Hello all, it’s Andrew with another issue of The Star Wars Dissection. I apologize for the delay since my last post. Today, I want to look at a topic that’s close to my heart: biology. My education and work experience is in biology, and I’ve worked in bio labs. It’s one of my favorite subjects, and even though I now work in an office, my job requires occasional use of my knowledge in the field. There are no less than 11 textbooks in my office. So today, I want to look at some biological oddities in Star Wars, and see if it’s theoretically possible that these traits might have evolved.
I started to think about this topic a few weeks ago, when I was reading some graphic novels I got from the library. I’ve been reading a bunch of old Marvel Comics books through the library, including X-Men and Wolverine stories. Because of his loss of memory, people believed Wolverine’s claws were cybernetic enhancements; it was only in 1993 when Magneto, in an act of revenge, ripped the Adamantium out of Wolverine’s bones, revealing that his claws were actually made of bone. Future series, such as Wolverine Origins (which I’ve been reading) and the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine have supported this claim; those bone claws were covered in Adamantium by the Weapon X program. But this got me to thinking: how can Wolverine possibly deploy his claws? If they were cybernetic implants it would be a simple mechanical answer. But skeletal muscles do not push, they always pull. Consider your forearm: to raise it, your bicep pulls, and to lower it, your tricep pulls. There is no “pushing” involved. So how does Wolverine push his claws out?
After I spent far too much time thinking about it, two possible solutions were raised.It’s possible that a muscle links his wrist to the base of the claw, and so it’s contraction would pull the back of the claw towards the wrist (pushing the top of his claw out), though this would mean that quite a bit of muscle mass remains embedded among the wrist bones when the claws are out, which would restrict motion .Another possibility is that non-skeletal muscles (like the esophagus or blood vessels) surround each claw, and peristaltic muscle contraction (the same kind that pushes food down your esophagus to your stomach) push out each claw. I was happy to have found two unlikely, but workable biological solutions to the problem.
This got me to thinking: Star Wars has shown us a large number of extremely diverse aliens. Many fans were awed by the diversity and complexity of the different aliens the Mos Eisley Cantina the first time they saw Episode IV. The Expanded Universe built upon these aliens, giving complex histories, biologies, and information about their homeworlds. But are these aliens really feasible? Is there any force of nature that would cause a species to evolve some of these odd traits?
I’ve decided to look at a few traits that are either a) not found in humans, but might be found in animal or plant life on Earth, or b) traits that are completely foreign to life on Earth. First, I want to explain that, regarding an alien’s self-awareness and consciousness, I choose to use the word sapient instead of sentient to describe them. While contextually they tend to be synonyms, a sentient lifeform technically means that it has the ability to sense things, or be conscious of things (to be aware of their surroundings). Sapience refers to the capacity to make proper judgments and possess wisdom (to be aware of one’s surroundings and one’s self). Humans are the only animals on Earth with this capacity, and so we are called sapient (note that the latin name for humans, Homo sapiens, refers to this distinction).
Also, I’d like to make a short disclaimer. This article is written under the assumption that life has evolved from primitive single-celled organisms to the complex beings we are today. That said, it is not meant to pre-judge or challenge the beliefs of others. Everyone has the right to their opinions and beliefs. Indeed, it is my personal belief that the two leading schools of thought in the Western world (Darwinian evolution via natural selection and classical Judeo-Christian creationism) are not mutually exclusive, and can be combined into a middle-ground that is both scientifically reasonable and consistent with Judeo-Christian beliefs (noting also that even Darwin firmly believed that natural laws were ordained by a Creator). The article is meant to showcase how odd traits in the biology of Star Wars aliens might have come to develop, based on our current scientific knowledge. I encourage everyone, regardless of beliefs, to read on with an open mind, and I apologize to anyone who might be offended. Regarding evolution’s capabilities, I give it a lot of leeway. I am assuming that, with the right environmental pressures, only time, the laws of physics, and other relevant natural laws (e.g.the statistical laws regarding population growth) restrict the possibilities.
