Sunday, March 22, 2009

BSG's deity: not loving, and possibly insane

[WARNING: What follows is probably the length of a small research paper. Maybe print it out and read it during your trips to the toilet. Watch out for hemorrhoids.]

What good is having a Master's degree in religion and culture if you can't apply it to a pop culture phenomenon like "Battlestar Galactica," whose noisy/quiet, but very spiritual, finale aired this past Friday to a chorus of fan cheers, jeers, and tears?

I want to discuss the BSG deity and its plan, but before I do, I'd like to address those viewers who were disappointed that BSG ended up taking such a spiritual turn. My question: What'd you expect? "Science fiction" is a broad term, usually distinguished from the fantasy genre, but it should come as no surprise that a large proportion of SF works are essentially religious ideas masquerading as SF. The creators of such works usually have little interest in the technobabble that enthralls fans of "hard science fiction." Much of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote, for example, took a religious tone, and I can name you a list of nominally SF movies that actually offer some sort of religious message. Right off the top of my head: "The Abyss," "Contact," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Dune," "The Fountain," "K-Pax," the Matrix trilogy, the six Star Wars movies, and so on. My point is simply that religion and sci-fi seem to mix very well, and if you're a BSG fan who feels hoodwinked, I'd advise you just to relax and go with it.

The creator of the rebooted BSG, Ronald D. Moore, has confirmed in interviews that the spiritual angle was something his show had "from the beginning," but lucky for us, we live in the age of textual autonomy-- a work stands on its own (or so the postmodernists contend), so if you don't want to take the author's word for it, you don't have to. Moore has also said that his intention in writing the BSG story was to provoke thought, and he is also on record as noting that certain important characters and events can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

In other words, don't lose hope if you're one of the viewers who want to believe that the BSG universe is actually godless: you can probably find an interpretation of events that will satisfy your basic orientation. The easiest solution? Take your cue from the implications of Intelligent Design Theory. IDT is often used by theists (mostly Christian) who are looking for a "scientific" argument in favor of creationism, but the theory itself really says nothing about whether the Creator is indeed the God of the Abrahamic monotheisms. Be of good cheer: perhaps the BSG "god" is just an extremely old, extremely powerful alien and nothing more. At no point did any BSG character imply that this God created the entire universe.

Having said all that (and I admit that I, too, am a wee bit disappointed with how BSG's hard SF ultimately gave way to a muddled religious outlook), I'm going to take Moore at his word and assume that his intention was to end the show with a peek at his version of the deity. But as we'll soon see, the BSG deity, far from being the comforting god of love that Head Six and Caprica Six claim it is, has some deeply troubling characteristics, and the deity's "plan," such as it is, offers us a rather disturbing cosmology.* Moore's BSG finale might have been intended to end on a bright, hopeful tone, but if we follow the implications of the data we are given in the finale and elsewhere in the series, the overall picture of who this deity is and what it's all about is very dark, indeed.

I. Characteristics of the BSG Deity

Much of what we learn about the BSG deity comes from the last hour of the finale. We've known for several seasons that the deity has some sort of vested interest in the perpetuation of both humans and Cylons, or so Head Six has been telling us.** According to the angelic versions of Six and Baltar that appear in Manhattan, this deity dislikes being called "God," which automatically leads to the question of what this deity likes to be called, but BSG provides no answer on that score.

As the angelic Six and Baltar are walking through Times Square, 1500 centuries after our final glimpse of Bill Adama and Hera, we're privy to the angels' conversation:

SIX (apparently reading National Geographic over Ron Moore's shoulder): At a scientific conference this week at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a startling announcement was made that archeologists believe they have found fossilized remains of a young woman who may actually be Mitochondrial Eve. "Mitochondrial Eve" is the name scientists have given to the most recent common ancestor of all human beings now living on Earth. She lived in what is now Tanzania. Over one hundred and fifty thousand years ago!

BALTAR (amused): Along with her Cylon mother and human father.

SIX (looking around): Commercialism, decadence, technology run amok... remind you of anything?

BALTAR: Take your pick. Kobol. Earth-- the real Earth, before this one. Caprica before the Fall.

SIX: All of this has happened before.

BALTAR: But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?

SIX: This time, I bet no.

BALTAR: You know, I've never known you to play the optimist. Why the change of heart?

SIX: Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur. That, too, is in God's plan.

BALTAR: You know it doesn't like that name. (in response to Six's dark look) Silly me. Silly, silly me.

Earlier in the episode, as the human Baltar lies in the African grass alongside Admiral Adama, Doc Cottle, and the newly-reinstated Lieutenant Hoshi, Adama marvels at Cottle's discovery that the hominids in the distance bury their dead and possess DNA that matches that of the 38,000 surviving humans of the fleet. Baltar affirms that the odds against such intimately parallel evolution are "astronomical," all the more reason to think that such evolution is the product of a divine hand.

