Out of Eden
From the October 2011 issue of Panic Moon. As ever, lightly edited and titivated… ‘cos I just can’t help tinkering.
When Doctor Who talks about evolution, it doesn’t usually bother getting the facts right. ‘Evolution of the Daleks’, for instance, seems to think species change when genes mutate morally because of lightning bolts. Such ideas go right back to ‘The Daleks’, in which the two races on Skaro have changed totally in mere “hundreds of years” of mutation, with the warrior Thals becoming natural pacifists in the process. (Incidentally, it’s ironic that this supposedly anti-Nazi parable speaks of blonde, blue-eyed, athletic specimens as “refined” and “perfect”.)
Real evolution does involve mutations, but they’re not sudden and drastic as depicted in, to pick another example, ‘The Mutants’. Instead we’re talking about tiny replication errors in genetic code which are preserved or rejected by natural selection, leading to big changes over very long periods. This creates staggering variety on our planet alone. However, most aliens in the Doctor Who universe look like British actors, which (accidentally) implies that the humanoid shape is a universal pinnacle or goal of evolution. Again, real evolution teaches us the opposite. There’s nothing “perfect” about humans. We’re no ‘better evolved’ than worms. Species succeed when they fit their niches. ‘Full Circle’ alone understands this. The Alzarians are humanoid only because they evolved to fit inside the Starliner.
Doctor Who has sometimes been sceptical of such human hubris. In ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, humans encounter ‘advanced’ reptiles who see them as errant apes. ‘Inferno‘ implies that snarling beasts lurk beneath the lab coat or uniform. ‘The Invisible Enemy’ equates the “Great Break Out” of humanity with a viral epidemic. In ‘The Ark in Space’, the Doctor praises humans as “indomitable”, but the Wirrn confront humanity with a lethal reflection of the same evolutionary urge to survive and inherit the Earth.
‘The Ark in Space’ retells the Old Testament myth of the flood. ‘Genesis of the Daleks‘ also adapts the book of… well, Genesis. Both stories are about species changing, about them subsuming and defeating other species. But ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is also fundamentally about creations disobeying their creator. Hence the lack of scientific accuracy: the science isn’t the real interest of the storytellers. Instead, evolution takes on religious connotations. This is understandable. Evolution, as a scientific origin story, thrives in the gap in the cultural ecology left by the decline of religion. And, like much science-fiction, Doctor Who uses scientific and technological idioms to retell myths and legends.
‘Genesis of the Daleks’ also reiterates original sin: the Daleks are cursed by their genes to be bad. Mutations of morality again! This sort of thing mirrors tabloid stories about ‘genes for crime’, but Doctor Who has also tackled reactionary appropriations of evolution. ‘Survival’ critiqued Thatcherism by exploring what happens when the values of ruthless Darwinian competition are applied to society. The term ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined by Herbert Spencer, a 19th century pioneer of libertarianism. …