April 05, 2008

In honor of the final season of "Battlestar Galactica" ...

... I present to you a project for which I was asked to contribute.

Last summer, I was contacted by two gentlemen who publish a "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series of journals. They were in the midst of putting together the next series, "Battlestar Galactica & Popular Culture," and asked me, if I was interested, to submit a chapter for the journal. Well, of course I was interested! What follows is my first -- and only draft. The two gents had requested I do some substantial rewriting and editing to suit the needs of the series. Normally, I'd have no problem with that request. However, the request came when the school year was just getting underway, and there was, frankly, no way I could meet the request given the time parameters. So, unfortunately, I had to back out.

Here it is: Why Does “Battlestar Galactica” Possess Thirteenth Tribe Culture? (I've added some bold and italics for this blog post that were not in the original paper, just for emphasis and effect.)


The denizens of the Battlestar Galactica and accompanying fleet are currently scouring the galaxy for their hopeful salvation, that missing “Thirteenth Tribe” also known as Earth. What is curious is that the citizens of the now-obliterated Twelve Colonies seem to possess, despite their incredible high technology, a level of civilizational and moral growth that is no more advanced than our very own. This is either the result of keeping “Battlestar Galactica” (henceforth “BSG”) viewers’ attention by making more-than-obvious analogies to current events (the likely, but less interesting, explanation), or the series writers’ “guilty conscience” (to quote Carl Sagan) where unconsciously they assume that space-faring civilizations (even advanced human ones) will have essentially the same level of social, cultural and political development as present-day humans on Earth. This is extremely unlikely. The only way in which BSG humans could possess such technology without accompanying societal and cultural growth is if they acquired advanced tech from some other means instead of developing it themselves.

The most technologically advanced societies historically have also had the most developed social and political systems. The Egyptians. The Greeks. The Romans. The contemporary West. The current era’s “first world” countries clearly possess the most rational cultures, as well as the most advanced political and social systems. Western values have codified basic human rights including rights for women, ethnic and racial minorities, homosexuals, and even have penalties for the abuse of animals. Western values, for example, led to the abolition of chattel slavery on moral grounds. Indeed, presently, advanced nations ponder more their historic misgivings than their accomplishments. A typical United States history textbook will devote more pages to the mistreatment of the American Indian than to the development of the Constitution, and to the internment of Japanese-Americans than to the New Deal. It is true that the most technologically advanced nations do not always demonstrate similarly advanced morality (Nazi Germany anyone?), but aberrations are the exception, not the rule. It is almost a symbiotic relationship in that the advanced social aspects of a culture enable advanced technology.

Back to the Future

The citizens of BSG are humans, first and foremost. They are related to you and me, based on series lore. Therefore, it is logical to assume that inhabitants of the Twelve Colonies would follow a line of similar overall development to us “Earth humans,” since, after all, they have the same capacity for love, hate, compassion and the other emotions. Now, consider the state of human development today: How long would it take for Earth humans to develop faster-than-light (FTL) travel, explore neighboring star systems, and then develop said star systems with an elaborate political and economic system? What sort of cooperation would be necessary among the many nations of the Earth, and/or would a united Earth government be a necessary prerequisite?

Over thirty years ago Carl Sagan and colleague William Newman calculated that it would take one million years for a low population growth space-faring civilization to expand outward “only” 200 light-years colonizing suitable planets as they went. One million years. The total duration of Earth-based human civilization isn’t even close to that temporal ballpark, yet it is logical to assume that BSG humans would have to be considerably closer to that time-frame given that they colonized twelve worlds and maintained an intricate interstellar commerce and culture. Then again, it seems Sagan’s and Newman’s calculations are based on slower-than-light (STL) travel, not faster-than-light. (Sagan never was a believer in FTL propulsion.) Since it is established in BSG that the Colonies do utilize FTL travel, let’s assume that the Colonials began their initial space exploration with FTL-propelled vessels in lieu of STL ships. Instead of one million years, what would be a reasonable amount of time for the Colonies to have been established? One hundred thousand? Ten thousand? One thousand?

