On Tuesday the 10th of May 1994 we were lucky to welcome Professor Jack Cohen back to the Group for the third time. Jack is a reproductive biologist and gave us a talk entitled Chaos, Cash and All That.
Jack Cohen knows more about aliens and the probable evolution of
aliens than almost anyone else alive. He regularly holds "Build an
Alien" seminars at sf conventions, and he can tear a painfully thought
out design to shreds in seconds using a broadside of scientific logic.
The last time he was at the group, in July 1992 he gave us a talk called
"Will Aliens Eat Us Alive?", and at the recent Sou'Wester he gave us
"Sex, Complex and Multiplex" where he showed some wonderful Garry Larson
cartoons relating to genetics and sex as well as giving an excellent
and humorous talk.
Jack has been a reproductive biologist for over 30 years and has
lectured at various levels on the subject. He used to give many school
talks and the favourite subject was always "The possibility of life on
other planets." He has given this talk over 300 times and Science
Fiction writers have heard about Jack's expertise and have consulted him
on the aliens in some of their books.
The old 'pulp' idea that it was perfectly feasible for aliens to have
evolved into humanoids very like us, is not one which Jack concurs
with. He believes that even on Earth, if evolution was to run through
again it would be unlikely for vertebrates to reappear. And even if they
did there would be important anatomical differences.
So Jack disbelieves all stories of UFOs with little green men in
them. Not because they're little or because they are green but because
they are MEN!
There are two types of evolution; 'universal' solutions to problems
which are likely to crop up anywhere, and 'parochial' solutions which
would be confined to one planet or island. He sees universal evolution
features as the things which are developed on Earth by completely
different types of creatures. For instance flight was separately
developed by birds, bats, insects and some fish. Another example is
photosynthesis which has been developed in different types of bacteria
and plants. Then again joints are universal as a method of overcoming
the problem of movement.
Parochial features are oddities which only exist in a tiny part of
the evolutionary tree. One example Jack describes is the awful design of
the ventricle lungs of humans. This causes our wind-ways to get in the
way of our food-ways and the silly little flap thing at the back of our
throat to help keep them separate. Another example is the positioning
of the baby exit point between the bodies two sewer outlets. Not the
healthiest introduction to the world. He believes that intelligence is universal, but possibly not self-awareness.
Jack has not invented any aliens for himself, as he feels that the
differences between humans and aliens would be so vast that interaction
would be unlikely, which would not make much of a story. However, he has
helped numerous science fiction writers 'evolve' more realistic aliens
for their stories.
James White's Hospital Station series had a plethora of aliens many
of which Jack helped him with. He also helped BRIAN ALDISS a bit on his
Heliconia series. Here there is unlikely anthropomorphic creatures but
they should be seen as powerful artistic symbols rather than as being
One of Larry Niven's best known alien creations are the 'grendels'
which Jack contributed a lot to. Jack also had an input to Harry
Harrison's WEST OF EDEN series and surprisingly ANNE McCAFFREY'S
Dragons of Pern series. In the latter many of the aliens on Pern had
been created before Jack's involvement but he didn't have a problem with
the telepathic dragons as they were engineered from local life forms by
Jack has also the ability to create an evolutionary history for
aliens already created. He does this by looking at the attributes of the
alien, possibly invented just to help a story line, and develops a
consistent set of reasons why these attributes could have been evolved
to solve problems during its evolution. He has a wonderful step by step
evolutionary theory for the TRIBBLES which have become famous from STAR
TREK. However, space does not permit it's rendering here.
Jack is interested in science fiction as a tool to further science;
"science fiction is a hidden, and often unappreciated asset to the
scientific community. A well thought out best-selling novel by Clement,
Niven or McCaffrey does much more for the public understanding of
science than any number of public meetings or worthy popularisations of
science on television, or even in New Scientist."