Frank Landis' Blog


Nipple breathing sky blue cat-monkeys (A sidelong look at Avatar)
February 5, 2010, 9:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Yes, I’m late.  I saw Avatar a bit over a week ago.  Not that I’m going to bash James Cameron for the details of the movie.  Nor do I think that the Na’vi were, well, what the title says.

I’m more interested in what the movie says about science and scientists.

For one thing, kudos to James Cameron for getting one thing right.  Most botanists these days are women, and most of them are extremely competent in a variety of fields.  Many even look like Sigourney Weaver, although there is slightly more diversity of skin color among today’s botanists.

Conversely, the old Hollywood trope of Scientist-As-Cannon-Fodder is alive and bleeding.  In my checkered career here in southern California, I’ve come to the conclusion that most (not all!) Hollywood types have a fundamental contempt for reality, including some who have made misguided forays into conservation work. Any group that regards reality as good, sacred, or inherently valuable is a second-class citizen in most movies.  That’s at best.  They are more likely to be cannon fodder, monster bait, or monster spawners.  James Cameron is definitely better than this (dude made six documentaries after all), but as I note at the end, the tropes had to be served.

No, what I was interested in was how they made Pandora. It’s a spectacular set, but you know, it was a set. What was missing was, well, evolution. And that got me thinking about how we deal with evolution in our society, and how we get that little cladistics revolution out of the biology departments and into matinee movies and fiction bookshelves.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me ask you: if Pandora actually existed, how would life have evolved on it, especially the Na’vi?

Yes, I know exactly why the Na’vi looked like cat-humans (see the end paragraph).   I was trying to figure out how they could have evolved.  The other big terrestrial vertebrates (like the direhorse) had six limbs, secondary lung thingies on their chests, four eyes, and two neural internet connections. The flying things like the banshees had four limbs, four eyes, secondary lung thingies on their chests, and two internet connections, and the prolemurs had six limbs (top two fused to the elbow), two eyes, one internet connection, and I didn’t see their chests.

Now, any cladistically-trained biologist would plot those traits on something like an evolutionary tree and start giggling. There’s no easy way they could share a common ancestor. Loss of eyes and limbs, sure, conservation of blue skin as an ancestral trait, fine, but loss of lung openings? Hunh? Does that make sense for highly active arboreal humanoids? Not really. And those neural connections. What kind of evolution drove those connectors, and why do you need fewer if you’re presumably more intelligent. That’s so, well, Apple.  I mean, free lifelong internet service, with postmortem archiving in the Wood Wide Web is great and all, but how could it have evolved, and why are the plants and animals using a common internet protocol?  The only thing I could think was that it was some sort of fungal infection that affected animal brains and plants as well.  But then, I would think that way.

No, the critters of Pandora, fascinating though they are, still look like they came out of an art department. A very well-read art department, but not one that’s familiar with the idea of evolution favoring common body plans and repeated themes of development and evolution.

And that’s what I mean about getting evolution out of the biology departments and into the movies. What would Pandora have looked like if they’d taken an extra few hours and laid out some common evolutionary themes to follow as their design book?

Well, that’s where the title of the piece comes in. Where were the non-Na’vi primates? The prolemurs? That’s it? We needed sky blue cat-monkeys! And what about those secondary lung spiracle thingies? It’s possible to put them on a primate. It would have been possible to put a reduced form on the Na’vi, even. Just put two spiracles on the chest wall, and have their chests bulge heroically as they inhale. You could even explain those superfluous mammaries on the female Na’vi as secondary lung extensions to support the respiration required by carrying a fetus. So, when a female Na’vi  inhales, her bust swells by one or two cup sizes. That would have been guaranteed to titillate, no, mesmerize the 16 to 35 year-old male demographic that movie makers reportedly prize. It probably would have annoyed everyone else though.

And that’s kind of the point: James Cameron ain’t stupid, and he managed to persuade investors to cough up $237 million plus to let him make Avatar. To do so, he had to use all the tropes that would be guaranteed to sell movies.  Even if he had thought about nipple-breathing Na’vi, they would have been cut, because something that weird and borderline kinky could have damaged Return on Investment.  After all, if he got too carried away, there would have been a tense closed-door meeting with investors, followed by a drastically revised script.  He had to play it safe.  And by playing safe, he’s raking in the loot.

So, the question for us life scientists and others is: so how do you get real science into popular culture?  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could actually get people to use evolutionary themes as part of the basic design work?  Wouldn’t it be even cooler if creative types were actually praised for incorporating science into their work, instead of just grabbing superficial images?

What do you think?  How do we get there from here?

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