Creationism in Science Fiction: Artistic freedom or anti-science?


In the late 90s and early 2000s science fiction fans such as myself had a bit of a hard time. As happy as I was when the last few years brought, amongst others, the amazingly crafted science fiction spectacles Battlestar Galactica (2004) and the long anticipated Alien prequel Prometheus (2012), the more disappointed I became when I realised that both events based their storylines heavily on creationism.

Now one might argue that these are works of art and therefore subject to artistic freedom, and generally I do agree. But then again, that wouldn’t be much of a blog post. So let me describe why this is not only such a disappointment, but also cause for a bit of a tummy ache.

First of all, science fiction is not an art form as such but rather a movement within different artistic disciplines. Lots of disciplines use elements from science fiction. It appears in classic literature such as the works of Jules Verne, and the myriad of other authors following his footsteps, and on the silver screen with the most prominent works being Star Trek and Star Wars. More recently (and not surprisingly) science fiction is prominent in computer games and even in music, especially within electronic music with the best example surely being the robot outfits of French house legends, Daft Punk.

Within all these different art forms there must be a common ground, something that can give such different expressions as sound, word or interaction a common name. So what unites all these art forms under the science fiction umbrella? The most straightforward term that we might could come up with is ‘future’, but that would be too simple. Remember that Star Wars took place ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far away’, but no one would refute that it is one of the defining works of science fiction. I think that the most important element in science fiction is exploration: take the now, look at our social, scientific and technological achievements and make a step forward. Imagine what could happen, imagine a Utopia, a Dystopia, or a world not so different from our own. It can take place on different worlds or on our own home planet. The defining element is that it is a fictional continuation of our current knowledge, exploring whatever implications the creator of the work wants to explore.

And there lies my problem with Creationism. In order to explore the future consequences of our current state-of-art, we must get the state-of-art right. Among the science fiction fans I know it is usually accepted that the general premise in science fiction is theoretically possible, given the knowledge at the time. Of course not everything has to be realistic: the Force in Star Wars adds a mystical element, and that is completely acceptable since it is defined as mystical within the original movies. However, when Prometheus takes an intelligent design approach, it sets an anti-science premise, and builds a future from it, giving the impression that intelligent design is a scientifically valid theory. Battlestar Galactica goes even one step further, bringing God directly into play as the creator. While one could consider this as an example of the previously mentioned mystical element, albeit in a somewhat convoluted way, the story of the show managed to completely mix up mysticism and hard science in a way that is nearly impossible to disentangle, especially for the viewers who do not have a background in science. (It is beyond this blog to summarise the story of a four seasons show, so for the readers interested in more detail I recommend the following essay by Brad Templeton.)

Using creationism or intelligent design as a creator of works of science fiction has two consequences: it disappoints those fans, such as myself, that have a background in science and it gives those fans who do not have a scientific background a false impression of realism associated with creationism, spreading anti-science further.

Of course this is a personal opinion, but I stand to it when I say that creating a work of science fiction should always take the science on which it is based seriously, whether that be promoting a technological future or warning about its perils.

Author: Jesko Zimmerman, zimmerjr[at]

Image Source: Wikicommons

Science be praised, please cure me of my Yoda Complex

My former PhD student, Luke McNally and I authored a paper published recently showing how “Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception”. Using a combination of mathematical models and analysis of empirical data from 24 primate species, we show that acts of deception are more likely to occur when the individuals in the group show greater cooperation. In other words, deception and cooperation go hand-in-hand. Perhaps not a surprising result, as Rob Brooks recently pointed out in a very accurate and nice blog post on our paper, but the evolutionary forces that might maintain deception in society have not been previously described.

We have enjoyed some media coverage with this paper, including some international science slots, a bit of national radio and Rob’s blog post. I take some mixed pleasure in the fact that a creationist website picked up on both our paper and Rob’s post. Its something of a tongue-in-cheek achievement to have caught their eye given my total opposition to creationism in all its forms. I’m also quite proud to have earned a “Darwin baloney” award (which I might add to my website as a badge of honour assuming I’m not infringing copyright). Im also intrigued to have the mental disorder “Yoda Complex” bestowed upon me by this group, even if it is not the Urban Dictionary definition but rather their own invention because “because we thought of it independently” (Editor’s comment in So happy with this flattery than I now tweet under @yodacomplex.

Ordinarily I would steer clear of getting sucked into arguing with such groups, but their article just annoys me. I’m even more annoyed that I can’t reply to their post on their site without signing into their site, and registering with them is a bridge too far. Equally frustrating is their anonymity which makes directing my counter-arguments somewhat indirect.