This is enough data to start filling in some blanks about the deity that has apparently haunted BSG from the beginning. If we take Baltar's conjecture on the African plains literally, we've got a deity that has already existed for billions of years, tweaking the evolution of life to produce humans-- not once, but already several times on different worlds: Kobol, Caprica, and the first "real" Earth. We can add our Earth, the second Earth, to that list.

Each of these places has evolved recognizable earthlife along with humans. The characters in BSG have long made reference to animals and plants that we recognize from our studies and travels; no new life forms are mentioned, and even back when the beleaguered colonials were fleeing through the cosmos, the few earthlike planets they encountered had recognizable forms of life on them.

All of this suggests that the deity's focus on parallel evolution extends to more than just humans: it's humans plus the life that forms the ecosystem into which humans fit. The existence of earthlife on some of the worlds of the Twelve Colonies might be explained by terraforming, but all that life wasn't brought over on ships from Kobol. No: if the deity wanted humans, it also wanted the earthlife to sustain them.

So we now have two properties of this deity: it's been in existence for billions of years, at the very least (enough time to shepherd the evolution of life), and it's been highly interactive with physical existence, actually expending energy to meddle with life's evolution. This deity, then, is not the God of the Deists, which is said to have created the universe and then sat back to watch it unfold.

But there's more: we know that this deity has personal attributes. It dislikes being called God, for example. It is also said to have a plan, and planning is something done by beings with minds. Head Six and many of the other Sixes have repeatedly claimed that God is love, or that God loves us, which is further evidence that this is a personal deity, and not one of theologian John Hick's impersonae (like the Tao of philosophical Taoism, or the sunyata of Buddhism, or the nirguna brahman of advaita vedanta Hinduism). Of course, the claim that this deity is a loving deity is a matter of contention; ultimately, I will argue in the negative.

Whether this deity has a noumenal aspect-- some untouchable, ineffable, unfathomable, existing-in-itself dimension-- is hard to say. I don't think that BSG provides any clear evidence in this regard. But we do know, based on the angelic Six's remark about letting "a complex system repeat itself," that this deity is performing what amounts to a massive moral-biological panspermia experiment: the biological facet of the experiment involves the deity's need to tinker with life's evolution so that humans are always the end product, and the moral facet lies in the deity's apparent desire to see (or its curiosity about) whether humanity, once evolved to its modern, sapient status, can break free of a troublesome cycle of violence. This cycle seems, time and again, to culminate in a Frankensteinian scenario in which humanity's creations, themselves having achieved a great measure of sapience and sentience, turn violently against their creators.

The BSG deity's need to repeat these experiments demonstrates its non-omniscience, an important property. As I wrote elsewhere, the deity has traits in common with the God of process theology, which is also highly interactive with the cosmos, non-omniscient, and intent on co-producing (the process God isn't coercive; it's a persuader or impeller) moral results that enhance human freedom and flourishing, as well as cosmic novelty, which parallels the "something surprising" that the angelic Six alludes to. The process God acts as a font of possibility which allows for surprises, but whether the process God actually has a plan, per se, is debatable. In fact, the BSG deity also seems less to have a plan than to be interested in experimentation, which isn't the same thing as divine planning, classically conceived.

Furthermore, the deity appears to be internally conflicted-- possibly insane. After bringing life up to the human level (if I can be so arrogantly "speciesist" as to use the preposition "up to" to apply to human beings), it goes further, providing humanity with angels, prophetic visions, clairvoyance, and other forms of supernatural help-- the asteroid that smacks the shattered Raptor and causes the dead Racetrack's hand to fire the nukes at the Cylon colony could be seen as an example of this, and the resurrected Starbuck is an even more glaring example. This level of divine involvement might be evidence in favor of the BSG deity's loving interest in humanity's well-being, but it might also be seen as an extension of its desire to keep meddling even after the moral experiment has begun. Why not go Deist, sit back, and watch what humanity does with itself?

The above implies something else, too: God's non-omnipotence. Could it be for this reason that Six says that God's plan is never finished? Is there always going to be a need for the deity to violate its experiment by constantly involving itself in human affairs? While one could counterargue that the BSG deity might still be omnipotent, the evidence suggests that it isn't. The need to experiment implies, as mentioned earlier, non-omniscience, which is already a major strike against the deity: omniscience is often considered an aspect of omnipotence. The deity's repeated failure, despite constant involvement, to help humanity escape the cycle of violence is also evidence against its omnipotence. In classical theism, human freedom is often thought to circumscribe divine omnipotence. In the BSG universe, human freedom seems always to lead to choices that keep humanity within its own vicious, samsaric cycle; in other words, divine omnipotence appears to be circumscribed in this universe, as well.

