James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

March 23, 2009

End of Battlestar Galactica (Or Why Technology is a Good Thing)

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 4:15 pm

By this time I’m going to hope that anyone following the show has watching the series finale. If you do follow the show but haven’t watched the end yet, stop now.

If you have no intention of watching the show, here’s briefly what happened: In the final half hour of the show the survivors of an apocalyptic war arrive at Earth 150,000 years in the past, inhabited only by pre-lingual humans living in hunter gatherer tribes. They land and make plans for beginning to rebuild their civilization. But no, one guy has a great idea, why don’t they give up all their technology and go back to the land. And so that’s what they do. Burn their ships, throw away their computers, give up “their little luxuries” as one character describes their technology.

It’s easy to see human progress as nothing more than a desire for luxuries and a more comfortable life. To do so overlooks the far more fundamental motivator of technology and progress; battling starvation disease and death. The writers of Battlestar Galactica leave us with the implication that it’s simple enough to walk into a pristine wilderness with nothing but the clothes on our backs and, as long as we’re willing to give up the little luxuries, live a long and enjoyable life. And it frightens me to imagine how many people actually believe that. Because in the show people don’t make the decision individually. One group (a majority?) makes the decision for everyone in the fleet and all the unborn generations to come.

Imagine the man who depends for survival on a medicine that is synthesized in the medical department of one of the ships send callously into the sun. Or a newlywed woman from a family prone to difficult births. Or the parents of a handicapped child, who would be unable to hunt or grow food in a pre-technology society. But the society you belong to has not just renounced their “sinful” technology, but destroyed it root and branch to prevent any hint of dissent, and who cares if a few are sacrificed, willingly or otherwise, on the path to rightiousness.

But that’s just a few people, right? Most of them should be fine in this new life as farmer/hunter/gatherers, no? Except leaving aside the risk of dying from conditions that are completely treatable in modern society (bust appendixes, cuts that get infected, serious allergic reactions), what are they going to eat?

Farming is hard work. It requires specialized knowledge (that most of the members of a technological civilization don’t possess), doing it well requires proper tools (I was waiting for the scene where someone goes “d’oh! Why didn’t we make some practically indestructable plow blades and hoe heads out of modern alloys before we sent all our metal and tools to melt in the center of the sun!”), and most importantly it requires that one actually have crops to grow.¬†

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find corn growing in the wild. Or wheat. Or potatoes. The domestication of staple crops like these is one of the real gifts we receive from our ancestors*, a gift that was thousands of years in the making. Without domesticated crops, it doesn’t matter how good the tools you have are, it doesn’t matter how much you know about farming. Without those crops, there is no way to survive other than boom and bust life of a migratory hunter/gatherer, a niche the native humans already occupy.

In the end it’s just a TV show, but I fear that the ideals and ignorance put forward in that last half hour reflect the worldview of far too many of my peers who don’t that technology is the frail barrier between all of us and miserable deaths from disease, starvation, and injury, and idealize the idea of a more natural existence.

*Phrasing stolen shamelessly from an interview on Modern Marvels.


  1. Just caught the last episode last night. I agree w/ above. I also don’t think it is likely that the people would have agreed to this plan. Most are not so naive.

    Comment by the beekeeper — March 30, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  2. I like the point giving up a little of our luxuries to living a long and enjoyable life. Well, that’s true, being contented is much necessary in these times.

    Comment by Beekeeping — December 7, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

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