me make the causality clear here.  It’s not that writers of fiction or their editors, agents, and employers seek to advocate gender stereotyping of people and gender coding of behavior, at least not much of the time.  Sometimes, a writer may want to illustrate the importance an egalitarian society – by either positive egalitarian examples or negative gender-stereotyped ones – and is forced to edit their work for better marketing (see the Star Trek examples).  And often the writers are simply writing something without thinking about the assumptions they are putting into their character design and world-building.  But not intending to enforce harmful stereotypes doesn’t magically erase the problem of their existence.   We need to be aware of the problem and correct for the resulting biases.

Works That Do Address Gender Roles

Some works do tackle the problem of gender stereotyping, and try to set positive egalitarian examples.

When Ridley Scott wrote Alien in the late 1970s, he specifically scripted it such that every character’s part could be done by any actor, regardless of gender.  In doing so, and in direct contrast to the then-recent Star Wars: A New Hope, there was at least the implication of an egalitarian society – although the cast was still dominated by men, the character of Ripley was a very effective disproof of the idea that a movie hero had to be a man.  Somewhat later on, Sarah Connor took many levels in badass during the Terminator movies.  And Joss Whedon deliberately wrote Buffy The Vampire Slayer to have the stereotypical horror-movie victim character be the hero.  But there is a danger with all of these cases, although they may have been well-intentioned: the characters end up being stereotyped as Action Girls rather than simply being compelling heroic characters who happen to be women.  Rachel’s talked about one of the unfortunate consequences of that stereotype.  There are works that avert that as well: consider Chell, from Portal.  That she is a woman is incidental to the plot, and she wears a practical jumpsuit and boots at all times.

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This is Ellen Ripley. Aliens will now die.

Those are examples at the level of individual characters.  At the level of fictional societies, there are also some encouraging examples: the new Battlestar Galactica had an egalitarian military.  For children’s shows and cartoons, there has also been an effort to portray more egalitarian societies.  In Avatar: The Last Airbender, half of the incarnations of the Avatar are women and half are men, and many of the more powerful benders are women – although not 50%, which suggests that there may still be some tokenism.

All of those examples are from film and television.  Let’s talk about one good book example: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  Bujold likes to play with gender roles in her different fictional societies: Athos has demonized women to the point that none exist on the planet; Cetaganda has rigidly-codified gender roles for much of the population; Beta Colony is egalitarian and very strict about being so; and the main setting of Barrayar goes through a transition from strict patriarchy to a significantly more egalitarian model over the course of the series.  On the more cynical side, Jackson’s Whole is patriarchal because that apparently is good for business.  One other bit about the Vorkosigan Saga: Bujold includes, in a by-the-way fashion, a breakdown of the stereotype of the gender binary – the character of Bel Thorne presents as a woman, a man, or neither or both depending on the situation.  That’s relatively rare in main-stream fiction – although we perhaps should not excuse Bujold for having her non-gender-binary character be a genetically-engineered hermaphrodite.

A Partial Excuse: Bizarre Alien Biology

There is a partial excuse for some works not discussing gender roles: an alien species that doesn’t have gender or has gender in a way that is very different from how it is viewed in most current human societies.  For the Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye, it is more important that they die if they do not get pregnant at regular intervals than that individual moties oscillate in gender identity and biological sex.  In Babylon 5, the pak’ma’ra reproduce by parthenogenesis and so have neither gender nor sex.

But this excuse is only partial, and doesn’t work all the time.  J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote dwarf characters who were men (with one exception), and had dwarf women be only one-third of the population and be indistinguishable from dwarf men in their actions, speech, and appearance.  This doesn’t make that much sense.  It allows for an egalitarian society, but only by suppressing any expression of gender identity.  Terry Pratchett addressed that in Discworld, where much of dwarf courtship consists of delicately inquiring as to your romantic interest’s gender and a sexual revolution is triggered by increased contact with Discworld human society – which is still patriarchal, but does allow expression of gender identity.

And A Meta-Example

You will have noticed that most of the writers I’ve mentioned here are men.  That writers often deliberately or unthinkingly perpetuate harmful stereotypes of male-dominated cultures when most writers are men is perhaps unsurprising.  But that does not excuse the writers who do so.

SciFi Round Ten: Aliens and Religion

Despite having developed in entirely different environments, with entirely different histories, fictional cultures very often believe things that are similar to one or more human religions.  Sometimes the similarity is nearly perfect.  TVTropes calls that the Lowest Cosmic Denominator. For the particular case of Christianity being duplicated, it becomes “Crystal Dragon Jesus“.  But does this make sense?

Note that there is a hard distinction between ethics and religion.  Ethics is prescriptive statements about behavior.  Religion is descriptive statements about the universe that assert some supernatural element.  “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” is an ethical statement.  “If you murder, your self will spend its next incarnation in one of the Naraka realms” is a religious one.