I posit that even with FTL travel, the amount of time needed to construct the society we see in the BSG series would, in my opinion, take a bare minimum of one thousand years. Ignore other science fiction that has humans developing interstellar travel by ourselves within the next one hundred years like “Star Trek.” (And “Trek” did it in the direct aftermath of the Third World War! Say what??) We’re still decades, possibly more than a century away from viable fusion power, let alone the process by which to power an FTL drive. Again, consider where we stand on Earth today. Our space vessels still use chemical fuels. A millennium to reach the technological sophistication of BSG humans actually seems generous. Now consider: How far has humanity on Earth progressed morally and socially over the last one thousand years? It has advanced immensely, obviously. Take a moment to consider what was “moral” and “acceptable” in the year 1007. It is logical to assume that in one thousand years from now Earth humans will look back at the year 2007 and turn our noses up at how “barbarous” that era was. And this [at least] one thousand-years-in-the-future mentality is what the denizens of BSG should possess! A society that has been able to expand into interstellar space and establish a twelve-solar system unified political system simply could not have done so if it faced the same problems we do on present-day Earth.
We’ve Come So Far, Yet …

We’ve witnessed scenarios which demonstrate that BSG Colonial civilization isn’t really all that advanced, at least as much as we have a right to expect. We’ve seen that at least one of the Twelve Colonies (Sagitaron) was quite destitute and considered sort of a “backwater” world where many of its citizens were almost at a level of slave labor. We’ve seen, in the person of Tom Zarek, that Colonial politics and government were hardly unified nor egalitarian. Indeed, they were as corrupt and as full of intrigue as our own. And most importantly, we’ve seen how the Colonies treated their very own intelligent creations, the Cylons. If the human society of BSG developed its own high technology, all of the above are highly improbable. These are facets of a civilization that has not yet managed to achieve a one-world government let alone a multi-world interstellar society. Carl Sagan, in his magnum opus, Cosmos, noted that a civilization will not even undertake space exploration if a society has a large degree of population growth; very little exploration if it has a low population growth. It would take a zero population growth for an intensive interstellar exploration effort otherwise all resources on a planet go into maintaining the population. Given much of what we’ve seen in [current] BSG, it is difficult to imagine a society that had reached such a necessary step quite a while ago in its past. Since the society of BSG exhibits this and other myriad aspects of present-day Earth, it is unlikely that it would have achieved the interstellar society that it has. It would be perhaps possible for a planet’s most advanced nation (or nations) to undertake the difficult process of interstellar exploration whilst ignoring the plights of the planet’s developing countries. Possible, but unlikely, mainly due to greatly enhanced chances of conflict and war. But in such a case, perhaps, one may presume that the “backwater” Sagitarons and the literally religious Geminese in BSG originally came from underdeveloped nations back on the Colonials’ original homeworld.

But back to the Cylons. Modern Earth has already begun to develop a code of ethics and morals for humans working with robots. An advanced human civilization like BSG’s (or, at least what it should be) would hardly seek to arbitrarily annihilate its very own intelligent creation merely for demonstrating sentience. It is understandable that BSG humans would not have compunctions about using machines as “slave” labor in the first place since they [logically] would assume that a machine wouldn’t care what or how much work it does, as long as it didn’t endanger its own existence. But once these machines exhibited actual self awareness, why would advanced humans seek to just snuff it out instead of understanding it? Why wouldn’t humans realize that they had actually given the universe an entirely new race of beings? That’s just the point: A culture supposedly as advanced as BSG’s would. The Cylons became a “danger” only because humans were afraid of what they had created and tried to obliterate them. Here, as opposed to the previous mention, “Star Trek” lore is applicable in the form of Data. In one episode, while a few Federation robotics experts wanted to consider the android property (in a clear reference to the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court case), Captain Jean-Luc Picard argued vociferously in court to have Data accorded the very same rights as all other Federation citizens. Picard won. Why couldn’t the humans of BSG do no less?

