The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

At its best, science fiction can help people better understand science, explaining new ideas and theories in the context of a thrilling, gripping story. And then there are these 10 utterly ridiculous stories about evolution.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

1. Star Trek

There are a bunch of examples of Star Trek's often dubious grasp on the basic tenets of biology, genetics, and evolution, but probably the most pervasive problem was all the alien hybrids. There's the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, the half-Betazed Deanna Troi, the half-Klingon B'Elanna Torres...and that's just from the main casts. Pretty much every humanoid alien species was capable of interbreeding, and even the hybrids themselves could mate without problems, most notably when Worf and the half-human/half-Klingon K'Ehleyr became the parents of the 75% Klingon son Alexander. None of that should be even remotely possible, and at the very least all those hybrids should be sterile.

Of course, that's all more to do with genetics than evolution, technically speaking. The problem came in The Next Generation episode "The Chase", which sought to explain why all the different aliens looked pretty much the same (and, by extension, why they keep interbreeding so successfully). The episode introduced an ancient, humanoid race that went extinct billions of years ago, but not before seeding the entire galaxy with their DNA, making all the current races their descendants and thus each other's distant cousins. Now, this might explain why all the intelligent species are humanoid - although it should be pointed out that if the precursors were trying to steer Earth's evolution to creating something like themselves, their meddling was incredibly subtle. You'd really think they'd have steered evolution to not waste so many millions of years with dinosaurs ruling the planet, for a start.

Still, it definitely doesn't solve the interbreeding question. The precursor race explains they seeded the primordial oceans of worlds where life was just starting to emerge, which means humans, Klingons, Vulcans, and all the rest have been on entirely separate paths since they were single-celled organisms. (And judging by the precursor's explanation, their scientists only tweaked a few genes of the planets' native lifeforms anyway.) That means humans are way more closely related to horses, lizards, ants...hell, even bananas are much more closely genetically related to humans than Vulcans are, and yet we're still waiting on a half-human, half-banana Mr. Spock.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

2. "The Lazarus Experiment", Doctor Who

This series three episode is just one of the show's more recent examples of shaky evolution. It's a decent enough little story, but it's also completely ridiculous. The amoral Professor Lazarus has created a machine that makes him young again, which somehow works by manipulating his DNA. That bit of pseudobiology is shaky enough, but the real craziness starts when his DNA becomes unstable and he morphs into a giant scorpion-like monster that sucks people's life energy to sustain itself. Even leaving aside where Professor Lazarus is getting all the extra mass needed to turn into such a creature, the Doctor's explanation is where things get really silly: apparently the giant scorpion is one of humanity's unused evolutionary paths, and meddling with Lazarus's DNA unlocked it.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

3. Doomsday, DC Comics

Believe it or not, this is my only comics entry. Yes, there's a whole lot of shaky biology going on with mutants like the X-Men or the metagene seen in many DC superheroes, but that's most bad genetics, not bad evolution. (Although I'll admit they're pushing it when they start talking about "the next phase in human evolution", a notion TV shows from Heroes to The Tomorrow People also dabbled in.) But really, if you want to talk about bad evolution in comic books, there's no other option than Lamarck's (and Superman's) worst nightmare, Doomsday.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was an early nineteenth century French biologist who proposed many of the ideas Charles Darwin would later rework, adapt, and improve upon to create the theory of evolution we know today. Although he's a figure of considerable importance in the history of science, he's mostly now remembered for his big mistake: he believed that parents could pass on traits they acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring. It's an idea that dates back to Aristotle, and even Charles Darwin toyed with a version of it, but this idea is now known as Lamarckism, so it's safe to say he got the credit for it, for better or worse.

Lamarckism runs rampant throughout comics, as the offspring of superpowered characters are born with their own special powers, even if their parents didn't gain their abilities until adulthood. In some extreme cases, some characters seem to even inherit the special training of their parents. These are generally given some sort of shaky explanation to paper over the bad science, but the Superman-killing Doomsday is pretty much the walking, non-talking embodiment of Lamarckism, and there's simply no way around it.

According to his origin story, Doomsday was a science experiment by ancient aliens looking to create the ultimate life-form. They built a research station in the most dangerous region of ancient Krypton, and then sent out a tiny, defenseless creature out into this environment. The sweet little thing was killed instantly by vicious predators, and a robot was sent out to scoop up the remains. These remains were then cloned and the process repeated thousands of times, until the cloned creature ultimately became Doomsday: invulnerable, super-strong, and utterly lethal.