Fantastic Religions

Some things about religions in the fantasy literature make an abundant amount of sense.  If there are zombies running around that a priest can turn back by waving a particular symbol,  or if the armies of the Valar are fighting Morgoth across a continent, or if there is a reincarnating elemental-power kung-fu master saving the world every generation, it is quite obvious that something important is going on.

This is Aang.  He is a reincarnated martial arts master with Elemental Superpowers accessed by martial arts and enlightenment.

This is Aang. He is a many-times-reincarnated martial arts master with Elemental Superpowers accessed by enlightenment.  So in this story, reincarnation is amply demonstrated and there is always a super-powered avatar hanging around to ‘keep the world in balance’.  But why does he dress like a Buddhist monk in a world with no Buddha and no Buddhism?

But this does raise a question of terminology: I have defined religion as characterized by belief in something supernatural.  But if Aslan is running around the landscape fighting Tash, isn’t that automatically now part of the normal world?   Belief in something we would call supernatural is irrelevant if it is an everyday occurrence.  And religion no longer applies.

Terry Pratchett plays with this in Discworld.  In that setting, gods exist, many of them.  But they only have as much power as they have true believers.  The Great God Om is significantly inconvenienced when he comes down to the Disc and finds that he only has one faithful follower left, leaving him incarnated as a maimed tortoise.  Because most of the Discworld gods are gratuitously cruel, much of the population of the Disc is quietly Nay Theistic to avoid giving them more power than they have (“Of course they exist.  But don’t go around believe’n in ’em.  It only encourages ’em”).  It’s rather like being in a city dominated by rival mafia dons: either you get one to protect you, or you keep your head down to avoid the attention.  Vocal atheists tend to get hit by lightning by the gods that do have power, and so the surviving population of them are mainly fireproof golems.  This being Pratchett, the social commentary is of course quite deliberate.

Human Religions in SciFi

When an author has incorporated religion(s) into a science fiction setting, particularly those set in the future, human societies tend to have those religions either be current ones or be similar in many ways.  This makes sense if there has indeed been historical continuity, but it is important to remember that all real religions change dramatically over decades and centuries.  Special mention here goes to Dune, where Frank Herbert took some liberties with Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam to create the Zensunni adepts.  Furthermore, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, who exploit religion for their own political ends – deliberately seeding legends on planets for the protection of their agents.

Herbert also did something very important with Dune: he did the research.  Herbert was raised Catholic and became an atheistic Zen Buddhist later in life, but he took care to incorporate Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist elements into his world-building.  That level of preparation is rare.  It is far too easy to fall into Write What You Know while not doing the research and also into Author Appeal, and produce a fictional culture that is dominated by only a single religion that the author is familiar with or professes themselves or a complete lack of religion if the author is an agnostic or atheist. I do not have the statistics to back up the statement, but it seems to me that there is an excess of Christian themes in at least the English-language scifi and fantasy literature as compared to the actual worldwide distribution of religions (although this is perhaps offset by religion or the lack thereof not being that important in many scifi and fantasy works).

There is a related problem, where a fictional culture that is supposed to be one specific religion is portrayed as something else entirely.  In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and a lot of other works, Wicca is misrepresented.  Going back a few decades and somewhat more abstracted, James Blish was significantly confused about 1950s Catholic doctrine when he wrote “A Case of Conscience“.  There are far too many badly-intentioned examples.  Some misrepresentation is people not doing the research.  Some is people wanting to make a religion look as bad (or good) as possible.

Alien Religions

For scifi aliens, there shouldn’t be anything exactly identical in an alien religion as compared to any human religion – there are two entirely different histories.  Again, this is religion and not ethics.  There are two themes that work as an excuse for there being too many identical elements: ancient astronauts or time travel.  In Babylon 5, everyone thinks that the Vorlons look like angels.  That was deliberately engineered by the Vorlons, who liked to go around the galaxy hacking the genetics of non-technological races so that they would like flying bilaterally-symmetric glowing figures.  Babylon 5 also had a messianic religion centered around Valen, a Minbari prophet who said that he would return in the future.  That was explained by Valen being a time traveler, Jeffrey Sinclair, who was born a thousand years later.

Vorlons from Babylon 5.  The resemblance to angels is not coincidental.  These two are working with Valen, the guy in the middle.  He started as Jeffrey Sinclair, sometime commander of Babylon 5.  He went back in time a few years, stole the older station, and flew in back a thousand years to make sure that the Minbari messiah actually had existed.

Vorlons from Babylon 5. The resemblance to angels is not coincidental. These two are working with Valen, the guy in the middle. He will have started as Jeffrey Sinclair, sometime commander of Babylon 5, but has will get a makeover to become a Human Alien Minbari. He will has gone back in time a few years, will have stolen the Babylon 4 station, and flew it back a thousand years to make sure that the Minbari messiah would actually had existed.  This is J. Michael Straczynski invoking Ancient Astronauts and Time Travelers explain why things so like human religions occur in space.

