The Definition of Evolution and its Use In Science Fiction

Kindra Coates
Date Written: April 11, 1997
Last Updated: March 15, 2000

Written for SSCI-2020: Science Seminar II
Taught by Dr. Phifer

Evolution, it is a word that everyone is saying lately, but no one seems to know what it exactly means. It is a subject that is being debated in schoolrooms, courtrooms, legislative halls, and scientific laboratories. Yet, does anyone participating in these debates fully understand the concept of biological evolution? Evolution is a major plot device in two classic science fiction works: Ringworld by Larry Niven and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. However, these two authors fictionalized concepts of evolution do not match the scientific definition of biological evolution.

Trying to find a definition for biological evolution, or more commonly known as just evolution, was a illuminating task. Once you begin to search for a concrete definition, you realize how differently we define the same word. In the class discussions of Ringworld and Childhood's End, personal concepts of what evolution is and what it is capable of fluctuated. No one's explanation matched anyone else's. Webster Handy College Dictionary defines biological evolution as: "the continuous modification of organic species; the steps in adaptation to environment." (Morehead 191)

Okay, that's sounds like an encompassing definition of evolution to me, but it needed support from another source. I found an article on the World Wide Web entitled "What is Evolution?" by Laurence Moran. He defines evolution as "a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations." (Moran 1) He supports this view with a lengthy quote from Douglas J. Futuyma's book Evolutionary Biology.

the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the mnetic material from one generation to the next. (Futuyma)
Another quote from Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, authors of Biology, 5th edition from Worth Publishers, further defines the idea of evolution.
In fact, evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next. (Curtis et al. 974)
This is more specific than Webster had been. Evolution is not merely a species adapting to an environment, but a species with a change in its genetic code.

I turned to the National Academy of Sciences. They had put together a little book titled Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, discussing the debate between scientists and Creationists. They point out a few historical facts about the use of the word "evolution."

Evolution was first used as a biological term in 1670 to describe the changes observed in the maturation of insects. However, it was not until the 1873 edition of The Origin of Species that Darwin first applied the term. (Science 14)

The Origin of Species was first published in 1859. Science and Creationism also shows that the misunderstandings over and about evolution occur because people are talking about two different things. You have evolution as Moran defined it earlier: "a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations." (1) This is shown through changes in the phenotypes, or visible traits. Everyone is willing to admit that species adapt and change, and have since they first came into being, which is the definition from Webster Handy College Dictionary. The second large chunk of the evolution debate is the "how does evolution work?" theories. When people like Creationists have a poor comprehension of evolution, it is usually with the mechanics of how evolution takes place and this poor comprehension conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. Even evolution scientist are unsure how evolution is works, and their theories are modifications on Darwin's natural selection and random genetic drift.

The idea of evolution conceptualized by Larry Niven in Ringworld does superficially match the scientific definition we have established. The puppeteers played god with the humans and kzinti species, manipulating natural selection through what seemed to be chance events to those two species. With kzinti, the puppeteers wanted a more docile race, one that was not so prone to declaring war on everyone.

"Our investigation of safe methods to exterminate the vicious, carnivorous kzinti showed that your species has a high potential, that you could conceivably be of use to us. We took steps to evolve you to the point where you could deal peaceably with races alien to you. Our methods were indirect, and very safe." (Niven 183)
Humans represented a different ideal. They were not a threat to the puppeteers.
"We sought to improve you genetically. But what should we improve? Not your intelligence. Intelligence is not your strength. Nor is your strength of self-preservation, nor your durability, nor your fighting talents."

"So you decided to make us lucky," said Louis. And he began to laugh. (Niven 185)

With the humans, the only thing they found to improve was human luck. They had good reasons.
"The decision was sensible. Your species has been incredibly lucky. Your history reads like a series of hair-breath escapes, from intraspecies atomicwar, from pollution of your planet with industrial wastes, from ecological upsets, from dangerously massive asteroids, from the vagaries of your mildly variable sun, and even from the Core explosion, which you discovered only by the merest accident. Louis, why are you still laughing?" (Niven 185)
A perfectly logical chain of reasoning, and most readers are chortling with the character Louis.

The problem with the traits that the puppeteers started selecting for is that you have no way of knowing if they are genetically-influenced. Evolution is a change in the gene frequency of a population from one generation to the next. We have no way of knowing if aggressiveness or luck is coded on alleles that could influence the phenotype. This is where Larry Niven's works drifts from scientific plausibility. But it is still an entertaining read.

Arthur C. Clarke's tale, Childhood's End, is frightening with the idea that the human race could be wiped out because its offspring becomes another species--practically another life-form. And what is responsible for this? Evolution, of course. The Overlords, a superior race of alien beings, bring peace and prosperity to Earth at last. They promised to reveal their true forms fifty years after they had arrived. When they do, mankind has successfully slough the old superstitions, so it is not shocked too horribly by the demon-forms the Overlords have in person. Belief in the supernatural and paranormal has all but disappeared, except that powers that have always fallen in the realm of the paranormal is what the offspring of the last generation of Homo Sapiens develop. Once they do develop these powers, they are no longer Homo Sapiens.

"I know what you saw: I was watching."

"I always suspected it. But Karellen promised that you'd never spy on us with your instruments. Why have you broken this promise?"

"I have not broken it. The Supervisor said that the human race would no longer be under surveillance. That is a promise we have kept. I was watching your children, not you."

It was several seconds before George understood the implications of Rashaverak's words. Then the color drained from his face.

"You mean?..." he gasped. His voice trailed away and he had to begin again. "Then what in God's name are my children?"

"That," said Rashaverak solemnly, "is what we are trying to discover." (Clarke 173-174)

The problem with Clarke's evolutionary theory is the rapid jump. Why do all the children suddenly within one generation mutate into another species? Clarke, with his character Karellen, claims it is through evolution.
"All earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic--instantaneous. It has already begun. You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of Homo sapiens." (Clarke 184)
How can it be through evolution? While it is true that intelligence and other mental powers are linked to the genes, is telepathy or telekinesis or astral projection? We do not know, so how can these traits be selected for or just randomly occur in every child born at the hundred year mark of the Overlords' stay? Chance is a strong manipulator of evolution, the change in gene frequencies of a population. But in Childhood's End, we are talking about billions of people in the population. That is some spectacular chance.
"In a few years, it [the change] will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You haven given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them--will never even be able to communicate with their minds. For what you will have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires or hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys--yet it is something wonderful, and you will have created it." (Clarke 184-185)
And with this development of a new species, we run into another related definition problem: the definition of a species. What is the exact classification of a species? How would this new being that the children have become reproduce and create offspring of itself? Those are questions for another paper, but they do help point out the flaws in Arthur C. Clarke's biology.

Both Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke twisted the definition of evolution to serve their plots. Which does not help the misunderstanding common people have about evolution, but does make the novels very entertaining. And in the end, we must remember that this is science fiction. There must be an element of science, no matter how faint, and it is a created reality.


  1. Morehead, Albert, and Loy Morehead, eds. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1981.
  2. Moran, Laurence. "What is Evolution?." The Talk Origins Archive, World Wide Web. definition.html 1993
    A). Futuyma, Douglas J. Evolutionary Biology. Sinauer Associates, 1986.
    B). Curtis, Helena, and N. Sue Barnes. Biology, Fifth edition. Worth Publishers, 1989.
  3. Committee on Science and Creationism. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984.
  4. Niven, Larry. Ringworld. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.
  5. Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood's End. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953, 1990.

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