It's a suitably twisted origin story for such an iconic killing machine, but it doesn't make a lick of evolutionary sense. In the instant before the creature gets wiped out each time, what traits is it supposed to be acquiring that make it better at surviving next time around, and how are these traits getting transferred to its genes? Do only the most brutal genes survive getting ripped to shreds, or something? I suppose one could argue the scientists are just randomly cloning the creature until something suitably brutal emerges, but that doesn't fit with the fact that the clones clearly get more brutal over time, which can only mean they're somehow inheriting their past versions' experiences. Even for comics, that's some shaky evolution.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

4. Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

In fairness to Greg Bear, the premise of Darwin's Radio made a little more sense when he wrote it back in 1999. The book heavily depends on introns, non-coding DNA sequences that are actually the remnants of ancient viruses. These viruses are then activated, supposedly as some sort of evolutionary response to modify humans or just reduce the overcrowding on Earth. These ancient genes create what is essentially a biology-rewriting STD, which males spread to females when they conceive a child. Like I said, this made a little more sense back in 1999, when there was still some thought that non-coding DNA really did hold relics of ancient genes, but now we're pretty much certain that's not what this so-called junk DNA is.

Anyway, the actual pregnancy is then radically unlike anything we now experience, as the first, severely deformed fetus is miscarried after a couple months, leaving behind an egg with fifty-two chromosomes, six more than humans have. The parents themselves begin to physically change in preparation for caring for this entirely new form of human. All of this is bundled up in the notion of the titular "Darwin's radio", which itself is a new form of evolution that allows any species that possesses it - in this case, humans - to rapidly change their genome in response to a crisis, making them better at evolving than other species. This is explained as evolution itself evolving, which just about makes sense in the context of a science fiction novel, but doesn't really make any sense if assessed from a more strictly scientific perspective.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

5. The Creature from the Black Lagoon

The search for the "missing link" connecting a modern animal with its more "primitive" ancestors is one of the more famous parts of evolution, and it's still good for international headlines even today. (Even if said headlines were much ado about not much.) The fact of the matter is that all species are constantly in some state of transition, and the idea that there's a discrete missing link between modern populations and their evolutionary ancestors is really more a human construct to understand evolution than a scientifically rigorous notion.

When the idea really gets funky is when missing links are suggested for distantly related species that are on entirely separate evolutionary paths. Maybe the most extreme example is this 1954 monster movie, which suggests the titular monster is some sort of man-fish hybrid, the "missing link between man and fish." Even as a shorthand for a more complex evolutionary story, that makes no sense whatsoever, and if that's the level of scientific knowledge in these expeditions it's not exactly surprising they keep ending in disaster.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

6. "The Man Who Evolved" by Edmond Hamilton

A lot of stories deal with the idea of individuals "evolving" themselves, which is pretty much just nonsense. Evolution is a species-wide phenomenon, not something an individual does. An individual can mutate yes - indeed, everybody features some genetic mutation or another, but most are so minor and unimportant that nobody actually recognizes their particular little mutation. We are all, in our way, mutants, and humans, as a species, are constantly evolving, but that doesn't mean a human can evolve.

Still, the notion of a person mutating him or herself along humanity's supposed evolutionary path is a great premise for a science fiction story, even if it's pretty much nonsense. Edmond Hamilton's 1931 short story is one of the first and most famous tales to use this idea, as mad scientist Dr. John Pollard claims he's focused cosmic rays to accelerate an individual's evolution at a rate of 50 million years every fifteen minutes.

Pollard then undergoes many blasts of evolution, each time emerging with a more advanced mind and a frailer body. Eventually, he becomes nothing more than a free-floating, telepathic brain that consumes pure energy. One last evolutionary blast turns him back into a protoplasm, Earth's original life-form, suggesting that evolution is somehow cyclical. It's a clever twist, and no less than Isaac Asimov said it was the first science fiction short story that really stuck with him, but the idea of cyclical evolution is almost as silly as a person hyper-evolving himself with focused cosmic rays.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

7. "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Evolution of the Daleks", Doctor Who

Amazingly, "The Lazarus Experiment" isn't even home to the silliest evolution in the third series. No, that dubious honor goes to the second half to the series's Dalek two-parter, "Evolution of the Daleks." The story has some interesting ideas, but the whole thing is much too ridiculous to take any of it seriously. The idea of mixing human and Dalek DNA to create a composite species is questionable, the notion that Dalek Sec can rid Daleks of their racial supremacist views at a genetic level is pretty weird, and the fact that Time Lord DNA can be transmitted by lightning into other people is completely and utterly absurd.

But there's a much more subtle misunderstanding of evolutionary biology in the generally brilliant Dalek origin story, "Genesis of the Daleks." The story explains the Dalek homeworld of Skaro was once home to two warring, identically humanoid species, the Kaleds and the Thals. The Kaled scientist Davros, himself horribly deformed to the point that he looked like he wasn't a member of either species, created the Daleks in a final attempt to break the stalemate, explaining the blob-like creatures inside the Dalek casings were the "final evolutionary form" of the Kaled race. Even those who disagree with Davros's efforts to turn Daleks into remorseless killing machines never question this basic premise, which suggests biology wasn't a major priority among the Kaleds. Even leaving aside what environmental conditions could ever cause humanoids to evolve into blobs, evolution isn't a fixed path, and it doesn't have an endpoint (well, other than extinction). The idea of Daleks as even a possible future evolutionary form, let alone their definite final incarnation, is pretty much gobbledygook.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

8. Planet of the Apes

In the original Charlton Heston movie, three astronauts from 1971 crash land on an unknown planet in what is now the year 3978. The world is ruled by intelligent apes, who have enslaved the mute, primitive humans. At the risk of spoiling one of the most famous forty-year-old twists in movie history, Heston eventually discovers this strange planet is actually Earth. You can probably spot the problem with this story, evolutionarily speaking. There's absolutely no way apes could evolve into intelligent beings in 2006 years.

