Starship Claus


Today, I’ll be talking about Starship Troopers. Wait, don’t leave yet! I don’t mean the campy film adaptation or the poorly animated TV show, but instead I’ll be talking about the relatively philosophical book. You might still want to leave because the book might be philosophical in, ah, undesirable ways, but I’ll only be talking about a small part of the book. In between a discussion of how best to kill alien aggressors and an aside about how nice it was to have women around while not killing aliens, there’s a little vignette about a planet. By this point in the book, it has already been established that Peter Ward could shove his Rare Earth theory up a Great Filter, so planets with biospheres are everywhere, and of course the astronomical environment would impact how each biosphere would be shaped:

… after that we orbited at Sanctuary… [The planet is] like Earth, but retarded… It is a planet as near like Earth as two planets can be… With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it’s short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth’s high level of natural radiation… [N]ative life forms on Sanctuary just haven’t had a decent chance to evolve and aren’t fit to compete [with life transplanted from Earth].

Heinlein then goes on to rhapsodize about how adverse effects like radiation sometimes contribute to better outcomes in the end: no one enjoys getting cancer, but if it means that our Terran wheat can brush aside alien ferns or that we can nuke would-be alien imperialistic oppressors while they’re still learning to bang rocks together, then maybe the price is worth it. Taking a step further, Heinlein toys with the idea of deliberately inducing adversity in the form of radiation on the planet Sanctuary as a way to make sure that the humans that have moved in don’t end up stagnating, and then being less able to compete on a galactic scale thousands of years down the road.

The core message of competition is the sort of thing a schlocky Ayn Randian protagonist might espouse, or a native philosophy of that embodiment of the cold war arms race, the paranoid Dr. Strangelove (Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!). However, when I read Starship Troopers for the first time in high school it was exactly what I needed to hear. I had just started emerging from marinating in the theological abnegation of the self to better serve Jesus, but after accepting that competition between humans might lead to a more effective stand against alien invaders (other science fiction may have played a role here), one thinks about where else competition might be applicable. Of course, changing your mind solely based on fiction is a bad idea because fiction is not tied to any real world consequences. In this case, though, this story gave me a push in the right direction when I was already headed towards finding that I had agency and could carve my own path through the world. For better or worse, humans are built around stories, and this vignette served as an easy to remember reminder that things might be tough as I grew out, but a little adversity now could pay off later. Plus, there’s science behind it! What could go wrong?


The problem is that Heinlein’s science is full of shit. It doesn’t smell too bad: Starship Troopers was published only 6 years after the structure of DNA was discovered, a more innocent time when one could posit group selection as a plausible evolutionary mechanism, and science fiction (especially space opera, of which Starship Troopers is a prime example) is gloriously full of scientifically implausible things. Putting aside these mitigating factors, mutations (much less evolution) don’t scale with radiation in a simple manner. Terran life forms have enough error-correcting machinery to repair damage from normal levels of radiation. In a biosphere with consistently low radiation, the blind idiot god that is evolution would draw down metabolically expensive and unneeded error-correction processes. With the competing pressures to downsize metabolic expenses against the need to maintain genetic fidelity, one could imagine ending up with a similar rate of mutation regardless of radiation level. Of course, this should all be taken with a huge chunk of salt, given that I am not a biologist, much less a molecular biologist or geneticist. Despite my novice status, it feels like this model is a more nuanced view with the benefit of advances in biology that have trickled down to my level over the last 50 years. In the end, irradiating things to improve them belongs to superhero comics, not a viable social program.

So I used Heinlein’s vignette as a go-to example of growth under adversity, and learning more about science showed that this example was not, in fact, something that should have been taken seriously. Now you know why I am a cynical old man. Well, not that cynical: it’s more of the restrained sort of cynicism that kids pick up after finding out Santa Claus was the fabrication of a society-wide conspiracy. I mean, it’s only the first time the world at large is forcing them to recognize that the world is full of incorrect and malicious data and that authority figures will manipulate them for a few moments of amusement, which sounds terrible when you put it like that. Yet most children aren’t scarred for life, possibly because Christmas becomes a reverse cargo cult: the presents still come even after you stop leaving the cookies out. Similarly, after I discovered Heinlein did not appropriately caveat his foray into societal biology, I didn’t suddenly retreat to a monastery, forsaking all competitive impulses. By that point I had moved past needing justifications to get on the self improvement train, and was already headed to Awesome Abilitiesville (estimates for arrival in Abilitiesville range from 10 to 1000 years). It turned out to be just one of the transitional myths I told myself in order to make sense of the world around me, discardable when I didn’t need it any longer.

We’ve had an object lesson (about radiation) and a meta-lesson (about resilience), but what about a meta-meta-lesson? Well, I think it was important learning how to be wrong without having it be a catastrophe. While the aforementioned Santa Claus scenario is a nice socially mandated first lesson in skepticism, it’s not like many people remember the event or regard it as anything more than childish antics. My brush with Heinlein had more of the marks of skepticism cowpox, being something I could remember and reflect on, as well as striking a threat balance between trivial and existential. The trivial is occupied by things closer to “Is this piece of news during April Fools true?”, and the serious is more like challenging a self-image as a scientist by pointing out the theory of everything you are really excited about has easy to find crippling flaws. I went on to get a degree in physics, but in the aftermath of that blow to my scientific self-image, I couldn’t seriously think about the mistake or derive Feynman-like smell tests, because, well, it was too embarrassing to reason about. Between the ignorable trivial mistakes and the painful existential errors, it was helpful to have a Goldilocks failure in a load bearing belief that I could use to inure myself to being wrong.

Then the question becomes “how do we inoculate more people with skepticism cowpox?” The obvious answer is “Don’t try, because trying to engineer society has a high prior for screwing up”, or “Holy shit, guys, people are complicated!” But what if we ignored common sense and protestations to the contrary, and tried anyways? Well, one might try to emulate the apocryphal professor that deliberately introduced increasingly small errors in his lectures, but that’s labor intensive and I’m not a professor. Perhaps we just need lots of popular but subtly incorrect science fiction…

(Thanks to Tim Czech and Hans Hyttinen for reading drafts of this!)