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How to Use Biology Terms in Your Speculative Fiction

Book Discussion

Correct Uses of Biological Terms for SF/F

As many of you know, I’m a graduate student in addition to being a complete sci-fi and fantasy book nerd. Therefore, I notice when biological terms are used just a bit off in whatever fiction I’m reading. Of course, it’s speculative fiction so magic and hand-waving of futuristic technology is par for the course. However, if you are a writer and are interested in upping your game by using biological terms correctly, I’m here for you.

First, though, I want to wax poetic (not really) about why I think it is important for a speculative fiction writer to put a little extra effort into deciding which of these terms to use for their fantasy critters/aliens. As many of you know, science education in the US is pretty painful, especially on the biology front. One of the reasons (besides politics) is that the ideas represented by these terms are often counter-intuitive. They just don’t jive with how our brains are wired to understand the world. Therefore, speculative fiction is a great place to subliminally help teen readers start to form correct ideas about biological terms without them even realizing they are learning something useful! Don’t you want to brainwash teenagers??


Let’s start with the big one! Evolve is a tricky term because, generally, it just means “change over time,” so lots of things can evolve. However, if you’re talking about organisms, evolve has a much more particular meaning. There are four things necessary for the ‘evolution of organisms by natural selection’ (what people generally mean when they talk about organisms evolving): variation (if everything is the same, not much can change), inheritance (if offspring are made completely randomly compared to their parents, nothing can get passed on), competition (not every offspring can survive, some will win and some will die), and time.

Variation and competition are the two that a lot of people don’t realize are required. What variation and competition imply is what I’ve seen a number of authors get screwed up on: only populations can evolve. One single organism can’t compete with itself and can’t really have the variation we’re talking about. So if you use the word evolve to discuss your crazy aliens or fantasy critters changing over time, make sure you are talking about a population of them.

Inheritance also has an important implication. The way that biological evolution works is that change in the population happens when some organisms die and others live to produce offspring. The change in the population only happens because more of type A survive than type B. The organisms don’t have to know that doing a certain thing will be useful for them; it simply has to be the case that some of them do a useful behavior and others don’t and the ones that don’t aren’t able to produce as many offspring, leading to that behavior becoming more common in the population.


If, on the other hand, you have a cool organism that is changing within its lifetime to be better suited to its environment, either purposefully or not, it is adapting/acclimating! Acclimate is a bit more accurate, but adapt can work if acclimate doesn’t quite fit your writing style. There are all sorts of cool ways that organisms can adapt/acclimate as the environment around them changes — including 1) learning, 2) an environmental signal making their genes change something about them, 3) switching between asexual and sexual reproduction when times get tough, etc. Check out the Wiki on phenotypic plasticity for looooooooots of cool ideas.


Develop is another word that has a pretty broad general meaning, but when applied to biological organisms, it is usually specifically about changes due to an organism going from immature to more mature. A lot of crazy things happen to organisms as they are developing in their eggs or wombs or alien pods (I assume), but organisms often continue to develop after they get out of their eggs (or wombs or alien pods) until they reach whatever their sexually mature or ‘adult’ state is. The difference between develop and acclimate is the idea that development is something an organism has to do no matter what the environment, whereas acclimating is specific to the environment being different than what the organism can best handle. Of course, there is a lot of interesting interplay between these two ideas that we (scientists) are only starting to figure out, but that’s the basic idea!

I pretty much guarantee that I’ve oversimplified these ideas and made a few of my friends’ teeth grind, but I hope that I’ve made it easier for all you writers out there to incorporate these ideas into your world-building. I greatly look forward to more speculative fiction that touches on these aspects of aliens or fantasy creatures, etc. If you have general questions or specific passages you’d like me to look over, I’m happy to help. If you are a biologist and have strong opinions about how I explained something, let me know and I’ll update the post ;-).

Did I now scar you all for life by bringing back your high school biology days? Are you an (aspiring) author with thoughts on using these terms in your work?

Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings -Anya

© 2016, Anya. All rights reserved.


  1. Cool! A Scientist who also writes/edits Speculative Fiction! You’re unique Anya :)

    I wonder to what extent scientists read SF vs. the general population. If a large % of their readers are hardcore scientists, SF writers would certainly have incentive to be correct when using terms like Evolve and Adapt.
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  2. Haha, as another science grad student, I also approve this message. Great post!
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  3. As someone who studied both biology and journalism in college, this has always annoyed me!
    Unfortunately, “Evolve” is just a cooler sounding word than “adapt” so it is often egregiously misused.
    Kallen @ GeekyLibrary recently posted…A Geeky List of my Five Favorite Fictional LibrariansMy Profile

  4. You mentioning how to actually use “evolution” correctly reminded me something I saw ages ago online, where someone said they absolutely believe that animals can change and adapt based on circumstance and mutation, but they absolutely don’t believe in evolution. -_-

    The amount of people who believe that evolution refers specifically to “monkeys turning into humans” astounds me… Either that or evolution evolution is imagined Pokemon-style, where a thing changes quickly into another similar-but-different thing.

    Or that evolution refers specifically to things like “the next stage in human development,” like a humanity’s endpoint is set in stone and we’re inevitably working toward a species goal that was determined eons ago or something.
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    • Ha, yeah the whole ‘micro evolution but not macro evolution’ argument is infuriating! It’s like uhhhh, how do you think we’re saying it works??? Or the whole humans are perfect and the top of the chain. I wish I could see what things would look like in even just 1,000 years!

  5. Yay I approve this post. My area was anthro/bio before going into the healthcare field, and the other related terms I see bandied around in SFF without much care for their meaning is mutant/mutate/mutagen. I admit it also drives me a little bonkers whenever I read about genetic traits being passed on in characters’ families without following the inheritance patterns of dominant vs. recessive allele models, because yes I am just that nerdy, lol. Even though I know it’s SFF and that anything goes and that in the big scheme of things it doesn’t matter at all, I still can’t help but shout at the book a little :P
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    • Woot! Yes, so true, mutant is heavily abused in SF…. Haha, I’m totally the reader that needs everything to make biological sense in a sci-fi setting to be happy. How would that thing have evolved on that planet, makes no sense!!

  6. Can I just co-sign all of this? The “evolve” thing really gets my goat. “She’s evolving!” No, she isn’t. Unless “she” is the collective Borg and she’s experiencing a change in allele frequency over time or something, in which case we still need to address whether this particular intergalactic colonial alien life form counts as an individual organism or a population….
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  1. […] am a stickler for how science is portrayed in fiction and found myself getting really annoyed. There was a lot of anthropomorphizing of biological […]

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