“But We ARE Moral!”

The most aggravating facet of BSG is that every now and then, its citizens actually do demonstrate a glimmer of the morality and culture that their civilization should have long possessed. They years ago had tried to destroy their own creations, yet when the Galactica – long after the Cylons had wiped out the Twelve Colonies -- discovered a virus that had the potential to virtually completely wipe out the Cylons, some BSG humans ultimately decided not to take advantage of it because then humans “would be no better than the Cylons.” This is a noble sentiment except for the fact that it comes way too late; human civilization has been trimmed from billions to a mere forty-five thousand. Why would BSG humans, on the brink of extinction, now worry about committing tit-for-tat genocide when they clearly didn’t before, and especially now that they’ve been the victims of it?

In another instance, when the Galactica encountered its sister Battlestar, Pegasus, the crew aboard the former vessel was appalled at how the latter treated its Cylon captives. Again, why? Where was this dismay when the Cylons manifested sentience and were treated horribly as a consequence? Indeed, if the Twelve Colonies had exhibited such empathy for the Cylons decades prior, the dozen-star system civilization would still be thriving; empathy like falling in love with a Cylon and having a child with one, as Helo and Sharon demonstrate.

Others Made Us Do It

This entire chapter’s premise falls apart if BSG humans were the beneficiaries of advanced alien technology, either by being given it or by reverse engineering. The only problem with this is that there has been absolutely no basis for this theory in any BSG episode. Still, this is fairly common tactic used by many science fiction writers. Larry Niven’s felinoid Kzin race overcame their Jotoki masters and made use of their advanced tech. [Earth] Humans themselves amassed amazing technology from the ancient Heechee race in Frederik Pohl’s award-winning Gateway (and subsequent sequels). Marvel Comics’ well known Kree race stole their super-science from the equally well known Skrulls. The whole premise of Marvel’s Watcher race is that they are forbidden to interfere in other races’ development because once in their distant past such interference resulted in two planets’ destruction. In each of these cases, the race doing the “stealing” or “acquisition” either went to war, or something close to it. The Kzin conquered their immediate stellar neighbors (and almost defeated Earth); despite the Heechee technology which enabled human faster-than-light travel in Gateway, planet-wide conflict nearly destroyed the Earth ; the Kree began to attack Skrull planets, and the Watchers’ situation speaks for itself.
Such an acquisition would make BSG human civilization much more believable in that their culture wouldn’t be ready for it. Once again, imagine if 2007 Earth was suddenly able to travel to other planets faster than light, and able to create sentient robots. How would we Earth humans react? Most likely our petty national, political, cultural and ethnic differences would create severe difficulties in establishing an interstellar civilization, if indeed such a creation was able to occur at all without constant warfare. And Earth humans still possess too great a degree of irrational fear and superstition that the genesis of a sentient race like the Cylons would most likely plunge the planet into chaos.

“Battlestar Galactica,” of course, would be a much less interesting show if it did not dwell on some of the themes that it has in its past three seasons. Viewing an extra-solar human civilization that one can hardly comprehend makes for bad television, just as “Star Trek” would if all the Federation’s enemies didn’t have the same level of technology (which is extremely implausible). But BSG’s creators could have made the show’s premise more scientifically believable if they added a small component about Colonial humans’ technology being based on some alien advanced technology. Without such -- if BSG humans developed their advanced technology on their own -- our interstellar species counterparts that we view on the SciFi Channel each week would virtually be incomprehensible to us.

Posted by Hube at April 5, 2008 10:23 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Is it really true that a typical United States history textbook will devote more pages to the mistreatment of the American Indian than to the development of the Constitution, and to the internment of Japanese-Americans than to the New Deal?

Or is it rightwing hyperbole?

Posted by: jason330 at April 5, 2008 01:31 PM

When's the last time you examined a history text? Or is it that just left-wing laziness?

