• We Deserve Better Science From Halle Berry.

    "I won an Oscar, you know."
    “I won an Oscar, you know.”

    It’s hard to find new TV shows to watch during the summer rerun season, especially if, like me, you enjoy intelligent science fiction. I hoped Halle Berry’s new CBS show, Extant, might be one I could get into. The premise is that her character, Molly, is an astronaut recently returned to Earth (to her roboticist husband, played by Goran Visnjic, and their android son, Ethan) after a 13-month solo mission on a space station.

    Again, it was a solo mission. But in her re-entry physical after landing, she and her doctor discover she’s somehow pregnant.

    I didn’t care for the pilot episode. It suffered from the clichés of dreamy mysticism and secretive, suspicious-acting bureaucrats that TV people resort to when they try to make near-future, kinda-sorta “hard science fiction” interesting, but don’t really know how. They seem to believe they need to resort to supernatural elements to replace the warp drives and extraterrestrials they’re leaving out. Another recent failed show, Defying Gravity, made similar mistakes.

    "Son, I miss ER so much."
    “Son, I miss ER so much.”

    However, pilot episodes are often weak outings; the producers and actors are still getting their feet under them and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I decided to stick with the show, and recently queued up the second episode, titled “Extinct.”

    In this episode, Molly comes along with Ethan on a school field trip to visit a natural history museum (clearly modeled after, if not actually filmed at, the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan). I should explain that Molly’s husband believes in raising and educating Ethan, who is a prototype artificial intelligence built to look like a middle-school-aged boy, just like other children. He thinks this will make him and his kind more empathetic toward humans. So he’s in school with other kids his apparent age.

    Observing an exhibit about hominid species, including Neanderthals, Ethan meets a robot docent that looks like a squat vending machine. Why a docent built to converse with children looks like this, when just moments earlier we saw Ethan and his classmates interacting with an utterly convincing holographic elephant, is a mystery the show probably didn’t intend. But anyway, Ethan has this conversation with the docent:

     

    Infobot: Please step back. The chain of evolution is not an interactive display. I see you are interested in the Neanderthal. I can tell you more about him if you like.

    Ethan: Okay.

    Infobot: Neanderthal Man went extinct about 30,000 years ago.

    Ethan: Extinct?

    Infobot: “Extinct” is to no longer exist.

    Ethan: Why did they go extinct?

    Infobot: Extinction happens for many reasons. In almost all cases, strong species survive, and the weak ones die. It’s called “survival of the fittest.”

    Ethan: What happened to the Neanderthal?

    Infobot: Homo sapiens came to Eurasia, where the Neanderthals lived, and they were better able to survive because they were stronger and smarter.

     

    … And that’s when I stopped watching and swore off the show for good. I won’t lend my eyes or my time to a science fiction show that’s so aggressively, stupidly bad at its science.

    I’ll elaborate, but first, a tangent: “extinct” is an adjective. The infobot should have said either “‘Extinct’ means ‘no longer existing'” or “To be ‘extinct’ is to no longer exist.” A museum as well-funded as this one clearly was could have afforded better writers (or grammar software) for its robots. I can forgive much in fictional narratives (if I couldn’t, I’d never watch anything), but poor usage from characters that should know better is a bridge too far (If you ever see me in person, don’t get me started on Elrond’s use of “from whence” in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.).

    Okay, moving on. Let me repeat this line from the infobot:

     

    Extinction happens for many reasons. In almost all cases, strong species survive, and the weak ones die. It’s called “survival of the fittest.”

     

    That is a cartoonish mischaracterization of the concept of “survival of the fittest.” It does not mean “the strong outlast the weak.” That is the straw-man argument that’s been used by sociologists and politicians to bash (or, tragically, to extol) Darwin’s theory for almost a century and a half. The mechanism of natural selection does not depend on one species being “stronger” or “better” than another. Rather, it’s to be found right there in the last word of the phrase. “Fittest” simply means “the best fit.” Like a glove that’s neither too tight nor too loose on your hand. Larger or smaller gloves aren’t bad gloves; they’re just not the ones that go best with your hands.

    Thanks to http://www.learner.org/
    “Bitch, please!”

