Three years ago, I wrote an essay for Free Inquiry titled “Thank You, Science” (February/March 2006). I thanked science for orthodontia that straightened my crooked teeth and for antibiotics, without which I would have died of pylenophritis at thirty-three. On behalf of womankind generally, I thanked science for reliable birth control. This scientific innovation has done more to liberate women than all the words feminists have ever spoken, written, or contributed to bumper stickers. (Well-behaved scientists rarely make history either.)
Now, I’d like to thank science fiction. After all, science is almost always science fiction first, beginning as a twinkle in a scientist’s eye, long before its embryonic condition is even acknowledged, long before it becomes “real” science. And that is not such a grand observation. Once conceived, tempting scientific ideas do not remain orphans for long. Most people know this, and many have even come to fear this. The dilemma is mythical, perhaps an integral part of our species’ persona. The apple looks tasty, but could it be deadly? Once there is no turning back, might we wish we had contented ourselves with safer, blander fruit?
Lately, science-fiction movies seem to be echoing this fear. They might once have planted and watered the seeds of fanciful ideas, but they are now telling us not to pick the apples at all. In the film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (2007), a brilliant doctor cures cancer by introducing an engineered measles virus into the population. But alas, a few years later, the virus mutates into a lethal strain that wipes out 90 percent of humanity. (The accountable doctor’s name is Krippen, perhaps a wink to those familiar with the murderous Dr. Crippen of 1910.) And who can forget The Day After Tomorrow, one of Yahoo!’s “Top 10 Scientifically Inaccurate Movies”? In this indulgent “climate porn,” over a few hours Mother Nature smites us Earth-raping humans with devastating meteorological consequences that in real life would require centuries to unfold. The theme, recurring more and more in science-fiction movies, is familiar and clearly reproving: leave well enough alone! If you do something in order to improve the human condition, you will inadvertently make the situation worse, you myopic meddler!
To be fair, good storytelling requires conflict. Of course something has to go wrong. Traditionally, what goes wrong in science fiction is the result of politics. But dystopia-by-science is now more fashionable, and return-to-Eden Luddism (instead of just better science) is most often presented as the logical savior. At times, even unapologetically Christian preachiness seeps into the science-gone-bad cautionary tale. In television’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, biblical references have become so woven into the plot that one wonders whether Mel Gibson appointed the writing team. During the course of the second season, we learn that the terminators’ greatest vice is not their inability to empathize but their godlessness. A hunky and heroic FBI agent (the transcendent Richard T. Jones) suggests that the wayward robots learn the Ten Commandments, and in a later scene he teaches a murderous terminator that human life is sacred because God created it. Again, the message is clear: see what happens when you try to “play God,” you vain scientists?
Whether religious or secular, such Faustian paranoia stalls science. It recasts science fiction as a sort of modern passion play, insofar as its purpose is to vilify a selected target and then reenergize the audience. It leads us to believe that whenever a risk is identified (and there will always be risks, in science and in life) we should err on the side of caution—that is, inaction. It also represents two converse variations of the same fallacy: anthropomorphizing—really deifying—nature. On the one hand, we tend to overestimate nature’s kindness: she will take care of us; we must only be patient. Sam Harris exposes this seductive version of the naturalistic fallacy in his short essay, “Mother Nature Is Not Our Friend.”* On the other hand, if nature is not benevolent but rather a fickle and domineering bitch, we must avoid pissing her off. In this incarnation, she hates intruders; she punishes those who mess with her design.
Of course, nature doesn’t “punish” tinkering anymore than she “rewards” passivity. Nature doesn’t care in any human sense of the word. Trying to change nature does not represent the greatest arrogance. Real hubris is the belief that nature cares about you, has intentions for you, or disapproves of your actions in the first place. We are simply not that important. Paradoxically, contemporary science fiction would benefit from a bit more humility on the one hand and a bit less self-deprecation on the other.
But all is not lost. One underappreciated sub-genre wastes no time chiding its own protagonist. Unlike their morose counterparts, comedic science-fiction movies are less concerned with “be careful what science you wish for” melodrama. My favorite (I have been warned not to admit this) is Demolition Man. This 1993 social satire depicts an antiseptic, politically correct world in which the foul-mouthed are fined for using curse words, aggressive men are reprogrammed to knit, and fornicators have only virtual sex (thus avoiding the unpleasantness of fluids). Here, science is not the enemy; neo-prudery is. Likewise, 2006’s Idiocracy blames stupidity and laziness, not science, for the future’s failings. Science fiction certainly can be pro-science. It can even be funny.
It is all too easy to criticize scientific lust from the balustrade of the twenty-first century. Like spoiled children, we can enjoy the fruits of our ancestors’ labors—all the while sourly blaming science and technology for everything from restless leg syndrome to species extinction. But had scientists left well enough alone, many of us would not have seen our third birthdays, much less our thirty-third.
So, to my original expression of gratitude, an addendum: Thank you, science fiction—science fiction, that is, that makes science cool. Thank you for extolling the virtues—not exploiting the fears—of Promethean progress. And, whenever possible, thank you for inspiring real-life scientists to make fiction a positive reality.
* This essay was Sam Harris’s answer to the Edge Foundation’s World Question for 2008, “What have you changed your mind about?”