To the franchise's credit, they quickly spotted the gigantic hole in the original movie's premise and set about trying to fix it. There was always the implication that the nuclear war could have somehow sped up ape evolution (not that that's really all that convincing, but at least it acknowledges the central problem), and eventually the fourth film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes reveals the whole thing was actually a massive time loop, with a 40th century ape traveling back in time to lead the ape rebellion in the 20th century. There's also an upcoming new movie in the franchise, Rise of the Apes, that suggests another possible explanation for this accelerated evolution using genetic engineering. Whether it'll be any more plausible than nuclear war or a temporal paradox is an open question.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

9. "You Say Toe-Mato", Phil of the Future

I'll admit it - I feel like a bit of an asshole for picking on the scientific inaccuracies of an old Disney Channel sitcom, particularly when the error in question was likely just meant as a joke. But it's probably the best example of a hoary old cliché: in the future, humans will adapt to the point that they start to lose vestigial body parts, like the appendix, wisdom teeth, tonsils...and, in the case of Phil of the Future, the little toe.

For those unfamiliar with the Disney Channel's scifi offerings, Phil of the Future was a mid-00s show about a lovable family of four from the year 2121 (and their pet caveman!), who end up stranded in 2004 while on a jaunt in their time machine. Wackiness, as I'm sure you can imagine, ensues. Anyway, young Phil doesn't want to go on a class field trip because it will require students to walk barefoot in a vat of tomatoes, and everyone in the 22nd century only has four toes on each foot. As Phil's mother explains, "They won't lose their pinky toes for another 70 years."

Let's just do a quick rundown with what's wrong with this. One, little toes are actually really important, and people who lose theirs have significant difficulties with maintaining balance (just ask Catfish Hunter). Two, even if little toes were worthless, people wouldn't start losing them unless there was some significant selection pressure that gave a reproductive advantage to people born with only four toes, like a deadly parasite that only attacked the little toe or something. And three, even if both of those were true, there's no way in the entire species would lose a body part in just fifty years, the way Phil's mom implies.

For a much more scientifically accurate use of this notion, check out Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity, which features much more minor changes over the space of millions of years, and even then subverts their supposed importance. I know it's hard to believe Isaac Asimov wrote more scientifically plausible sci-fi than a Disney channel show, but there it is.

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history

10. "Threshold", Star Trek: Voyager

Sure, we already had some fun with Star Trek, but how could we leave out the most infamous episode in the franchise's history, the only episode so abysmal the producers and fans agreed to pretend it never happened? The sad thing is that, if you believe episode writer Brannon Braga, the show was actually trying to teach viewers an important, oft-forgotten point about evolution, but that point got lost in the mounds and mounds of silliness and crap. We'll get to that in a moment.

Basically, the crew figure out how to go past the Warp 10 barrier, which is meant to be totally impossible. Tom Paris makes the trip in a shuttle, but when he gets back he starts mutating into a strange, feral creature that kidnaps Captain Janeway and takes off again on the shuttle. When Voyager finally finds Paris and Janeway, they've turned into a couple of amphibian creatures...complete with three amphibian children. Paris and Janeway are ultimately restored to human form and the offspring are left where they are...at least until they got deleted from continuity.

As you can probably imagine, this is all deeply stupid. The episode clearly means to suggest Paris and Janeway have evolved into these creatures, which is impossible - species evolve, not individuals. The show tries to walk back from this a little by some technobabble about how the mutations were merely consistent with the stages of human evolution and not actually evolution, but your guess is as good as mine what the hell that means.

Still, I said the episode was trying to actually teach something about evolution, and this is it: "Threshold" is one of the very, very few instances of on-screen evolution that doesn't treat the process as one of constantly becoming more intelligent and more sophisticated. Some fans criticized "Threshold" for depicting devolution, not evolution, but there's no such thing as devolution to begin with, and there's no guarantee evolution will eventually turn humans into something we would consider more advanced than our current selves. As far as evolution is concerned, no one incarnation of a species is "better" or "worse" than another - a species just happens to be the right fit for its current ecological niche, and that's pretty much it.

It's a great point to make about evolution, and here's to "Threshold" for trying to make it. If only everything else about the episode wasn't the silliest depiction of evolution in science fiction history, they might really have had something there.

For more ludicrous stories about evolution, check out our roundup of seven different theories of evolution, from a couple years ago!