The first thing that I would like to note is that the aliens in Star Wars are incredibly diverse. This is in direct opposition to Star Trek. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Trek too, but most Trek aliens differ from humans only in the colour of their skin, the pigmentation of their blood, or the shape of their heads/ears/nose/etc. Those physical traits can easily be explained as being directly subject to sexual selection. Just as how the peacock with the largest and brightest feathers gets to mate, so too does the prehistoric Klingon with the most pronounced ridges, or the prehistoric Vulcan with the pointiest ears, until the species becomes sapient and sexual traits like that are no longer instinctually selected upon. Aliens in Star Wars are so much more than humans with funny heads. Instead, they represent almost every biological plan known on Earth, and many more that come from the imaginations of the authors.
Because this topic is so large, I will devote this post to six traits of notes: the prevalence of the humanoid body plan, species with complex metamorphosis, cold-blooded humanoid species, sapient species of plant, diversity of alien eyes, and multiple sapient species evolving on the same planet. Further alien traits will be analyzed in subsequent articles.
Humanoid Body Plan
While indeed the diversity of alien life in Star Wars is significant, the vast majority of aliens still possess one trait in common: the generic humanoid body plan. This plan consists of a few important characteristics:
-A head, containing a brain, protected by a skull, and containing all of the important sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc.)
-A spinal cord
-Two arms and two legs, standing tall
The exact details within this plan are subject to variation (for example, the number of fingers, number of eyes, shape of head, etc. can all vary).
While nature can derive lifeforms of countless shapes, and while one could argue that any of those shapes might achieve dominance on a planet, I personally like the argument that the humanoid body plan is the most logical choice for the evolution of sapience. In brief, it can be agreed that several traits in the human body are the best possible design for intelligence. The nervous system is centralized, allowing for significant interconnectivity, protected by a skull and spinal cord, and is in close proximity to the major sensory organs. Human hands, with opposable thumbs, allow for tool manipulation. This idea is elucidated in the article “Alien Life: Does Extraterrestrial Intelligence Imply a Humanoid Body Plan?” (http://www.danhaycock.co.uk/alien-life–does-extraterrestrial-intelligence-imply-a-humanoid-body-plan.html) by Daniel Haycock (note: Haycock is speculating extensively in the article and does not have a scientific background, but the article does provide food for thought).So it is possible that the efficiency of the humanoid body plan causes convergent evolution, where completely unrelated species develop similar traits. I point out that this explanation is significantly more logical than the one chosen by Star Trek, where an ancient Humanoid civilization, noticing they were alone in the Galaxy, seeded hundreds of worlds with their genetic material so that, eons later, many humanoid species would emerge and thrive (The Next Generation: The Chase, Menosky, 1993).This only makes sense if the complete human genome were found in every single organism dating back to the origins of life, which is not true at all.
That said, other creatures could easily achieve sapience if they had some of those features, without being humanoid.An animal with two arms AND four legs (like a Centaur) could still use tools and develop technology.A squid or octopus has a centralized nervous system and all of its sensory organs clustered around it; add a skull and opposable thumbs and a sea-dwelling sapient species becomes plausible.
So, in conclusion, the prevalence of humanoid species could be convergent evolution.
Humans, like all vertebrates on Earth, are born with the same body structure they will have their entire life (subject to growth and development, but still looking basically the same).This is not true of all life on Earth; many invertebrates are born with one body plan, and undergo metamorphosis to emerge as a differently-formed adult. The most common example is the wingless caterpillar, which transforms into the winged butterfly. This is incredibly common among invertebrates, with many insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and other animals having a young larval form and a developed adult form.
Certain sapient alien species in Star Wars have also been known to metamorphose. There are three easy examples of this. First, the Codru-Ji first appeared in the oft-dreaded novel The Crystal Star (McIntyre, 1994).They’ve made occasional reappearances in other sources, but their next big role was in Issue 13 of the comic Star Wars: Legacy, called Ready to Die (Ostrander/Duursema, 2007).Hailing from Munto Codru, Codru-Ji adults are humanoids, who are distinct for having four arms.T heir children, however, are called wyrwulfs, and they look like six-legged wolves. A wyrwulf lives for about eight years, and then spends several weeks in a cocoon, and emerge as humanoid Codru-Ji, like some kind of reverse-werewolf. Because many of the traits are retained between youth and adult (six limbs, pointed ears) and since change in hair coverage during development is common in humans too, I can accept this trait. The changes are still significant (note the shapes of the legs and face, in Figure 3), but the change is gradual, over the course of weeks.
