Stardate 42494.8: On what might have otherwise been a routine mission, the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D encounters a Federation supply vessel, the USS Lantree, whose entire crew appear to have died of extreme old age. Backtracking their route, the Enterprise makes contact with Darwin Genetic Research Station, where everyone else is also suffering from the same problem. By the time the good Dr. Pulaski figures out it's being caused by the Darwin scientists' attempts to genetically engineer ideal humans, she's contracted the aging disease herself and prepares to shuffle off this mortal coil. At the very last second, the crew of the Enterprise decides to try a novel transporter trick, essentially restoring her genetic code from a previous backup found in a follicular cell they pluck from the hairbrush in her quarters. The Darwin scientists learn an important lesson about the dangers of genetic manipulation, and maybe Dr. Pulaski learns to be a little less afraid of transporters.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Unnatural Selection" is a goldmine of weirdness and wonder — the progressive aging makeup on Diana Muldaur, a look at how Starfleet officers pay their respects to a ship they're about to scuttle, and the way nobody ever comes back to the fact that the Darwin scientists seemed to be trying to make their very own Khans — but let's try to narrow our scope to just the scientific implications, of which there are many as it turns out!
In 1989, genetic engineering still seemed like a completely outlandish science-fiction concept, especially tinkering with the human genome itself. Consisting of over 3 billion base pairs coding for a number of genes that couldn't even have been guessed at, the human genome was the world's longest, most-unreadable book. These days, you can spit into a tube and send it to the folks at 23andMe, who'll tell you which continents your ancestors came from and how much Neanderthal DNA is in your gene line.
Will it take another 15 years before we start to really mess around with the human genome, or will it be sooner? And when that day comes, will we be ready? It's hard to miss the fact that in "Unnatural Selection," the scientists trying to build better humans are doing their work not in the middle of a bustling futuristic city, but at a remote outpost on an uninhabited world. When things go wrong, they can easily put themselves on lockdown and make sure nobody comes in or goes out — not unless they're encased in styrolite.
Industrial or scientific accidents involving chemicals or radiation are terrible, but we have some idea of how to contain and control them – for the most part. Once we start working with living things, the rules change, even for 24th-century scientists working with technologies, materials, and procedures we just plain don't have. Personally, I think we should wait on tinkering with the human genome until we can put sealed, self-contained laboratories in space; that way, if something goes wrong, we can put a couple photon torpedoes into 'em from a safe distance. If it's good enough for the Lantree, it's good enough for the rest of us!
But we're just getting started here; to me, this episode's main theme has always been about aging, and there's a question it raises that's come up now and then among my fellow fans: did the crew of the Enterprise basically invent an immortality machine with that transporter trick of theirs? Why do they never bring that up again? Why would anyone in the Federation ever need to die of old age once word got out?
And while we’re at it, the original NCC-1701 also found that adrenaline cured the rapid aging disease the crew faced in “The Deadly Years,” while Kirk was busy trying to figure out if they were orbiting Gamma Hydra II or IV. Anyone ever hear of any advanced studies on adrenaline back then? I didn’t think so.
Let's think for a second about that immortality thing. Dr. David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School thinks it might not actually be out of the question. Say what? Don't get me wrong: as a person who's lived in the Presidio for years, I have a vested interest in living long enough to see whether Starfleet ever gets founded for real and where its headquarters ends up, but I think we need to invent space travel and found some offworld colonies before we start living forever. Let's make sure we have enough room to fit everyone if we keep making more people and they never die — I'm just thinking out loud here.
The Federation has the starships and the colonies, so how come they never jumped on board the immortality bandwagon after the Darwin Station incident? My guess is because the transporter pattern filtering trick is just plain dangerous: when the time comes to actually push the button and run the process on Dr. Pulaski, Captain Picard orders Chief O'Brien aside and does it himself, absolving everyone else of the responsibility in case something goes horribly wrong (not that the alternative was all that rosy either). It's a classy thing to do, but probably the only permissible thing under the circumstances, too. If you had the choice between having your body refreshed of all its age-related maladies or scattered at the subatomic level into the inky void of space, which would you choose? I suspect I'd rather not take my chances.
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the first officer of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.
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