The Intersection

I have already confessed to you about a serious, debilitating weakness of mine: I like to watch crap action movies to let my mind rejuvenate itself after I’ve been working for a while. I don’t care how bad they are, as long as they’re well produced, and as long as they allow me to escape. Some people do drugs. I do DVDs.

And so it was that I recently found myself watching a recently released movie called The Cave. Here’s the film’s website. And now allow me to spoil the plot: It’s about experienced cave divers who take on a gig in Romania that winds up being more dangerous than even they could have imagined (and cave divers take insane risks regularly as it is). You see, a few decades earlier, a group of people were sealed in this cave, and through some means–it’s not clear, something allegedly involving a “parasite”–they started evolving. Super rapidly. Suddenly, within a matter of decades, these human beings had turned into huge, flying, swimming versions of the creature from Alien, with adaptive echolocation to boot. And when the cave divers swim into their lair, well….you can imagine. Yum yum.

The movie dresses all of this up in scientific language, trying to take itself seriously on the subject of evolution. And in fact, it plays right into a common popular misunderstanding: That “evolution” means that creatures in new environments suddenly develop whatever attribute it is that they need to get by. Otherwise known as Lamarckism.

In fact, of course, we know that evolution does not simply give you whatever you need in a pinch–mutations are random, and most are harmful to boot. And the larger the scale of the mutation, the more likely it is to be deleterious. So it’s no surprise that what happens in The Cave is scientifically impossible–but what’s more interesting is how common it is for such misunderstandings of evolution to sprout up in popular culture.

A couple of years ago I wrote a Washington Post commentary about the film X-2: X-Men United, which also misunderstands evolution in a similar way: The mutant X-Men simply spring into being, suddenly and miraculously, their powers already fully formed and intact. In a sense, a similar misunderstanding of evolution was also depicted in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum descends into a cave and comes out years later a totally different creature, having adapted to his surroundings. (Of course, that was a fantasy story, magic was involved, and no scientific-sounding evolutionary mechanism was explicitly mentioned, so it’s somewhat less analogous.)

In one sense, I guess we should be glad that evolution has made its way into popular culture, even in a bastardized form. But in another sense, I can’t help wondering whether a poor popular understanding of science feeds into these widely broadcast misunderstandings of what evolution is and how it works.


  1. #1 JY
    January 11, 2006

    In fact, of course, we know that evolution does not simply give you whatever you need in a pinch–mutations are random, and most are harmful to boot.

    Mutations are random, but most are silent or neutral, not harmful.

  2. #2 Scott
    January 11, 2006

    I understand your frustration concerning accurate representation of evolution in films. However, consider this. I am a manager in an unnamed government agency. There are 57 employees both managers and craft and I am the ONLY one who reads science or grasps the simple concepts of evolution. When I ask them about this, the most common response is “who cares…that is for the science people”. My best guess is that 78% of the general public is totally ignorant of all aspects of science in all fields and they do not recognize why it should concern them in the least. So, just be glad that the drug addled directors in “Holly I Betcha Would” are even making movies with inaccurate science.

  3. #3 Walter
    January 11, 2006

    Bad science in B-movies doesn’t concern me: That’s part of the reason we consider them B-movies. I’m more concerned about bad science masquerading in “docudramas” on the Discovery Channel and other such networks. Particularly worrisome for me are the CGI specials depicting “living” dinosaurs and other prehisotric animals, which misrepresent what scientists know about dinosaur behavior. I always wondered whether certain viewers get a little jaded after learning that, no, we don’t know if these dinosaurs herded, or, no, we don’t know if these dinosaurs took care of their young. “But I saw it on TV!” OK, maybe I’m overplaying its importance, but the producers of these shows should go out of their way to distinguish what is science and what is speculation.

  4. #4 Megan McCullen
    January 12, 2006

    Yeah, I think most of the folks who watch B-movies appreciate and enjoy their scientific failings. As for the Discovery Channel, I was just discussing this with someone the other day. I was concerned about a current Criminal Profiler trying to interpret death in Ancient Egypt, and my friend was concerned over those CGI shows about mythical creatures…if you miss the first 10 minutes, you miss the mythical explanation, and people start believing in dragons.

    I would recommend The Smithees for those who enjoy these kinds of films though. They give awards for bad movies, including a Worst Science award. Apparently the 1997 winner, Creation of the Humanoids has an interesting interpretation of evolution.

  5. #5 plunge
    January 12, 2006

    Geez Chris, come on. Gollum is warped by his long possession of the Ring, which over time twists people, “thins” their vitality, and drags them permanently into the shadowy realm Frodo sees when he puts on the Ring. No hint of evolution, just magic.

    Don’t you know how magic works? You must have flunked “Magical Dynamics 101” in high school.

  6. #6 Boronx
    January 12, 2006

    WRT Gollum, there was the development of his gigantic lamp-like eyes.

  7. #7 Matthew McIrvin
    January 12, 2006

    A quibble: Most mutations are neutral, neither harmful nor beneficial. Or so I understand.

  8. #8 Harold
    January 12, 2006

    The concept of ‘evolution’ predates Darwin and is confused (or used to be synonymous with) ‘progress’, i.e., improvement, as in survival of the ‘fittest’, which to the popular mind means ‘best’– when it should mean ‘fit to the (often changing) environment’.

    Natural selection and adaptation are better terms.

  9. #9 Ginger Yellow
    January 13, 2006

    To be honest, I think there are more considerably more serious issues with the science, and even the evolutionary theory, of X-Men, than just the instantaneous appearance of the powers.

  10. #10 OwnedByTwoCats
    January 13, 2006

    Even more problematic is the persistent, pernicious notion that evolution operates on individuals. That if I were to be trapped in a cave, I would evolve to have….

    Nosireebob, that’s not the way it works. You are what you are. Your offspring are pretty much the same as you, but a little different. The offspring that are more fit for the environment survive and reproduce offspring like themselves, with another round of variation.

    But me? I stay with the genes I was born with.

  11. #11 Shan
    March 2, 2006

    Analagous! Haha, that’s a good pun.

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