Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Star Trek and Vitalism

I've been watching all of the original series of Star Trek on CBS classics recently. Star Trek is full of conceptual contrivances for the sake of the plot. The list is almost unbounded. Faster than light travel, "humanoids" on every planet, universal English, teleportation, gravity control, etc. I'm willing to forgive most of these as stagecraft -- they either help advance the plot or are needed for obvious production reasons. There's also plenty of just plain silliness such as in Trouble with Tribbles when it is said "Odors can not travel through the vacuum of space" (of course they can) while we hear explosions from blasted space ships (which, of course, you can't).

However, one theme that annoys me constantly, and most certainly is not needed for plot advancement is the incessant evocation of Vitalism.

Vitalism is the idea that there's some sort of "elan vital" that animates the living. The idea seems obvious: living things are so different form non-living things that, surely, there must be some unseen force that defines the state of life. It is a wonderfully intuitive idea; it suffers only from the small problem that it's completely wrong as has been known now for more than a century.

The falsification of Vitalism and the unraveling of the molecular basis of life is certainly the most significant outcome of centuries of biological research. As counter-intuitive as it seems, everything we call living is "merely" chemistry -- made of the same material as dead stuff. We have explored all the way down to the bottom of the phenomenological stack and all that's there is molecules acting like molecules. There's no magic juju, there's no vital essence, there's no "spark" that separates the living from the dead. That said, just because life is made of "mere" molecules, that doesn't make it any less amazing or mysterious. Indeed, to me it makes it much more awesome and magical. I've talked to some people who seem to think that this deconstruction of biology into "mere" chemistry somehow lessens the magic. To me this is as nonsensical as saying that the transcription of poetry into "mere" letters lessens it's emotional impact.

Unfortunately, the news of the great accomplishments of the biological sciences have not infiltrated the consciousness of even the most well-educated. The ideas of Vitalism are just too intuitive to be undone by facts and thus it is still very much alive and well as demonstrated by its casual usage in "science" fiction such Star Trek.

A common example from the bridge of the Enterprise is that Spock will look into his scanner and announce authoritatively that there's only "one life form" on the planet. Inevitably they beam down and the planet is covered in alien plants. Apparently plants are not "life forms".

A more egregious example of Vitalism in Star Trek is the conflation of energy, life, and emotion. In Wolf in the Fold Spock says, "deriving sustenance from emotion is not unknown in the galaxy..." and later adds, "It's consciousness may survive consisting of billions of separate bits of energy floating forever in space, powerless." to which Kirk adds "But it will die, finally". This idea that emotion is some sort of expression of the vital animating spirit is at least as old as ancient Greece and Egypt. So too are the deistic explanations for the presence of this supposed force. And this too infects Star Trek. In Metamorphsis, Spock says to a nebulous "energy" creature called The Companion: "You do not have the ability to create life." and The Companion replies: "That is for the maker of all things." to which everyone seems to agree.

This lack of biological perspective is hardly unique to Star Trek. Pervasive in common knowledge is the idea that only things with "emotion" are "alive". If you ask people to name life forms on Earth, you'll typically get a list of big-eyed mammals. If you push hard you might get a bird. Only upon noting that things also live in the sea will most people remember fish. Forget invertebrates, nobody notices them except when whacking them with a fly swatter. And the most common life on the planet, micro-organisms, are only considered, if ever, under the heading of "nuisance" despite our total dependency on them for, well, basically everything.

Star Trek's lack of biological perspective is a real let down. Its unquestioning and casual acquiescence to Vitalism isn't a forward-looking intellectual challenge like anti-matter engines, teleportation, or sentient robots but rather is a backwards-looking reversion to pre-scientific superstitions.


Sibley said...

Those are good points on the biological content in the original series. Probably the later series are only slight improvements in that regard. I know far more about physics than biology, so despite being a trekkie, I have the same reaction in regards to physics. The violations go way beyond what you mention here to encompass pretty much a constant violation of basic principles of physics for no necessary reason. And the later series do this just as much - I recently couldn't quite stomach the Voyager episode where they can't break through the glass-ceiling like event horizon of a black hole (in either direction).

Similarly my medically-trained Trekkie friends laugh at the way that wildly different medical conditions in Star Trek are treated with the same (made up) medication.

I think the point is that Star Trek has never tried to be a show about science or that conforms to science. It's not realistic science fiction in that way. It's a show that varies between human-interest drama, ethics, adventure, and action. The setting is just an imaginary one that varies from week to week with made up phenomenon.

The "Star Trek" universe is not the one we live in - it's an alternate version of our universe. So of course it's physics and biology are different. At the end of the day, I think criticizing the science in Star Trek is like thinking Harry Potter doesn't make sense because it includes magic. A wacky, physically different, and yes vitalism-including universe is a part of what Star Trek fundamentally is.

And by the way, all the farmers in my large extended family (regardless of how much education they have), would give far better answers to your "living things" question than you suggest, including on microorganisms. I think what you're pointing to is that urban Americans are now often quite divorced from natural ecosystems.


Zack Booth Simpson said...

Good comments Sibley, thanks.