    Replace “hands” with “ecological niche” and “gloves” with “species.” I’ve never forgotten the way Dr. William Barstow, my biology professor at the University of Georgia, explained this concept. Before he became a college professor, Dr. Barstow had been a high school science teacher. In that role, the day before he taught evolution each year, he’d go out onto the school’s lawn and scatter hundreds of red, blue, yellow, and green toothpicks. Then, the next day, he sent his students out with buckets and the charge to gather up as many toothpicks of each color as they could find.

    Of course the kids always came back with very, very few green toothpicks relative to the other colors. If the high school students were predators and the toothpicks prey, the green toothpicks weren’t “stronger” or “better” in any objective way than the other toothpicks; they were simply the best fit for the environment of a field of green grass. If they were a reproducing species, the green toothpicks would have the most offspring, and over time the other toothpicks would disappear entirely.

    It’s for the same reason that brown bears that migrated to the far north turned white and became polar bears. It’s also why there are no short-necked giraffes, and why anteaters have sticky tongues. Each species evolved in an environment where those particular qualities gave them a slight reproductive advantage over their relatives who didn’t have those qualities. They ate a little better, so they lived a little longer and produced a few more offspring.

    (Also, not to get too deep into the weeds, but it’s actually the genes for white fur, long necks, and sticky tongues that won out over time, not the polar bears, giraffes, and anteaters themselves, but that’s getting a little abstract for most people to readily conceptualize.)

    I emphasize the “slight” reproductive advantage because that’s all it needs to be. The difference can be as small as a few tenths of a percent; over enough generations that’s sufficient for the individuals of the species with the advantage to completely replace the ones without it. There’s no “struggle.” The prevailing species isn’t “stronger.” It’s just a better fit, and that fitness becomes fine-tuned over thousands or millions of years.

    This is a broad-strokes description of how natural selection works. There are exceptions and caveats, of course. For example, sometimes extinctions happen due to outside, unpredictable factors, like asteroid strikes, that make fitness to previously prevailing conditions irrelevant. But generally speaking, extinction and speciation happen as detailed above.

    Hold that thought. The show then compounded its insult to science with this howler:

     

    Homo sapiens came to Eurasia, where the Neanderthals lived, and they were better able to survive because they were stronger and smarter.

     

    We don’t know, today, why the Neanderthals went extinct, and it’s doubtful we will ever know why; certainly not by the unspecified time of Extant. It’s possible we deliberately killed them off, but it’s also possible the two interbred, and today’s modern humans are a hybrid of the two species or subspecies (there’s even a growing consensus that we were not fully distinct species from each other).

    Their extinction does roughly coincide (on a geologic timescale; we coexisted for thousands of years) with modern humans’ appearance in the same geographic areas, but that doesn’t mean there was direct conflict, or that we were so much more clever and resourceful that we hunted and ate their mammoths and gathered their berries before they could.

    The Neanderthals themselves could well have been “smarter and stronger,” or at least equal to us in brains and brawn, and they died out simply because they had a lower average birthrate; again; the difference doesn’t have to be big at all. Even if the Neanderthals had 999 births for every 1,000 Homo sapiens births, over hundreds of generations that would be a sufficient difference to drive them to extinction.

    Another possibility is that the climate changed in a way the Neanderthals were less able to cope with than modern humans.

    The point is we don’t know, and probably never will. These aren’t new hypotheses; I was introduced to most of them almost twenty years ago when I read The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve.

    Source: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pernar20130807
    “Why am I following this asshole?”

    It’s simply offensive for a TV show set in the future to display such ignorance. I verified the information in this post with a few minutes’ Googling. There’s no reason Extant‘s writers couldn’t have done the same, if they’d cared to. The show’s CBS network-mate The Big Bang Theory has a staff physicist who famously makes sure all the physics and astronomy presented in the show are accurate and up to date. If a sitcom for which science is just a backdrop can take its accuracy so seriously, there’s no excuse for a science fiction drama not to do the same. And this is basic science. Dr. Barstow was a great college professor, but remember, the example he used to illustrate natural selection was one he’d originally used for high school classes.

