Speculative evolution

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Speculative evolution, also called allobiology and speculative biology, is a genre of speculative fiction and an artistic movement, focused on hypothetical scenarios in the evolution of life. Works incorporating speculative evolution may have entirely conceptual species that evolve on a planet other than Earth, or they may be an alternate history focused on an alternate evolution of terrestrial life. With a strong connection to and basis in science, particularly biology, speculative evolution is often considered hard science fiction. Speculative biology and creature concepts are also a prevalent subject in concept art.

Basis in biology and paleontology[edit]

With its attention to evolutionary biology, speculative evolution shares with many science fiction subgenres a focus on scientific plausibility. Although the vertebrate paleontologist Darren Naish concedes that speculative evolution is full of "possibilities, crazy ideas, speculations, and things you wish you knew but never will", he suggests that "some of our speculations about animal evolution involve possibly useful and informative guesses and hypotheses... and some of these speculations are designed with real-world adaptations, processes and diversity in mind."[1]

Speculative evolution, with its relation to hard science fiction, builds on our knowledge of the real world and uses evolutionary principles to possibly develop a genuine hypothesis about the future. In some cases, speculative evolution artists have conceived of the existence of a creature before it was discovered by paleontologists. An imaginary filter-feeding 'Ceticaris', conceived by artist John Meszaros, was published in All Yesterdays before the discovery of the first filter-feeding anomalocarid, Tamisiocaris — which was subsequently included in the clade Cetiocaridae.[2] In addition, some of Dougal Dixon's speculative dinosaurs have predicted the paleobiologies of actual dinosaurs.[3]

The art books All Yesterdays (2012) and All Your Yesterdays (2013) by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish presented hypothetical forms of existing prehistoric creatures, applying speculative principles to paleoart in the style of Dougal Dixon.[4]

Speculative evolution is often connected to the scientific fields of astrobiology and xenobiology. Speculative biology writings focusing on extraterrestrial life, like the blog Furahan Biology, use realistic scientific principles to describe the biomechanics of hypothetical alien life.[5] However, speculative biology is not the same as xenobiology—it is a larger, distinct concept, which includes the alternate evolution of life in any scenario, terrestrial or extraterrestrial.[6]


Early works[edit]

In 1930, Olaf Stapledon published a "future history", Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, describing the history of humanity from the present onwards, across two billion years and eighteen human species, of which our own is the first. The book anticipates the science of genetic engineering, and is an early instance of the fictional group mind idea.[7]

A mock taxidermy of a rhinograde, using its nasorium to catch fish

The German zoologist Gerolf Steiner described a fictitious order of mammals, Rhinogradentia, in his 1957 book Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia. Translated into English as The Snouters: The Form and Life of the Rhinogrades, it described the evolution, biology, and behavior of the fictional rhinogrades.[8][9]

In 1976, the Italian author and illustrator Leo Lionni published Parallel Botany, a "field guide to imaginary plants", presented with academic-style mentions of genuine people and places.[10]


The founder of the modern speculative evolution movement is the geologist Dougal Dixon, who imagined "zoologies of the future" in After Man (1981), The New Dinosaurs (1988), and Man After Man (1990).[11][2][12][13] According to Dixon, whose works have heavily influenced later speculative evolution works, his original inspiration was The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells. Wells envisioned giant crab-like creatures inhabiting a dying future Earth.[2]

Later developments[edit]

Kurt Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galápagos imagines the evolution of a small surviving group of humans into a sealion-like species.[14] The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island (2005) explored the world of King Kong (2005) from a biological perspective, envisioning Skull Island as a surviving fragment of ancient Gondwana. Prehistoric creatures on a declining, eroding island evolved into "a menagerie of nightmares",[15] a notable example of horror-themed speculative biology. The designers of the rebooted King Kong universe were inspired by Dougal Dixon's works.[16]

Other speculative evolution books include Robert Forward's 1980 Dragon's Egg;[17] and Wayne Barlowe's 1990 graphic novel Expedition. Expedition was written as a report of a visit to an alien biosphere in the 24th century. The book was heavily illustrated and attempted to describe a completely alien ecosystem as if it was real.[18] Future evolution-focused works include Peter Ward's 2001 Future Evolution;[19] Stephen Baxter's 2002 Evolution;[20] Dougal Dixon's 1990 Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future,[21] and C. M. Kosemen's 2008 All Tomorrows.[21]

The Cryptozoologicon Volume I (2013) was a tongue-in-cheek combination of speculative biology and cryptozoology, using scientific scrutiny to analyze fictional creatures. It explored new directions on how to depict ancient animals with a particularly speculative nature.[22][23]

Mock documentaries[edit]

Bodypainting in the style of James Cameron's 2009 Avatar

Mock documentaries (also called mockumentaries, or docufiction) include the 1997 Natural History of an Alien;[24] the 2002 The Future Is Wild;[25] the 2004 The Last Dragon;[26] and the 2005 Alien Planet, based on the graphic novel Expedition. The mock documentary style in Alien Planet was likely inspired by the Discovery Channel’s previous success with real documentaries such as Walking With Dinosaurs.[18] A British-American production Extraterrestrial also attempted to describe speculative alien life in a scientific manner.[27]

