Professor Jack Cohen

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 scientifically correct.

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 people.

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."