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Not So Hopeful Monsters

I’m a Monster Biologist. No — that’s not a self-aggrandizing professional description. I actually think about the biology of monsters. Twenty years ago, when I first conceived of Biology 485 as a rigorous treatment of “Why Things Aren’t,” I figured that it was already nearing obsolescence. Surely the speed of information through this new-fangled Internet, and the clarity it could provide, would quickly render such an exercise irrelevant to our college biology students. After all, even growing up on the rural plains of Nebraska in the 60s and 70s there were unmistakable signs that the age of rational inquiry was here. There was my erudite cousin Steve, who lived next door, and his subscription to Skeptical Inquirer (although I’d wager heavily that his was the only one in the county); there was Lawrence Kusche’s marvelous debunking of the Bermuda Triangle; there was Asimov and company’s dutiful savaging (Scientists Confront Velikovsky) of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision. I considered this and all else with which I found myself surrounded as positive signs that the world was soon to be a more enlightened and reasonable place. I now find myself chuckling grimly at my own naiveté.

The immediate impetus for creating this course was relatively benign. I’d just spent ten bucks to watch the latest Godzilla offering (1998) and was bitterly disappointed. Some of that was feeling betrayed by my own inability to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the movie. But my dissatisfaction lit a fire; I no longer lament the ten bucks, and despite a nagging feeling that the time for a more deliberate examination of monsters had passed, I began plotting.

Soon after, I noticed a copy of Skeptic, standing alone, proud — even defiant — among a forest of groovy new-age claptrap by the checkout stand at the local co-op. I confess I was mystified, both by the magazine’s existence (Really? We’re still not past this?) and its company, surrounded as it was by reading best described as empty calories, poorly spent. Somewhere was an impish outcast co-op employee with a sense of humor, and the power to stock shelves. That was the final straw. The battle still rages. Students need this. So, here I am, teaching Monster Biology for the twentieth time.

Any thorough treatment of the form and function of living things, real or otherwise, requires a look at their ontogeny and phylogeny. I suspect I share with all monster lovers a hard-won intuitive understanding of how monsters evolve into being. They originate in everything from our personal fears of loss of both identity and life to disease — from zombieism to apocalyptic fears of something wading Godzilla-like through the structure and quality of life humanity has worked hard to create. These fears are justified, and sometimes real, but the monsters we’ve created to embody them are not. Thus, the content of my course, rather than the more typical science course that describes how and why things are, is an excursion into why we don’t see any of this stuff wandering the countryside.

As a biologist, the reason this interests me — given the evolutionary history of this planet and the long list of monsters that it has created — is what it tells us about the fictional monsters that didn’t happen. Was it just Gouldian* chance? If so, they need not remain fiction; with a little time and a little push, they could happen. And as an adrenaline tweaker, I confess I enjoy such thoughts, and even sometimes wish… well, I just wish they weren’t relegated to fiction.
We’ve all felt it. We left the theater after Jurassic Park and re-entered a world that was lacking; the disappointment that Steven Spielberg tried to assuage with this film is particularly pointed because these monsters were real — and we missed them, by a lot. Not only that, but their very existence precluded our own; with dinosaurs occupying the planet, mammals stayed underground, and underground is no place for apes to evolve. The dinos’ time on the planet is at once a cruel tease about the adventure that might have been, and a cautionary tale about the impermanence of even seemingly dominant life. And while much of their DNA remains in every living vertebrate animal — quite a lot of it in birds — the bits that gave them their identities have been lost to the rock and won’t be returning. Neither will: Otodus megalodon the big shark; Dunkleosteus, the big scary fish eons before O. megalodon; Titanoboa, the enormous snake — the list is too long and depressing to include here.

Unfortunately — and with this I dare to reveal some misanthropy — none of the rest of these monsters will be spicing up the biosphere either. Sure, you can get vampire and werewolf behavior with a bit of furious rabies,1 but it’s not as romantic and immortalizing as it’s cracked up to be. I admit it might be diverting to dispatch a few mushroom heads (The Last of Us, HBO), but Cordyceps isn’t so clever,2 and our physiologies so robust3 that we’ll have the fungi taking over the planet with us as the vehicle. Likewise, the gorgeous Game of Thrones dragons couldn’t walk,4, 5 much less fly,6 and nature will only approach fire breath in the form of an academic after too much coffee. And marine iguanas and gorillas will be neither our mutant comeuppance for our environmental disregard, nor tough-love gods bent on urban renewal. Turns out, gods of that scale have truly debilitating limits.

Of all the monsters I’ve encountered in fiction and movies, the one I now find already wandering the Earth is the one I had once found least likely. This monster — or I should say, this monster at this scale — was first described in the film Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956; a SciFi rendering of the Bard’s The Tempest). Here the bad critter, marauding the distant planet Altair IV, was a technological product — an unintended consequence of a machine so sophisticated that it obeyed, and could make real, the Krell of Altair IV’s very thoughts. Other treatments of this concept followed. In an episode of the original Star Trek (titled “Shore Leave”), the crew’s fantasies become reality. But no real harm was done, and that is the trend; we treat acquiring such absolute power somewhat cavalierly, if not wishfully, secure in the notion that as our technology evolves, so will our judgment.

