What Star Trek Can Teach Us about Genetics and Evolution

Author discusses his new book, “Live Long and Evolve,” Sept. 16 and 18 in Durham

Duke biology professor Mohamed Noor uses Star Trek to make evolutionary science more accessible in his new book, “Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek Can Teach Us about Evolution, Genetics, and Life on Other Worlds”
Duke biology professor Mohamed Noor uses Star Trek to make evolutionary science more accessible in his new book, “Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek Can Teach Us about Evolution, Genetics, and Life on Other Worlds”

Why do Vulcans look so much like us? Could 'mutations' induced by breaking the “Warp 10” speed barrier rapidly transform a person into a bizarre man-salamander? And how well does the romance between the different alien races in the Star Trek universe match what scientists know about how one species splits into two, and what keeps them distinct?

Duke biologist and die-hard Trek fan Mohamed Noor explores the answers to these and other questions in his new book, “Live Long and Evolve,” a fact-filled guide to some of the real-world scientific principles underlying Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi franchise.

Along the way, Noor finds a good deal of science fact in this science fiction. “It’s always easy to use science to say, oh, that’s stupid,” Noor said. “But I try to challenge people to try to find a way that maybe it could work.”

Most biology professors don't teach the concept of natural selection with a mention of the rapidly-proliferating “nanite” robots on the USS Enterprise-D, or explain asexual reproduction with a reference to the sex lives of tribbles.

But Noor is on a mission to use the popularity of science fiction to make genetics and evolution more accessible and fun. In Noor’s book, a Klingon’s ridged forehead isn’t just a piece of foam rubber and latex with a fancy paint job. It’s also a fine way to show how dominant traits are passed on to offspring.

The theory of evolution is a controversial one in the U.S. But not so in the Star Trek series, Noor says, which “wholly embraces” the scientific consensus that all living things are related, and descended from a common ancestor.

Each of his book’s six chapters takes on a fundamental concept or recent finding, ranging from misconceptions about evolution and natural selection to the roles of chance and horizontal gene transfer.

Why do so many of the aliens in Star Trek look like us? Noor asks. Sure, they may have crinkled noses, pointy ears or bumpy foreheads, but basically they’re just goofy-looking humans. In chapter two, Noor uses ideas about the origin of life and convergent evolution to explore whether and why "humanoid" aliens might exist on other worlds, besides the obvious need for relatable characters played by human actors.

An award-winning educator best known for his research on speciation in fruit flies, Noor isn’t out to nitpick the series. Though he does take issue with an episode in the Original Series in which Spock implies that we are “more evolved” than amoebas. “We think of ourselves as ‘higher’ life forms,” Noor said, but we can’t photosynthesize like plants, or shapeshift like amoebas.

To research the book, Noor watched roughly a third of the 700-plus TV episodes and 14 movies in the Star Trek series, logging hundreds of hours of viewing time. In addition to re-watching many episodes, he also read through the episode scripts online, searching for specific references -- sometimes using non-standard terms -- to topics such as the definition or origin of life, genetics, evolutionary processes, reproduction and hybridization.

Noor says his family “put up with endless dinner-table discussions about interesting tidbits I discovered while researching the science in the book.”

His book isn’t just for hardcore Trekkies. The scenes are described in enough detail that even the uninitiated can still get the gist.

Noor will discuss his new book “Live Long and Evolve” at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16 at Barnes & Noble at The Streets at Southpoint, 8030 Renaissance Pkwy, and also at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham, 723 Rigsbee Ave.