The consequence of their argument is that “if lying evolved… how are readers to know who is telling the truth?”  which leads them to the title “evolutionists confess to lying”  (

The basis of their argument goes:

“Imagine a liar so skilled, he convinces his listeners that he is 100% against the worst dishonesties in politics, public relations and propaganda.  He tells you he wants to achieve enormous social good to provide a better understanding of how lying evolves.  Now, add to it that he is self-deceived.  Doesn’t his credibility implode?  How could one possibly believe a word he says?”

How can one believe what a person says? This is exactly why we have science. Our results are open for all to examine and check. The results might be incorrect (but we are confident in our analyses), but until someone shows us exactly where we have gone wrong, then we can take them as being a true and fair reflection of our study system. Our mathematical model shows under what circumstances deception (lying) can be sustained in an evolutionary sense in any society subject to a cooperative based reward system (in this case a system governed by the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma). The prediction from the model is that mechanisms that might enforce cooperation (such as only cooperating with other co-operators and spurning those who cheat) create a niche where lying can profit and proliferate. Our analysis of data from 24 primate species backs up our theoretical model, showing that the more likely a species is to engage in cooperative acts, the more likely deception is to occur in their society.

The creationist author goes on to make a major error in interpreting the whole basis of the study of the evolution of social behaviour.

“In the evolutionary world, there is no essential difference between cooperation and deception.  It’s only a matter of which side is in the majority at the moment.”

This is just plain incorrect, and is the entire basis for their spurious argument. In the study of social behaviour (irrespective of evolution) there is indeed a fundamental difference between cooperation and deception (although I think they really mean defection here, with deception being a means to hide ones defection in the wording of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma). In the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, and related games like the Snowdrift Game, cooperation is the act of assisting another individual so as to share a reward. Defection on the other hand is the act of cheating on the other person in the game so as to walk away with the entire reward for themselves. It is absolutely not a “majority” based definition. Deceivers in our model try to trick co-operators so as to walk away with their share too by convincing them that they intend to cooperate. The kool-aid scenario that follows in that blog post is just not relevant since it invokes a semantic argument about how the players choose to define cooperation and defection that is simply not present in these evolutionary models of social behaviour. All the author has done is to flip the labels of co-operators and defectors. The outcome of their scenario would be that the poisoners (who are actually the defectors as per any sensible definition of their behaviour in cooperative game) would kill all the co-operators leaving only themselves. Indeed, this matches the fundamental prediction of the evolutionary models which offer “defect all the time” as a consistent stable end-game scenario. It is the goal of most evolutionary studies of social behaviour to learn what mechanisms exist in societies that mean we don’t get stuck here, since it is clear that many primates, including humans, have a much more cooperative society than that depressing outlook.

“Since all these evolutionists believe that lying evolved as a fitness strategy, and since they are unable to distinguish between truth and lies, they essentially confess to lying themselves.  Their readers are therefore justified in considering them deceivers, and dismissing everything they say, including the notion that lying evolved.”

This is the rather annoying consequence of their incorrect logical arguments. We can and do distinguish very clearly in our models and reasoning between truth and lies – at least in these models we do. Also, just because we point out that lying can have an evolutionary selective advantage (which is hardly surprising), surely doesn’t make us liars? I can’t see what the mechanism there could possibly be.

Just to end, I have to say that it is really difficult not to ridicule this type of article. The reasoning is just so off-the-wall, based on a manipulation of what science is all about, and with a really nefarious motivation running through it of debunking science for the true believers. I did laugh, I did sneer, (and I did take @yodacomplex as a twitter account, and I love it); but, I have tried here to avoid sneering since they use that against us (see the comments under their article). In fairness though, giving us a “Darwin Baloney” logo, and administering a mental health disorder on us (even if they made it up themselves) is pretty much name calling and sneering in my book – even if I am rather flattered to have acquired their attention.


Andrew Jackson @yodacomplex

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Intelligent Design: Part Three – Dr Alistair Noble’s ‘The Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design’: the review


I would like to say that the talk presented a range of evidence for intelligent design and carefully countered the usual arguments against it. I would like to say this, but I can’t. The talk, which lasted over one hour, spent much of the time quoting non-scientists and misquoting scientists, painting ID proponents as martyrs to the cause and science as tautologically incapable of addressing questions of design. The religious beliefs of ID proponents were constantly referred to, despite supposedly being completely irrelevant, which was an indication that this was, after all, a religious proposition not a scientific one.

It would be easy to question the credentials of Dr Alistair Noble (PhD in chemistry) and ask how someone who has been outside of scientific academia longer than I have been alive can claim to have found fundamental flaws that no working biologist has been able to find, but I won’t. Instead, I have tried to focus on the claims of Dr Noble and see if they can be answered (see my last blog post).

