Movie Science (part 3)
Thus far we’ve discussed microscopes, space and faster-than-light travel. What a journey! And it’s not over yet, oh no. This time we’ll be delving into the murky depths of genetics and evolution: two related topics but not necessarily the same thing. But try telling film-makers that.
This installment will be more like a crash course in genetics/evolution peppered with general examples of where movies steer you wrong. Take these tools with you, gentle reader, the next time you’re enjoying a film featuring these sciences. You too will soon be slapping your forehead in frustration at the silliness of it all.
The basic building block of life, everyone knows Deoxyribonucleic Acid is what “programs” a living thing; what makes up its genes (if you didn’t just nod your head and pretend, I won’t tell). When we picture it in our heads, chances are it looks something like this:
And that’s what you’ll see on screen when you “look” at some DNA. In reality, however, this:
is more like it. Furthermore, to make an image like this you need an electron microscope, which takes time to prepare its samples and obtain the images. So the next time you see a movie scientist fling a slide under an optical microscope and casually say “Let’s take a look at this DNA” or something to that effect I’d like you to close your eyes and slowly shake your head. “Silly” you will be thinking, “silly”.
Essentially, each “gene” in your DNA controls the structure of one protein that your cells make and use to do all their celly things that let you survive long enough to watch the next installment of your favorite television program. All your genes combined make you what you are and each and every cell in your body contains your entire genetic code. Crazy, right?
What all this means is that if some sinister agent were to alter your genetic code it would affect *drumroll* only those cells whose code was altered. Hopefully this seems pretty obvious but I can’t tell you how many movies ignore this basic fact. “MY GOD, IT’S ALTERING HIS DNA” (or something like that) *character completely mutates into horrible monster*. Silly shit guys, just f-ing silly.
“Well what about viruses there smarty-pants?” Good question! Could have done without the snark but hey, if I can dish it out I should be able to take it right? Anyway, viruses DO spread their genetic code into their host to make more of themselves and spread some more. However, to do so they must destroy the original host cell to release their copies. Furthermore, they generally only affect one type of cell. Also, cells have built in suicide switches if they figure out their shit is messed up. So yes, if there was a virus-like agent that could alter the genetic code of every single cell in your body undetected it could potentially turn you into a horrible monster. You go ahead and let me know when you find a movie about genetic mutation that fits that description.
Evolution is the process by which an organism adapts to its environment over successive generations. It’s an insanely slow process, taking place over millions of years. True, some evolution-like effects have been observed over relatively short time periods but only in organisms with extremely fast breeding cycles (ie. bacteria) and even then only on a very subtle level. One basic truth applies though: no individual organism can “evolve.” Let me repeat that: NO INDIVIDUAL ORGANISM CAN “EVOLVE.” This is a big one for me. My nerd-rageometer jumps about 5 points (it’s a logarithmic scale that goes up to 10) whenever someone says something like “Holy mother! It’s evolving” in reference to one individual creature.
I blame our education system. Evolution, at its base, is not all that complicated. However, there’s a large population in this country that wants to fight the teaching of evolution and as a result many people remain ignorant on the subject. Silly.
PS “Evolution” and “Darwinism” are not interchangeable. Look it up.
Annnnd that’s it for Movie Science for now. Perhaps we’ll revisit this topic later but next time we’ll be talking about emotional and perceptual (is that even a word?) manipulation in movies and, well, how silly it is… obviously.