Project: The Greatest Story Ever Told: Evolution’s journey across mediascapes

The theory of evolution has been a scientific milestone in our understanding of humankind’s relationship to the rest of the living world. How do we understand it today? There is nowhere better to apprehend this than in popular media, where science is beholden to our storytelling ambitions. In my project, I research how entertainment media, i.e. board and computer games, historical and science fiction, nonfiction and TV documentaries articulate facets of evolutionary theory.

Project members

Péter Makai (external postdoc at IMS 2018-2020)

More about the project

My research investigates how evolution is made meaningful in entertainment media and how scientific facts about evolution are translated across media borders. The discourse of evolutionary theory remains perennially fascinating for popular audiences because it is the single most coherent scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and our place in it. Metaphors such as the Tree of Life, or iconic illustrations like the monkey-to-man image, properly known as The Road to Homo Sapiens, are etched into our collective consciousness. More often than not, what biologists know about evolution are only obliquely related to what the man on the street thinks evolution ‘says’ about life. Misconceptions abound – and these can be clearly traced in different media.

I claim that media not only serve as vectors for scientific information, but as spaces for interpreting, imagining, and relating evolution to our lives.

I seek to describe and analyse how these medial expressions affect our understanding of evolution. I focus my efforts on three sets of research questions:

  1. How are scientific facts transmediated? Which parts of the representations are accurate and which ones allow the misconstrual of the science behind evolution? What role does the medium play in shifting these meanings?
  2. How are narratives used to frame evolution in different media? What real-world discourses serve as contexts for evolutionary storytelling strategies?
  3. What can intermedial comparisons of evolutionary media reveal about the transmission of ideas that media-specific theories miss?

As facts find their way into different media, they will be inevitably shaped by the medium they are hosted in. Nonfiction is a source of new, generative metaphors about evolution; its illustrations serve to shore up scientific authority and display specimens; yet, the printed book cannot show animations of ontogeny, or simulate how genes are spread and inherited. Narrative fiction conveys the experiential quality of what it’s like to live in an evolutionary world, what its discoverers might have felt, and more imaginatively, what it must be like to live as other species. Board games force players to make decisions on how to survive in an abstract game-world, but their strategic choices might also be fine demonstrations of real-life evolutionary behaviour of animals – even though we would much rather accept a TV documentary’s depiction of the animal’s behaviour as accurate. As digital algorithms, video games can simulate autonomous artificial intelligences and large-scale populations of animals, highlighting an aspect of evolution no other media can illuminate with such lucidity. But because they require player interaction, they cannot show one crucial element of the theory: that no agency is necessary to bring about evolutionary change.

Because of these complexities, I find that the theory of intermediality that is being developed here, at Linnaeus University, helps me to speak in clear and precise terms about the migration of facts from one medium to another.