There is much more that I could have said. The case for evolution is so strong that I could go on for hours about the evidence from multiple disciplines that support it. It seems that the same cannot be said for intelligent design. Dr Noble spent about 15 minutes of his (more than) one hour talk providing evidence which can be easily refuted by anyone who has even a basic understanding of evolutionary theory. His ‘evidence’ ultimately boiled down to an Argument from Incredulity with a side helping of the Argument from Authority.

I was disappointed by the lack of scientific rigor Dr Noble exhibited. Not one journal article was presented, not a single claim that hasn’t been refuted multiple times before. I had hoped for an intellectually stimulating talk that would force me to question my understanding of evolutionary theory but instead I was confronted with the same, tired claims that have been presented by ID proponents for years now. It is a shame that Dr Noble could not have used his clearly considerable intellect to study the actual science and see that evolutionary theory is not a threat to his faith but is an amazingly simple yet profound explanation into how the diversity of life arose.


Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]

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Intelligent Design: Part Two – Dr Alistair Noble’s ‘The Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design’: the claims


A lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on” (Mark Twain, attributed).

In my previous post I gave some background on intelligent design, the theme of a talk I recently attended by  Dr Alistair Noble. This time, I’ll try and address his claims.

It is easy to say something that is not true. It is not always so easy to explain why it is not true. Such is my problem here. I can summarise Dr Noble’s arguments into a few sentences, but it takes paragraphs to explain why they are wrong. Here goes!

His argument centered around DNA. Dr Noble’s background in chemistry, specifically in trying to artificially synthesise chemicals, showed him how difficult it was to make even simple molecules. He explained his problems with DNA and used two specific examples to illustrate his argument: the bacterial flagellum and cytochrome C. His arguments were essentially:

  1. they look designed
  2. they are too complex to have arisen by chance


The design argument can be easily refuted. Apparent design does not mean actual design. Humans are extremely good at seeing things where they do not exist, like shapes in clouds and Jesus on burnt toast. This is a well-known psychological phenomena called paradolia and can lead us to see design where none exists.

The second claim requires a bit more care. DNA, the bacterial flagellum and Cytochrome C are all highly complex and could not have evolved by chance. In fact, as Dr Noble so carefully illustrated, Cytochrome C would have taken longer than the lifetime of the universe to arise by chance. So if they did not arise by chance then they must have arisen by design, surely? Well, no.

This conclusion can only be made if you have a deep misunderstanding of evolution. At a very basic level random mutations occur which may be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to an individual. Then natural selection ‘selects’ those mutations which are beneficial and ‘rejects’ those that the detrimental. Small changes over long timescales lead to big changes, mutations can build on each other and can be co-opted to other functions. The bacterial flagellum is a perfect example, with studies showing how molecules were co-opted from other functions to form the flagella. At no point was there a useless proto-flagellum.

ID proponents, including Dr Noble, focus on the random aspect of evolution but completely ignore the selection part, which is arguably the more important aspect. If there were no natural selection then their claims would be valid, but its presence provides a beautifully simple explanation of how complex molecules, complex biological components, and even complex organisms could arise.

Next time, my review of the talk.


Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]

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Intelligent Design: Part One – a brief explanation and history


Trinity College Theological Society recently held a talk by Dr Alistair Noble titled ‘A Scientific Case for Intelligent Design’ which I attended as, possibly, the only biologist in the room. It was a fascinating, if deeply frustrating, experience. Before I get into the details of the talk, a brief explanation of intelligent design may be necessary. . .

Intelligent design (ID) is the ‘theory’ that certain features of the universe, including life, are best explained by invoking a creator. I put ‘theory’ in quotes because in a scientific theory is a very particular beast. It must have both explanatory and predictive powers. For example, the theory of evolution by natural selection explains how life evolved and can also be used to make predications about life that can be tested. The ‘theory’ of intelligent design has little explanatory power (“the designer did it”) and makes no predictions. As such, it is held with little esteem within the scientific community.

Outside the scientific community, however, there are some who hold ID in very high esteem. They think that it is a credible scientific theory and there have been many attempts, particularly in the U.S., to have ID taught in schools as a counter to evolution. This is deeply worrying to those who care about scientific literacy but has to be tackled carefully.

The reason for such caution is that ID is most loudly promoted by religious groups who feel that the theory of evolution is anathema to their beliefs and as such must be countered. In the past they countered with Creationism, but in recent years they have tried to remove the explicit religious overtones of Creationism, removing God, replacing him with an unspecified ‘designer’ and calling the new theory ‘intelligent design’. Thus the debate around ID is not just a scientific debate but is also a religious debate involving deeply held personal beliefs.

I hold the opinion that your personal beliefs are yours, and are no concern of mine, but when you try and mess with science, well, that’s another story! I went to the talk as I was curious to hear the scientific evidence for ID. Would it persuade me that there was a case for ID? . . .



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