(Or maybe I should have asked can you examine said texts? I know all those polysyllabic terms would tend to trip you up.)

Posted by: Hube at April 5, 2008 01:44 PM

Interesting post. I think you might be assuming too much about our (human) ability to "grow" in some moral or ethical sense over time.

Take a moment to consider what was “moral” and “acceptable” in the year 1007.

You seem to be saying that we are more moral than humans of 1007 and that the humans of BSG should be more moral still. But are we better in any objective sense than humans of 1007?

We have different cultural mores to be sure - but humanity is humanity. Animal cruelty, for example. Are we the first human culture to suggest that animals should not be wantonly abused?

I'm too much a lazy liberal to research that question, but I doubt it we are the first.

Take a moment to consider what was “moral” and “acceptable” in the year 1007 for Bonobo monkeys. How far those primates have come? How much further along some Hubian scale of morality will they be in 1,000 (provided they survive as a species).

As for the history text, I was asking a question. I take it your answer is: yes. They really do spend more time on the trail of tears than the Constitution.

Posted by: jason330 at April 5, 2008 02:07 PM

You seem to be saying that we are more moral than humans of 1007

I don't seem to be saying it. I am saying it.

But are we better in any objective sense than humans of 1007?

Remarkably so, yes.

Are we the first human culture to suggest that animals should not be wantonly abused?

I don't know how many -- IF any -- animal rights groups (or people) existed in 1007; however, considering human slavery was the norm at that time, and people then were treated worse than many animals are today, I don't think your point is made here.

Take a moment to consider what was “moral” and “acceptable” in the year 1007 for Bonobo monkeys. How far those primates have come? How much further along some Hubian scale of morality will they be in 1,000 (provided they survive as a species).

You're comparing apples and oranges. The Bonobo monkeys (relatives of yours, Jase?) are NOT humans, so the point is irrelevant. They certainly may evolve in 1000 years, but since their brains are not human, obviously their sense of rationality and morality (if they even exist to any degree in primates) makes it all moot.

As for the history text, I was asking a question. I take it your answer is: yes.

I always love how you're so straight and narrow and act as if "all I did was ask a simple question" after you actually asked it with your trademark a-holish snark. But yes, based on the books I (and others) have looked at (see the "About Us" section"), there is a disparity towards the negative in modern texts.

Posted by: Hube at April 5, 2008 04:08 PM

Hey Buddy, I really like your post. It is thought provoking and enjoyable.

I think that technology is a lot like money. Having money just amplifies who you already are; it doesn't change who you are. If you were a frugal, generous person before you made or came into money, you will be afterwards. If you were an evil, corrupt person.... I see Technology working on the same premise. Hitler's regime almost came up with the A-Bomb. Would they have all of a sudden become more moral?

I do not follow that an advance civilization is a better one. Human nature doesn't change. We have within us the potential for greatness or self destruction. It is the culture not the science which determines which side of our nature we feed.

That is why I consider cultural issues so important. Our technology gives us less room for error. It is imperative that we focus on bringing out the greatness within humanity just as much as we focus on doing great things as humanity. Grappling to achieve that balance is the lesson shown in BSG.

Posted by: David at April 5, 2008 07:43 PM

I always love how you're so straight and narrow and act as if "all I did was ask a simple question" after you actually asked it with your trademark a-holish snark.

Thank you.

Posted by: jason330 at April 5, 2008 10:43 PM

David: Thanks for the kind words.

Your main point actually touched on what the editors of the Popular Culture series wanted to me edit/rewrite -- they wanted more proof to back up my point. While I understand your points, I still stand by my premise. The civilizational "glue" needed to build a massive interstellar civilization would be beyond anything we could imagine. Your point about Hitler is well taken; however, overall the human civilizational level (moral, cultural) of 1940 was light years ahead of what it was a millenium before. If we don't destroy ourselves, it'll be the same in 3007.