As so elegantly described in Forbidden Planet, what can go wrong is that we’re still human, and even the most advanced intellects still mingle with the same primitive impulses we’ve always had. Freud called the latter the Id, and it was a Monster of the Id that destroyed the Krell of Altair, as the machine made tangible all the base predilections of the society. Even as they slept, the machine turned their REM into bombs and ray guns, as their subconscious passions ran roughshod over their higher functions. But come on, it can’t happen. The Id is just a reification, and none of our technology is as effective and efficient as the Krell’s. Or is it?

Proof That Monsters Can’t Exist

Imaginations have engineered many volant dragons, and they’ve gotten better — the Game of Thrones dragons are among the best. We can get a sense of their improbability with a simple calculation regarding a gliding dragon. We’ll superficially address the flapping dragon a bit later.

The lift generated by air over the wings can be expressed as L = ½ V2ρSCl, where V is the velocity of the air, ρ is air density, S is the surface area of the wings, and Cl is s dimensionless lift coefficient (which varies with wing presentation and characteristics from 1.2–2.0). In level flight, lift L = mg, where m is body mass (in kilograms), and g is the acceleration due to gravity. Substituting and rearranging, we arrive at the minimum speed for flight: Vs = (2mg/ρSCl)½.

To solve the equation, we need to know the area of the wings, and the mass of the dragon, and make assumptions about the planet. So we’ll assume typical humans as scale. By this scale, g on Game of Thrones was a familiar 9.81 m/s2. Also by this scale, with a wing span of ~30 meters, the wing area is 440 m2.

Our remaining variable, mass, is devilish. It’s easiest to start empirically; having weighed many birds, I’d guess the young, 0.5-meter-long dragons would weigh, at minimum, about 500 grams. Scaling up, and preserving their geometry (which the animators did, conveniently for all), mass increases with volume, and volume increases with the cube of linear dimension. The biggest dragons are 60 times larger in this dimension; their mass would be 603 times larger, or 10,800 kg. Obviously, the key to these extrapolations is the estimate of initial mass, but this still seems conservative; these animals are the size of airliners, and a cubic meter of tissue is 1,100 kg.

Crunching the numbers says that the minimum fixed-wing airspeed (Vs) for the big dragons is 51ms-1, or 110 mph. Were it an airplane (and I admit they are not; aerodynamically, they’re clunky, drag-ridden lizards), a typical slow, approach-to-landing speed would be 1.5 × Vs; and a typical cruising speed would be triple the fixed-wing airspeed (Vs).

It gets worse. Oscillating a wing of that size would require considerable strength and structure to withstand the accelerations, and the added structure would result in massive increases in the inertia, which increases with wingspan. This increase in inertia, and associated decrease in wingbeat frequency, means that as the power required for flight increases with mass, the power available from flapping doesn’t keep pace; for known vertebrates, the maximum size for sustained, environmentally unassisted (thermals, etc.) flapping flight is approx. 15–20 kg. For bats — with wings the dragons’ wings very much resemble — the maximum is even lower.

But The Future Isn’t As Clear

We haven’t yet created a “Forbidden Planet,” but the foundation has been poured. I’m growing concerned with the power of artificial intelligence. With the advent of quantum computing, it now stands at the threshold of acquiring truly unimaginable abilities,7 but will still owe its existence to fallible minds. AI programs will suffer from the Creator’s hubris: I will make them in my own image.

Perhaps this “Commander Data” (or Mr. Spock) outcome is possible. Perhaps the Freudian Id is a real, parseable quality we can program around, sequester, or better yet, completely excise. But what if pathological emotions are an inevitable consequence of any evolving intelligence? My parsimonious conclusion is that they are present in an intelligence as common as my dog’s: anger, jealousy, possessiveness, greed…he displays them all. Not often — he’s actually a great dog — but they’re there. How unlikely could it be that they would appear, however unintentionally, in AI? This is to say nothing of the consequences of a deliberate intrusion; the soul breathed into this intelligence will have come from a god with an Id.

If you’ve never seen Forbidden Planet, consider it homework. This is fearful stuff, and I haven’t quite figured out how to face it. END

About the Author

Douglas R. Warrick is a Professor of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University. His primary research is in the dynamics and biomechanics of bird flight. Along with monster biology, he teaches comparative anatomy and vertebrate physiology.

  1. Gómez-Alonso, J. (1998). Rabies: A Possible Explanation for the Vampire Legend. Neurology, 51(3), 856–859.
  2. Lovett, B., Macias, A., Stajich, J. E., Cooley, J., Eilenberg, J., de Fine Licht, H. H., & Kasson, M. T. (2020). Behavioral Betrayal: How Select Fungal Parasites Enlist Living Insects to Do Their Bidding. PLoS Pathogens, 16(6).
  3. Brown, G. D., Denning, D. W., Gow, N. A., Levitz, S. M., Netea, M. G., & White, T. C. (2012). Hidden Killers: Human Fungal Infections. Science Translational Medicine, 4(165).
  4. Biewener, A. A. (1989). Mammalian Terrestrial Locomotion and Size. Bioscience, 39(11), 776–783.
  6. Norberg, U. M. L., & Norberg, R. Å. (2012). Scaling of Wingbeat Frequency With Body Mass in Bats and Limits to Maximum Bat Size. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(5), 711–722.
  7. Li, Y., Tian, M., Liu, G., Peng, C., & Jiao, L. (2020). Quantum Optimization and Quantum Learning: A Survey. Ieee Access, 8, 23568–23593.

This article was published on July 28, 2023.

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