Another example is the Lahsbees. These lesser known aliens are from the planet Lahsbane, and first appeared in Marvel Star Wars#73: Lahsbane (Duffy, 1983), and subsequently appeared in other issues of the series too, featured most prominently in issue #94, where they fought a brief war against the Ewoks (Duffy, 1985).Lahsbees were very short, with an average height of 0.5 meters (less than two feet). They were child-like in nature, enjoying playtime. During puberty, and during bouts of extreme stress, a young Lahsbee transforms into a three-meter-tall mindless savage called a Huhk (I suspect the similarity to the word Hulk is intentional).Following a transformation, a Huhk would migrate to the Forbidden City, where they would live out their lives, reproduce, and give birth to Lahsbees (who presumably would migrate away from the City).Unlike the Codru-Ji, this type of metamorphosis is less believable. The transformation from Lahsbee to Huhk was very quick, often being portrayed in one or two comic panels. For that to happen, the number of cells in the Lahsbee would need to multiply by a factor of around six in a matter of minutes. Human cells don’t replicate that fast. The fastest growing mammalian cell reproduces in 9-10 hours; E.coli reproduces in 20 minutes. Furthermore, how did mindless beasts build a massive city? It’s possible that aliens built it and instilled the Huhk with an instinct to go there upon transformation, in an effort to protect the vulnerable Lahsbees. But if aliens saw that need, then I predict the problem would be too far gone, and the species would be extinct. Last, how did the newborn offspring leave the city? Lahsbees avoided the Forbidden City at all costs, so how did infant Lahsbees make it to safety among their kin? These questions lead me to believe that metamorphosis in the Lahsbee/Huhk case is not believable.
My last example is not a sapient life form, but rather an animal: the Knobby White Spider.Native to Dagobah, these creatures were first seen in the novel Darksaber (Anderson, 1995).What is interesting about the Knobby White Spider is that it is the larval form of the Gnarltree, a swamp-dwelling plant. The Knobby White Spider breaks from the tree’s root system, devours as many animals as it can find, and then implants itself into the swamp to become a tree. For the most part, I buy this metamorphosis.While there are no walking plants on Earth, there are carnivorous ones. Plants are poor sources of protein, and need a mechanism to spread out, and this adaptation solves both of these problems. The Spider is composed mostly of calcified wood, which is similar in many respects to bones (rich in calcium) and chitin, the starch- or cellulose-like molecules that make up insect and arachnid shells. As for the complex structures, like legs and eyes, plants are interesting in that they have nodes (the points where flowers grow, or where branches…branch off from each other) that are in many ways similar to stem cells in humans. With the right genes, I do not doubt that a plant’s node could form complex structures like a leg or an eye.
In conclusion, Star Wars has had its misses, but normally shows metamorphosis in a believable way.
There are numerous cases in Star Wars where multiple sapient species evolve on the same planet. This is in opposition to Earth, where only one species from genus Homo survived evolution (Homo sapiens, humans). Whether there were other sapient species that we wiped out is difficult to determine, but Homo neanderthalensis, also called Neanderthals, did develop tools, cook food, build dwellings, and may have had a language. They were made extinct, possibly due to climate change (frequent fluctuations between mild and extremely cold caused damage to the ecosystem, to which they could not adapt) and biological interaction with humans (interbreeding, getting sick from human diseases, etc.) It is somewhat expected that, if many sapients evolved on one planet, expansion by one would wipe out the others.