    Of course, I get where the writers were going: Ethan will begin to wonder if maybe he’s better than his Homo sapiens progenitors, just as they themselves were “better” than their own forebears, and will go Magneto on us, or choose not to. But they didn’t need to dumb down the science to tell that story. Better writers would have found another way.

    The show’s ratings have not been high, so its misrepresentation of science probably won’t matter much in the long run. But it still should be unacceptable, especially in a nation currently wringing its hands over a perceived crisis in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. I’m not alone in this, right?

    Category: Darwinmedianatural selectiontelevision

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    Article by: Vandy Beth Glenn

    I'm a writer, editor, runner, and bon vivant in the Atlanta, Georgia, area.
    • Dylan Ringwood

      The statement ‘survival of the fittest’ does actually refer to fitness… the overall genetic health and dominance of an organism in a specific context. It seems like a bit of an unnecessary semantic issue to insist that the statement actually is referring to the degree to which an organism fits into a niche. Both definitions of fittest are contingent on the context provided by the environmental niche, and neither seems to me to be a superior definition.

      • Vandy Beth Glenn

        I don’t know what you mean by “genetic health and dominance,” Dylan, and I don’t know why you believe that is what is meant by “fitness” any more than “the degree to which an organism fits into a niche” is. I don’t think your definition is any more obviously correct than mine is.

        • Dylan Ringwood

          It’s just semantics… the athlete that won the race was the most fit, or the fittest, but we don’t say they were the best fit for the race. We say survival of the fittest, not survival of the best fit. Either way… I’m not suggesting one definition is better, I’m just saying that it seems to me that survival of the fittest did mean fitness in its commonly understood sense, and not in the sense of something being the best fit… like a hand in a glove.

          • Vandy Beth Glenn

            Well, going back to first principles, while Darwin didn’t coin the term, he seems to have used it the way Dr. Barstow (and I) have here:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest

            • Vandy Beth Glenn

              “Darwin first used Spencer’s new phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ alongside “natural selection” in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869,[2][3] intending it to mean ‘better designed for an immediate, local environment’.”

              Yeah, that’s from Wikipedia, but the citations are there. Dig down to them if you like; It’s not important enough to me.

          • It is not mere semantics. At best, the dialog from the show expresses a tautology using misleading words. What does “strong” mean? We’re not told. If you say, well it depends on the context/environment, sure, but that’s exactly the distinction that Vandy made that the show did not make.

            The words strong/weak have a lot of implications that are dangerous here. If I surveyed people asked them which is stronger, a shrew or a T-Rex, a 13-ton mammoth or a pelican; how many do you think would say, well golly it depends on the ecological context…? I think almost everyone would give the obvious answers. But the t-rex and mammoth lost. Or as the Extant kiosk would say, they were “weak”.

            But that isn’t right either. As Vandy pointed out, when an asteroid hits the Earth and the climate and ecologies radically change, faster than anything but microbes can evolve, then the survivors survive due to random luck of happening to have a phenotype compatible with a radically different world that no creature evolved fitness for. The shrew-like critters that beat the t-rexes and eventually became us were not “strong” nor had they evolved specifically to be fit in a post-asteroid world. They were just lucky.

            “Strength” even in the sense of fitness can ensure extinction as well. Sea urchins off the west coast went locally extinct after humans began killing their primary predator (sea otters). They over-exploited their own food source, kelp and all died. Were they weak by way of reproductive success and dominance of their ecosystem?

            • Dylan Ringwood

              All good points, and I agree the show did a poor job with the sloppy weak vs. strong stuff. I was thinking about evolutionary fitness in terms of within species competition. In that context it is rarely the weak or the unfit that survive. Anyway… I concede that both you and Vandy have made better points than I have. Cheers.

            • Thanks for your comments. I’m sure others probably were thinking the same thing, so I think it’s been a profitable exchange. cheers.

        • Dylan Ringwood

          My wife and I are now having this argument… I’m losing.

    • Tim Tian

      It’s not like evolution is a hard concept. The creatures that survive to puberty have babies, and the ones that survive most and have the most babies make more of themselves.

    • Joe G

      Polar bears do NOT have white fur.It appears white although it is transparent, with a hollow core. It’s the way the light scatters and reflects that makes it appear white Also biological fitness is a measure of reproductive success, meaning it is an after-the-fact assessment.