Other times there is a partial excuse for Crystal Dragon Jesus.  If the religion of an alien culture is defined by the needs of the plot the writer wants to do, they will slant the world-building appropriately.  Taking one more from Babylon 5: the Centauri were themed like the Roman Empire, so they have an extensive pantheon of various misbehaving gods and an imperial cult where emperors are elevated to godhood.  In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers wanted to make the Captain into an actual messiah, so Bajor has a religion based around dual gods – good and evil – who are both actually Starfish Aliens that like to live inside wormholes.  Captain Sisko becomes the emissary of the good ones (“The Prophets”), and disappears into heaven/closed time-like curves inside the wormhole at the end.  Cargo Cults are popular in science fiction too, as a way for otherwise technologically-limited groups to have access to something without being able to replicate it.

But, these excuses for similarities aside, why should aliens have anything like human religions at all?

The origins of many individual human religions are argued.  But a tendency to invoke supernatural explanations to phenomena is obviously common among humans, and has been for a very long time.  Anthropological models of the development of religion describe religions as an emergent property or byproduct of known cognitive biases of human brains.  We tend to assume correlation and causation even where neither exists, tend to falsely assume intelligent intent, and are easily manipulated by even entirely false fears.  We fool ourselves into being more sure of our statements than we actually are, over-estimate how much others agree with us or how much we disagree with them, and like beliefs that we know others hold better.  We also reflexively divide others into people in our group and outsiders, and favor the in-group over the out-group.

And so unless their members are very careful to avoid it, human societies quite rapidly develop numerous elaborate and very specific fictional scenarios to try and explain things that may not even exist.  And things can get very dangerously confused when those different scenarios conflict with each other.  To use TVTropes vocabulary again, religions are very devoted fandoms.

Would intelligent aliens necessarily have any of the same biases that we have?  And if they didn’t have one or another, would religions as humans make them still appear or not?  If not, what else might emerge instead?

An example:

Is some level of in-group favoritism inevitable for an intelligent species?  Or can intelligence develop without it, automatically valuing all members of the species equally?  What society evolves from that, and would something recognizably similar to human religions appear?  Can we say that any religious institutions that do appear would be far less hierarchical, and perhaps far less important in society, if people did not often evaluate the needs of those who share particular beliefs in some supernatural concepts above those of those who do not?

Of course, given such a large difference in cognition, many things other than religion would be different.  I played with this with the ursians, where over-valuing the in-group leads to a genetic diversity crisis quickly and so they have less such favoritism than humans do.  This shows up in their sexual ethics, which are different from human norms because that was what optimized survival.  But I have not considered what religions they might or might not have.

Another example:

Pareidolia makes most of us prone to see human faces and figures and other patterns we consider significant everywhere.  Clouds, sand dunes and hills, the shells of crabs, a colon and a single parentheses (parenthesis?).  Some level of pareidolia is an evolutionary advantage: it is good for any animal to be sensitive to patterns corresponding to its prey, its predators, and others of its species.  But consider an alien species with much less permitting pareidolia than we have.  They would not have emoticons, and very different art.  They would also not have people asserting that random patterns of char on toast was a miraculous appearance of a religious figure, or that the reflection of light off of a polished steel dome was a sign from God.  Would such people still come up with anything we would call a religion?  If so, what might it be like?

And one more:

Agent detection is the tendency to assume an intelligent intent where one does not necessarily exist.  We do it very easily – just consider how we anthropomorphize even relatively simple devices, such as dice or a deck of cards.  Taking a more complex system: when did you last complain that your computer is out to get you?  This can be explained as having a survival advantage: anything that could potentially indicate actions by a predator or an adversary should be approached with caution, and false positives cost far less than false negatives.

I don’t think an intelligent species could evolve without some level of agent detection.  Part of any successful intelligence has to be being able to identify other intelligences; wither to cooperate, confront, or avoid them.  But like pareidolia, we could consider a species where the criteria for what makes them think “there is intent there” are more or less stringent or just different.  How does that change a society, as well as any tendency for religions to appear or not?

Many of these questions may seem a bit abstract, but I think they’re useful to think about.  Truly realistic alien cultures will differ from human norms in ways that are not simply derived from their environments, and recognizing and confronting the biases inherent in how we think shows some possibilities to explore.  I’ve focused on religion or the lack thereof here, but this extends to everything that such aliens might think or do.

I think there is a dearth of good science fiction that explores these themes.  We have space opera, where the aliens are often indistinguishable from humans in how they think.  Other works have aliens whose thought patterns are said to be incomprehensible, but that usually seems to me as as excuse to skimp on the world-building.  There is a large body of literature (including some of my own attempts) that explores how cultures and behaviors can be directly changed by the environment a species lives in, but that usually assumes ‘like humanity unless noted’.  Given that Most Writers Are Human, it is hard to work through the implications of alien cognition consistently.  Does anyone know of such a work?