Use of the concept in other genres[edit]

Speculative evolution ideas are often used in science fiction works that do not strictly belong to the genre. The creatures in the 2005 film King Kong were fictitious descendants of real animals, with Skull Island being inhabited by dinosaurs and other prehistoric fauna.[15] Inspired by Dougal Dixon's works, the designers imagined what 65 million years or more of isolated evolution might have done to dinosaurs.[16]

The Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher invented a creature that was capable of rolling itself forward, which he named Pedalternorotandomovens centroculatus articulosus. He illustrated this creature in his 1951 lithograph Wentelteefje (also known by the English title Curl-up). He says this creature came into existence because of the absence in nature of wheel shaped, living creatures with the ability to roll themselves forward.[28]

Matt Reeves's 2008 film Cloverfield featured a giant semiaquatic monster, Clover, its ocean-going traits inspired by biological plausibility.[29]

James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar constructed a fictional biosphere full of original, speculative alien species; a team of experts ensured that the lifeforms were scientifically plausible.[30][31] The creatures of the movie took inspiration from Earth species as diverse as pterosaurs, microraptors, great white sharks, and panthers, and combined their traits to create an alien world.[32]

Speculative biology and the future evolution of the human species are significant in bio art.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Naish, Darren. "Speculative Zoology at Tet Zoo, The Story So Far". Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Naish, Darren. "Of After Man, The New Dinosaurs and Greenworld: an interview with Dougal Dixon". Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  3. ^ ""Alternative Evolution" of Dinosaurs Foresaw Contemporary Paleo Finds [Slide Show]". Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  4. ^ "Science Meets Speculation in All Your Yesterdays – Phenomena: Laelaps". Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  5. ^ Newitz, Annalee. "An intensive, multi-year study of realistic alien life". Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  6. ^ Nastrazzurro, Sigmund. "Furahan Biology and Allied Matters: An xenobiological conference call". Furahan Biology and Allied Matters. Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  7. ^ "Last and first man of vision". Times Higher Education. 23 January 1995.
  8. ^ Nastrazzurro, Sigmund. "Furahan Biology and Allied Matters: Rhinogradentia I". Furahan Biology and Allied Matters. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  9. ^ "At last, the rhinogradentians (part I)". Retrieved 2015-06-04.
  10. ^ Alioto, Daisy (29 January 2018). "'Parallel Botany' in the Age of Alternative Facts". The Millions.
  11. ^ Naish, Darren. "Of After Man, The New Dinosaurs and Greenworld: an interview with Dougal Dixon". Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  12. ^ Lamar, Cyriaque. "The horrors of evolution: the 10 freakiest animals of speculative biology". Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  13. ^ Nastrazzurro, Sigmund. "Furahan Biology and Allied Matters: An unknown speculative biology project by Dougal Dixon: Microplatia I". Furahan Biology and Allied Matters. Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  14. ^ Moore, Lorrie (6 October 1985). "How Humans Got Flippers and Beaks". New York Times. p. section 7, page 7.
  15. ^ a b Jackson, Peter; Workshop, Weta (2005). The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1416505198.
  16. ^ a b Recreating the Eighth Wonder: The Making of King Kong (DVD). Universal. 2006.
  17. ^ Clute, J. (27 September 2002). "Robert L. Forward: Physicist and science-fiction writer". The Independent.
  18. ^ a b Day, Dwayne A. "Voyages to alien worlds | Alien Planet". The Space Review, in association with SpaceNews. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  19. ^ "Future Evolution by Peter Ward". Kirkus Reviews. 15 October 2001. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  20. ^ Cassada, Jackie (15 February 2003). "Evolution (Book)". Library Journal. 128 (3): 172.
  21. ^ a b "Literature / Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future". TV Tropes. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  22. ^ Newitz, Annalee. "Cryptozoologicon Could Revolutionize the Field of Monster Studies". Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  23. ^ Naish, Darren. "The Cryptozoologicon (Volume I): here, at last". Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  24. ^ "The Natural History of an Alien (1997)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  25. ^ "Press Releases | The Future Is Wild says BBC". British Broadcasting Corporation. 29 March 2004.
  26. ^ Gates, Anita (19 March 2005). "They Didn't Exist. But Could They Have?". The New York Times.
  27. ^ "TV Review - National Geographic's 'Extraterrestrial'". www.space.com. Space.com. 27 May 2005.
  28. ^ Escher, M. C. (2000). The graphic work 1898-1972. Köln [Germany]: B. Taschen. ISBN 978-3-8228-5864-6. OCLC 45769669.
  29. ^ Kelly, Kevin. "io9 Talks To Cloverfield Monster Designer Neville Page". Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  30. ^ Kozlowski, Lori. "Inventing the plants of 'Avatar'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  31. ^ Yoon, Carol Kaesuk (18 January 2010). "A Vibrant Fantasy World Has Science at Its Core". The New York Times.
  32. ^ "The Tet Zoo guide to the creatures of Avatar". Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  33. ^ "Speculative Biology in the practices of BioArt". Retrieved 8 June 2015.

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