Thursday, October 8, 2009

Triumph of the Lazy

At the age of eight or nine, I used to watch science fiction reruns with my Dad on PBS, which is very important to me because it was something we used to have together, just like the New York Mets.

It was around age eight or nine I saw reruns of a Doctor Who serial on PBS, The Silurians. The basic premise of it was that an intelligent race evolved on earth before human beings, and thus have a moral right to the earth. It was another one of those stories that has a heroic scientist opposing a reactionary military that wants to eliminate an "alien" threat. So far, so good.

Supposedly, the intelligent race was named "The Silurians" because supposedly that was the time their civilization rose and evolved.

What a darn weird choice for a time to set the evolution of a land-dwelling intelligent race! The Silurian era lasted until 440 million years ago. The dominant life forms of this period were jawless lamprey-like fishes (true fishes only showed up near the end) and freaky sea scorpions. Leeches and coral reefs first showed up at this time, and there were. NO. Land. Animals!

When I first saw that serial at age eight, I had a few picture-heavy kids' science books about the history of life. Even from this information-lite, low-density medium, at age eight, I knew there were no land animals on earth at the time there was supposed to have been an intelligent, evolved race on earth.

This sounds like such a silly science-geek nitpick, but this error always bothered me because it was so unforgiveably lazy. In almost any encyclopedia, the first thing they say about the Silurian era is that reptiles and amphibians had to wait. Couldn't the guys that wrote this have cracked open even a kids' illustrated science book? Especially when they're writing a science fiction series?

I suppose what bugs me about this is not so much that they got a science error, which is understandable and actually par the course for science fiction TV. It's just the error showed such a type of incuriousness, one easily corrected with at least a minimal five second act of research.

To the blog readers, I guess this is my point: next time you have a question or want to know something, do me a favor and look it up. It can be in the library, or hell, even Wikipedia. This kind of intellectual incuriousness and laziness has to be fought.

Heck, I'm not going to get all high and mighty here: Wikipedia is a great tool if you want to know something fast and right now. If you need to go in depth, not so much. If I read an article in a science mag that mentions Bose-Einstein Condensates, and I'm not sure what that is, I can pop something in a search and get a brief answer.

To the producers of Dr. Who...guys - ask me!

I can think of a half-dozen possible places in earth's history where an intelligent life form could have evolved on this planet prior to human beings.

Take the latter part of the Permian era, for example, at the end of the Paleozoic. It's totally farfetched to expect large brains from jawless fishes or amphibians, but the Permian was the era of mammal-like reptiles that had physiologies that could feed and support large brains. Like Dimetrodon above, who lived millions of years before the dinosaurs and was actually more closely related to mammals than the dinosaurs' thecodont ancestors.

(Incidentally, to those silly creationists that insist there are no "transitional fossils," I have personally witnessed, with my own two eyes, two evolutionary biologists get into a fistfight over whether a fossil is of a mammal-like reptile or a reptile-like mammal!)

What's more, the Permian era had a big sexy mass extinction - the biggest in earth's history, in fact, one that made the end of the dinosaurs look like an underachiever in comparison. If any could have covered a lost civilization, it'd be that one.


  1. Yeah, but what a cool name Silurians is! Permian sounds like they should have awesomely curled hair.

  2. Ah, I agree, they probably chose that time based on the name. Which is proof positive that a little knowledge is worse than none...just look at the 9/11 truthers!