Posted by: Hube at April 6, 2008 08:32 AM

FYI, the 12 colony worlds of BSG are all planets orbiting one star. Some are planets and some are moons of gas giants. Most were made earth (or Kobol)-like by terraforming. Best I remember it is show cannon that the humans have been on the 12 colony worlds for a bit over 1000 years. How long it took them to get there on the colony ship Galleon after they abandoned Kobol I am not sure.

Also were did you get the information that the humans attempted to destroy the Cylons because they developed sentience? In the original BSG of the 1970's the Cylons destroyed their creators (a non-human race) because they were programed to do so by a highly evolved, but evil, being called Iblis (interestingly enough the Muslim name for Satan).

In the new BSG the Cylons attempt to destroy their human creators because they somehow get the idea that "God" has decreed that humans are irredeemable and it is his will for the Cylons to replace them.

Ron Moore has said that he is intrigued by the Iblis character and is looking for a way to work him into the new series. Perhaps he will do so to explain how the Cylon religion began.

Posted by: Lemuel Calhoon at April 9, 2008 01:10 AM

First, where did you get your information that the 12 colony worlds are all planets orbiting one star? Where was this established as canon in either the original or reimagined series? I am only going by what I have seen (in both series), but in this post I am dealing with the reimagined series (mostly). You may be referring to books, comics or other material of which I'm not aware -- but is this information established as canon? Nevertheless, it is highly improbable that twelve worlds (moons included) could be made habitable around a single star, even with terraforming.

In the reimagined series it was touched upon (or even noted outright) that when it was realized that the Cylons developed sentience, the humans tried to "pull the plug." This ultimately led to the Cylons Wars. The Cylon "religion" stuff couldn't have come about immediately.

I am aware of the original series background; the original Cylons were a lizard-like race. In fact, "Imperious Leader," we were led to believe, was the last of this species. However, in the show BSG (original series) it wasn't concretely established at all that Iblis "programmed" the robotic Cylons to kill their masters. It was only touched upon in that two-parter that Iblis had the voice of the Imperious Leader (Apollo realizes this).

Posted by: Hube at April 9, 2008 03:25 PM

"it wasn't concretely established at all that Iblis "programmed" the robotic Cylons to kill their masters. It was only touched upon in that two-parter that Iblis had the voice of the Imperious Leader (Apollo realizes this)."

No Baltar realized this when Iblis came to visit him on the prison barge. Baltar said something like, "that voice, it can't be. . ." and Iblis answered "yes, it was I who programmed the original Imperious Leader". Then Baltar answered "but that was over a thousand years ago". To which Iblis just smiled.

As for the 12 colonies orbiting one star that was from a Ron Moore podcast after the first episode of the miniseries. It doesn't make much sense but Moore needed all of the colonies to be able to report in on the Cylon attack pretty much in realtime and the colonies don't have FTL communications.

As for the origin of the Cylon rebellion that topic is going to be explored in the spin-off series "Capricia". From the plot tidbits that have been leaked it seems that the scientist who created the original mechanical Cylons had a daughter who was involved with a fanatical religious cult which was devoted to the one true god. She is killed and her father is able to download her conscience into a robot body. The scientist's good friend, Walter Adams (who changes the family's name to Adama later in the series) is against this from the beginning however the scientist wants to have some part of his daughter remain with him. However the behavior of the robot daughter becomes very disturbing and frightens the father into agreeing that the whole thing was a bad idea.

This could lead to an attempt to "pull the plug" which causes the daughter/robot to pull the trigger on the rebellion she had been planning.

Posted by: Lemuel Calhoon at April 9, 2008 05:48 PM

Wow -- I'll have to take your word for it about the "Ship of Lights" 2-parter from the original series (re: the Baltar-Iblis chat). I don't recall the actual convo, but I do now recall that yes, it was Baltar who recognized Iblis's voice. Thanks! I'll make doubly sure I watch those episodes again when they're rerun.

And many thanks for the info you provided here. My curiosity is definitely piqued!

Posted by: Hube at April 9, 2008 05:54 PM