      • Vandy Beth Glenn

        I know polar bears’ fur is clear, not white, but it looks white to us, and more importantly, to the bears’ prey. That is to say, it looks like snow, which also isn’t white if you look at it close up.

        You’re making a distinction without a difference.

        • Joe G

          OK as long as you understand that the bear doesn’t have genes that produce white fur. Also it is just a story that brown bears migrated north and became white after many generations.

          There are bears that are white- white fur without being albino.

          • Vandy Beth Glenn

            There are white-not-albino examples of many species. They’re extremely rare, because outside snowy climates they’re at a selective disadvantage, unless they’re lucky enough to get hired by Siegfried and Roy. And that they have a selective disadvantage is exactly why I used them as an example. Are you making an actual argument here?

            And if it’s “just a story that brown bears migrated north and became white after many generations,” it’s one well-supported by genetic evidence, as described in this link:

            http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/arctic-bears/how-grizzlies-evolved-into-polar-bears/777/

            Unless you’re claiming they didn’t migrate north, but were already in the north, and evolved in situ to become better camouflaged in snow and better swimmers? That could well be the case, and I’ll cop to poor phrasing if it is, but I don’t think it harms my overall point.

            • Joe G

              Great, someone should be able to take a grizzly bear embryo, change the correct genes and eventually produce a polar bear. Unfortunately no one knows what genes to change nor what changes are required.

              Also a change in behaviour can overcome any presumed physical disadvantage. For example white crocs do not just skim across the top of the water, they attack from a deeper angle. This has been observed and recorded for TV even.

            • Vandy Beth Glenn

              Yes, scientists don’t yet know enough about the genomes of either bear species to be able to convert a grizzly bear embryo into a polar bear embryo. But there’s no reason to doubt that will one day be possible.

              But what would be the point of that? There are already polar bears. What are you getting at?

              And yes, individuals of a species can find ways to survive despite disadvantageous genetic traits, but they still will be unlikely to match the reproductive successes of their better-adapted relatives. They’re running to stay even, metaphorically speaking.

              If their variation from the norm made them more successful, eventually that variation would become dominant and the whole species (at least in that local biome) would eventually come to have that trait.

              Again, what’s the point in bringing up either of these factoids? Neither is responsive to my post, and they have nothing to do with either natural selection or the TV show.

            • David J Brown

              Nice defense, Vandy. I enjoyed the article and the toothpick example is very clever and effective.

            • Joe G

              Science says that grizzlies and polar bears share a common ancestor, not that polar bears evolved from brown bears- you do want to get the science correct, right?

            • Vandy Beth Glenn

              Science says polar bears did evolve from grizzly bears, and grizzlies and Kodiaks are both subspecies of the brown bear, Ursus arctos. My science is fine.

              You still haven’t explained why scientists should want to convert a grizzly bear embryo into a polar bear embryo, or what the survival strategies of individual white-not-albino crocodiles has to do with natural selection.

      • Jarrod Hart

        Ah, but what is white? Polar bears tell us what white really is! Titania the most common white pigment, but it’s actually just tiny transparent crystals up close. Next you’ll tell me the froth on my beer’s not white, nor cotton, nor the Cliffs of Dover… all rely on light scattering, there is not ‘white’. You do realise you are commenting on an article about the importance of getting the science right, right?

        • Joe G

          But there are bears with actual white fur…

          • Jarrod Hart

            Hi Joe, white in that case is simply transparent at a smaller scale. Polar bear fur is white when seen from a distance, but transparent when viewed up close. Get close enough and all white things are revealed as transparent (I say transparent, not ‘clear’ because the light is scattered but not stopped/absorbed; it bounces around until it comes out again). Think or a rock of quartz, it can be white, or clear if the crystal is big enough…

    • Joe G

      BTW natural selection is a process of elimination:

      Mayr- “Natural selection- the process by which in every generation
      individuals of lower fitness get removed from the population”

      Ernst Mayr in “What Evolution Is” page 281:

      On natural selection being a pressure or force

      What is meant, of course, is simply that a
      consistent lack of success of certain phenotypes and their elimination from the
      population result in the observed changes in a population

      On the role of chance:

      The first step in selection, the
      production of genetic variation, is almost exclusively a chance phenomenon
      except that the nature of the changes at a given locus is strongly constrained.
      Chance plays an important role even at the second step, the process of
      elimination of the less fit individuals. Chance may be particularly important
      in the haphazard survival during periods of mass extinction.