The most prominent example at present is the planet Dac, also called Mon Calamari, Calamari, or Mon Cala.Dac possessed no less than six sapient species. The most commonly known were the Mon Calamari, first seen in Episode VI and then commonly featured in the EU, known for their bulbous heads and eyes. Next were the Quarren, with squid-like heads, who also first appeared in Episode VI. Now come the more obscure ones. The Knowledge Bank was a race of telepathic bivalve mollusks, not unlike clams or scallops. Because of their telepathy, they knew what was happening all across the planet at any given point. The Knowledge Bank was first introduced in the novel Dark Apprentice (Anderson, 1994).The Whaladons were a species of marine mammals not unlike whales, first introduced in The Glove of Darth Vader (P.and H.Davids, 1992).The Empire did not recognize their sapience, and so legalized the hunting, killing, and processing of whaladons for their meat and oils. Next are the Amphi-Hydrus, a frog-like amphibian who could use telepathy and the Dark Side of the Force to control the minds of others.They used their powers to attempt to take over Dac, but the Empire quashed their hopes for conquest.The Amphi-Hydrus is the result of the Design an Alien Contest from Galaxy Magazine, the winners and honorable mentions of which were brought into canon by Leland Chee (although no source has ever used the Amphi-Hydrus).Last is the Moappa, deep-sea jellyfish that individually were mindless, but their telepathy caused groups of them to become sapient. They first appeared in Fierce Currents (Blackman, 2004), a sequel comic to the fifth episode of the Clone Wars microseries (Tartakovsky, 2003).Using their telepathy, they coordinated the Quarren Separatists during the First Battle of Mon Calamari.
The case of Dac is interesting, in that most of these species were in some way isolated, either geographically or culturally, by chance or choice, from the rest, minimizing any actual conflict between the various races. Mon Calamari lived near the surface, in floating cities, whereas Quarren lived in the deep sea. The Knowledge Bank was located in one small region and considered sacred by the others. Whaladons had distinct territory from the others, and the Amphi-Hydrus lived mostly in the swamps and not in the ocean. The Moappa were not even known to be sapient until the Clone Wars. As a result, the various species of Dac could co-exist without many problems.
There are other planets with multiple sapient species.Endor gave rise to sapient Ewoks, Duloks, Gorphs, and Yuzzums, and semi-sapient Grass Trekkers, Wisties, and Fftssfft (Dandelion Warriors), and also hosted numerous colonized sapients, such as Teeks and Goraxes, among many others. Most of these have been depicted in the Ewoks cartoon (Jafelice and Schott, 1985-1986) and the tie-in comic series from Marvel/Star Comics Imprint (1985-1987).Again, for the most part, these species had different habitats, and so had little interaction with one another. The planet Aleen is another similar example, with the Aleena living on the surface of the planet, and the Kindalo living beneath the surface. They evolved to breathe different gases (surface air was toxic to Kindalo, and sub-surface air was toxic to Aleena), and so remained separate until a brief encounter during the Clone Wars (see The Clone Wars: Mercy Mission, Keller, 2011).Elom is the same case as Aleen, with the furry Eloms living in caves and the humanoid Elomin living on the surface.The two only discovered each other in 50 BBY, and their relationship was friendly. When the Empire invaded their world, the Eloms and Elomins grew closer, now having a common enemy.
Counter to the other examples is Vinsoth. The humanoid Chevs and pachyderm-like Chevin both evolved independently, with Chevin being nomadic and there being evidence that the Chev were stationary.But millennia before the films, the Chevin enslaved the Chev, using them for labor. Both species survive only because the Chevin will it so, and keep the Chev alive and thriving to serve as slaves.
In conclusion, there are several reasons that multiple species could evolve and thrive on the same planet.
Star Wars features alien species that can be derived from almost all types of animal on Earth. But what about plants? Indeed, the Galaxy Far, Far Away hosts numerous sapient species derived from plant life. These plant species range in appearance. Shapeshifting Neti, in their natural state, resemble large trees. Zelosians, such as Darth Rivan, are near-human, with green eyes and chlorophyll/sap for blood. Affytechans have never been shown in a visual medium, but are described as having leaves and petals. But is sapient plant life possible?