      • just want the truth

        “Natural selection- the process by which in every generation
        individuals of lower fitness get removed from the population”

        This seems a strange statement. Replacing “fitness” with a paraphrase of the definition some have been arguing above we get: “the process by which in every generation individuals with a lower chance of not being removed from the population get removed from the population”.

        • Vandy Beth Glenn

          It’s not a useful description, really. In every generation, ALL individuals are removed from the population, regardless of their fitness. They’ll all die.

          It’s just that the better-adapted individuals will leave behind more descendants. That’s the only difference.

    • letsfightinglove

      Props for “go Magneto”.

      • Vandy Beth Glenn

        Ha! Thanks! I’d meant to make Magneto’s name a link to take readers to a page that explained his exceptionalist views, but forgot. I’m glad you got it anyway.

    • rev jim

      they are to busy making reality shows to worry about science

    • Angela Richter

      Excellent! Fantastic presentation!

    • Carrie Madigan

      I took that scene as very deliberate, that he was getting false information. Whether because the person who put the information in the robot docent was unaware or something else.

      • manuelroyal

        Carrie, that’s an interesting take on it. If that turned out to be the case, and later both the real science, and the reason for the disinformation, were made clear, I’d be impressed (with both your perceptiveness and the writers). Now I’m actually curious about the show.

        • Carrie Madigan

          It could simply be a stab at the current anti science climate in America. It takes place in the near future, perhaps it was a dig at people who generally don’t understand science, and that even in a museum you won’t be getting completely accurate information if the present situation doesn’t change.

    • lol1996

      I still remember Farscape’s performing a slingshot manoeuvre (gravity assist) at apogee.

    • manuelroyal

      Excellent piece, Vandy. I didn’t see the show because I was snobbishly offended by the promo that provided a definition for the word “extant”. In this case, it looks like my smug arrogance paid off in saving me a few hours spent on bad television.

      There are a lot of good science fiction writers around, who know their science, well enough to explain what’s known, and speculate intelligently on what we might discover. I don’t know why production companies don’t hire them more often (even if they’re not good with scripts, they should be in the room; tv shows are generally a collaborative writing effort anyway).

      If you’re going to hire Halle Berry and pay for a lot of special effects, it’s just as easy to film a good script as a poor one, and it’s the easiest part of production. (Why do we keep seeing $200 million movies with crappy scripts? I’m baffled.)

      • Vandy Beth Glenn

        Thank you for the praise!

    • ginckgo

      Excellent article! This just confirmed that I and my wife made the right decision after watching the pilot to give up on the show. My gut feeling was that this was going to focus much more on spiritual fantasy ‘phlebotinum’, rather than any respect for science.
      If I had actually watched the next episode with the evolution ‘description’ I would have thrown a table through the TV.

      • Vandy Beth Glenn

        Thank you!

        Phlebotinum?

        • Jack Dominey

          http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AppliedPhlebotinum

          I’m mildly surprised you didn’t know this. But then, I thought the term went back much further than Whedon’s tenure. For some reason I’ve connected it with Professor Irwin Corey.

          • Vandy Beth Glenn

            I’m surprised too, since I’ve heard all the Buffyverse commentaries. But since there are “phlebotomists,” I figured phlebotinum was also a real thing.

    • Rob Sykes

      the utter boredom of Extant got to me before the science gaffs could kick in…lol

    • Xander66

      Vandy Beth baby, you just get too deep into the weeds with this article. Extant is a TV program designed to entertain, not to teach evolution, science or history In short saying: “Homo sapiens came to Eurasia, where the Neanderthals lived, and they were better able to survive because they were stronger and smarter” is no worse than your claim that Polar bears have “white” fur. Both are incorrect, but one is simply trying to entertain while the other is just outright wrong.
      A person like you would be better served tuning into the Discovery Channel instead of trying to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. Your article rates a D-