First, as I said earlier in this article, a plant’s node is basically composed of stem cells, which can differentiate into almost anything encoded in the plant’s DNA (flower, leaf, branch, etc.) A plant with the right genes could easily have legs, or eyes, or other organs as such. Plants have complex circulatory systems, whereby sugar-rich sap (phloem) and mineral-rich xylem get distributed to appropriate cells. Co-evolution alongside insects gives rise to any number of complex chemicals, many of which are used in communication or defense. As a result, the plasticity of plants could easily allow for animal-like traits to develop from a fictitious non-Earth plant.
Alternatively, the difference between plant and animal need not be distinct. We see plants and animals as being different because on Earth they have completely different structures and appearances. One of the most important differences between a plant and an animal on Earth is the chloroplast. Chloroplasts are the organ within plant cells that contain chlorophyll and allow a plant to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar. It’s interesting to note that, according to current knowledge, chloroplasts used to be a type of bacteria, which could perform photosynthesis. They were eaten by larger single-celled organisms, like amoebas. But the ancestor to the modern plant cell absorbed and internalized that bacterium, and it became the basis for the modern chloroplast. That raises my important question: what if the chloroplast had been absorbed by an animal cell instead of a plant cell? Is it possible that animal life, as we know it, could have arisen with chloroplasts in its cells? If so, that would be a perfectly reasonable explanation as to how an alien like a Zelosian could exist. While indeed not a “plant” in the traditional sense, they could be animals that exhibit certain plant traits.
As a result, depending on the evolutionary pressures on a given planet, I believe it is possible for plant-based aliens in Star Wars to exist.
One common type of alien in Star Wars (indeed, in most science fiction) is the reptilian humanoid. These aliens look like humans, or have the general humanoid body plan, but are actually cold-blooded reptiles or amphibians. In Star Trek, we saw these in the Gorn and arguably the Cardassians. In Star Wars, the most prominent reptilian species were the Falleen, such as Prince Xizor fromShadows of the Empire (Perry, 1996), the Chistori, including the Dark Jedi Desann from Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (Raven Software, 2002), and Trandoshans, such as the bounty hunter Bossk from Episode V.
One thing worth noting (which is the reason I wanted to look into this more closely) is that reptilian humanoids, as humanoids, stand upright. This is in contrast to reptiles on Earth. Cold-blooded animals, who cannot regulate their own body temperature or metabolism, almost never stand upright. In an effort to leech as much heat from the surface as possible, reptiles stay close to the ground. While some lizards can briefly run on their hind legs, there are no truly bipedal reptiles. This was one of the arguments that dinosaurs were warm-blooded and therefore more closely related to birds than to lizards (there were dinosaurs that stood on two legs, and even those who used four walked very tall).
So could a humanoid species be cold-blooded? I have my doubts. With such little surface area in contact with the ground, they would not benefit from the stable warmth of the rocks or soil on which they walk. Without having stable body temperatures, they would not be able to metabolize their food in a constant fashion, and so might experience long periods of lethargy. Even if a species overcame these problems and became sapient, they would probably not thrive away from their planet. In real-life, in The Empire Strikes Back, when the bounty hunters were assembled on the bridge of the Executor, Bossk probably would have fallen asleep, his body not able to metabolize enough food to give him the energy to stand.
But maybe there are ways around this. It may be possible for a reptile to evolve on a planet that is cooler, having adapted to much lower temperatures than Earth reptiles. Even if food metabolism requires warmer temperatures biochemically, a species that evolved on a cooler planet might have developed enzymes or other proteins that facilitate digestion with less heat (much like how some fish have proteins that act as antifreeze for their blood, allowing them to live in water that is below-freezing.) In that case, such a reptile might be able to do more with less heat, developing the ability to stand upright, and even thrive at Earth-like temperatures.
All that said, another more likely explanation is that the repto-humanoid species in Star Wars are, in fact, warm-blooded, resembling dinosaurs more than lizards. The Falleen, Chistori, and Trandoshans are described as being cold-blooded in Wookieepedia, but that may be logically derived from an overzealous editor. It is also possible that, if it is canon, it can be interpreted in a literal sense (cold-blooded could be a euphemism for their body temperature being kept at temperatures cooler than humans, instead of referring to ectothermy).
In conclusion, I do not believe that reptiles as we know them could evolve into sapient, bipedal lifeform, but anything is possible.
There are numerous cases in Star Wars of aliens with strange eyes, either in number, colour, or visible spectrum. I will be looking at the Miraluka, the Abyssin, the Gran, the Talz, the Harch, the Rodians, the Umbarans, and the Defels.
Miraluka, such as Jerec (from Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, LucasArts, 1997) or Visas Marr (Knights of the Old Republic II, Obsidian Entertainment, 2004) are born with either vestigial or completely absent eyes. This is based on the fact that they can see through The Force, with almost perfect visual acuity. If a Force-sensitive group of Humans were isolated from the rest of the Galaxy, learned how to see in the Force, and were kept in complete darkness for tens of thousands of generations, I could see the group’s eyes becoming vestigial and disappearing. The problem is that I do not believe that it happened that way. Miraluka are close enough to humans to permit interbreeding (per Knights of the Old Republic II and the comic), so they could not have been cut off from Humanity for too long. Furthermore, I believe that evolution would render their eyes non-functional only if all those critera above were met (species could see with the Force, and were kept in complete darkness for millennia.) So, barring genetic tampering, I do not believe this is possible.
Abyssin are primate-like aliens with only one eye. This is another alien oddity that I do not believe is possible. Other than genetic anomalies, there are no one-eyed animals on Earth. Having two eyes that are distant from each other allows us to see our three-dimensional environment (with two images, our brain can triangulate the distance of objects.) A one-eyed animal would have a distinct disadvantage, not knowing how far away a predator is, and so would probably die off.
Several other species have more than the standard two eyes. Gran have three eyes, Talz have four, and Harch have six. While only mutant animals have three eyes, having more than two is certainly common in the animal kingdom, and so I accept this variation. The Harch are worth noting for this, as they are based on arachnids, which on Earth have multiple sets of eyes.
Rodians, as well as many insect-based aliens, have compound eyes. These eyes are composed of dozens (if not hundreds) of individual eyes called ommatidia, which are organized into dome-like structures. Each eye forms a faceted picture of the environment. Real-life insects and crustaceans have compound eyes, and so it is logical that sapient species evolved therefrom would have them too.
My last example is that of the Umbarans and the Defels. These species could see ultraviolet light. Humans can only see what is defined as the visible light spectrum. This ranges from red(with a wavelength of roughly 700 nanometers), covering orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and ending at violet (400 nm wavelength). Anything beyond that spectrum is not visible to our eyes. However, certain animals can see outside of that range, detecting infrared or ultraviolet light. It should be no problem for other species to be able to detect different light spectra, depending on the evolutionary pressures. Umbarans developed excellent night vision, since the Umbara System was inside a nebula, which blocked the light from its own star and generated ultraviolet light from the other high-energy stars nearby. The Defel homeworld orbited a star that put out mostly ultraviolet light, and the planet had no ozone layer to block it. The consequence is that Defels can see ultraviolet light but are blinded by normal light. I would also expect though that both species are resistant to the mutations that can normally arise from ultraviolet exposure.
After looking at these examples, it seems clear that the strange biologies of many Star Wars alien species are feasible in reality. That said, there are also many cases where a species could not have possibly evolved under any circumstances.
I should not, however, discount one possible element that could factor into these odd lifeform designs: genetic manipulation. Just because something could not have evolved naturally does not mean that it could not have arisen via artificial mechanisms. The Arkanians, for example, were renowned for toying with the genetic makeup of their own species, as well as others. To facilitate gem mining, the Arkanians created a race of off-shoots, who had better vision and finer dexterity. Those off-shoots were cast out of society; it is unclear whether the species was somehow reintegrated or completely wiped out, as some Arkanians theorized (see theKnights of the Old Republic comic series, especially issues 16-18, Miller, 2007). The Arkanians also isolated a population of Xexto and genetically transformed them into the Quermians (Alien Anthology, Miller and Stephens, 2001). It is entirely conceivable that the Arkanians, or another species, could have genetically tampered with alien DNA, allowing for traits that nature could not create.
Written by Andrew Halliday
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