So, to sum up our findings in this section, we can name the following attributes of the BSG deity (again, much depends on the extent to which we trust the truth of what the BSG characters themselves tell us about this deity):

1. God is said to be loving, though this is, as we'll see, a controversial claim when we tease out the implications of the deity's intentions and actions.
2. God is said to have a plan, but is actually more of an experimenter than a planner.
3. God's apparent need to perform experiments implies its non-omniscience. (An omniscient God would already know the results of any possible experiments, assuming the term "omniscience" implies foreknowledge of all states of affairs, including counterfactual states-- the mights, would-haves, could-haves, wills, won'ts, etc.)
4. God is a personal deity with a mind and will, and doesn't like being called God, even though the angelic Six seems to have no trouble referring to "it" that way.
5. God is highly interactive with the physical cosmos, not merely tinkering with the evolution of all life, including (and especially) human life, but also interacting with it in various ways even after the moral experiment has begun.
6. God has some traits in common with the God of process theology (a theology based on the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead).

At this point, we've crafted a list of basic theistic attributes that rivals what theists in our world say about their deities. Now, we need to turn from the question of this deity's nature to the problem of its actions.

II. Disturbing Aspects of BSG's Cosmology

As near as I can figure it, the BSG deity's "plan" is, as described above, essentially an experiment that will, the deity hopes, lead to a "surprising" result after enough repetitions. We can assume that the deity has already performed its experiment at least four times-- on Kobol, on Caprica, and on the two Earths, with the second Earth being an experiment in progress. It's highly likely, given the apparent number of habitable worlds in our galaxy and the deity's fondness for exact repetition, that the deity has performed (or is performing) this same experiment on other worlds.

While it's fair to ask why the deity is doing this, I don't think that BSG provides an answer. The question "why" is, in fact, a conundrum for many religiously-minded thinkers in our own, real world. Why would a perfect Creator create life, especially humanity, to begin with? A perfect being is, by the classical definition of "perfect," self-complete. It needs nothing. And yet... here we are, and here the universe is. As there is no universally accepted answer to the "why" question in our own world, I'll table it for the BSG deity as well, and will assume, as I do with this Earth's Yahweh, that the human appellation "perfect" doesn't quite capture the sacred and inscrutable nature of divine desire. Take that for what it's worth.

What we can say, based on the evidence provided in the series, is that the BSG deity has one clear aim, which is to lift humanity out of the cycle of violence. I'm unclear on whether this is the cycle of violence in general, or the cycle that specifically involves human/sentient machine violence, which seems to be the point at which humanity implodes. The experiments have, thus far, ended in failure, with humanity emerging on multiple worlds, evolving socially and linguistically into world-spanning civilizations characterized by a recognizably North American, English-speaking culture. We know the Twelve Colonies speak twenty-first century North American English, using idioms and metaphors that we recognize, with only one notable difference in the lexicon of vulgarity-- the much-beloved "frak."

Two explanations for such close parallel civilizational evolution suggest themselves. The first is that there is something mechanical-- dare I say Cylon?-- about humanity, something that makes it snap to a specific template as it evolves. The civilizations on different worlds might differ in their particulars-- variations in land and climate will affect the specific arrangement of cities, for example-- but the architecture, the fashions, and the general trends in current events will all be the same over time (which is why the civilizations all look and feel the same). That sort of close repetition isn't explicable by a concept like the Jungian collective unconscious. There's nothing inevitable about bread being called "bread," for example-- our own world history is evidence for this.*** If this is the case-- that the BSG deity has been carbon-copying humans onto different worlds-- then the deity is either insane or rather stupid, because the emergent mass behavior of a fundamentally mechanistic humanity will be unable to offer any surprises. The divinity should have realized that early on.

The second explanation is one we've touched on already: the BSG deity cannot stop itself from continuing to immerse itself in human affairs, and has continued to guide humanity's progress long past the point at which hominids evolved into their modern forms. The deity of BSG might not be omnipotent or omniscient, but it is, we can presume, powerful enough to affect the course of the development of language, culture, architecture, etc. A theological question thus presents itself: what is the deity hoping to accomplish if it can't leave humanity alone? And a darker question: if it's the deity that's guiding humanity even unto its own implosion, then isn't that deity responsible for each Fall that occurs? Where, in the midst of all that poking and prodding to shape each culture into a copy of the cultures on other worlds, was human freedom? Ultimately, human blood is on this deity's hands (or tentacles, or robotic arms).

In either case, the theodicy isn't a comforting one. Human suffering must be seen in the context of a massive and repeated experiment involving many worlds, an experiment in which the deity itself is meddling, inevitably to humanity's detriment. It is for this reason, then, that we must question Six's claim that her God is loving one, for it could have altered circumstances in such a way that humanity would evolve into something morally better than what it is. The BSG theology differs from process theology in this respect: the BSG deity must be coercive to have instigated and sustained parallel evolution-- not just biological evolution, but sociocultural evolution as well. The God of process theology, by contrast, is not coercive at all. Humanity arose, but its arising was not inevitable, and in a universe for which God is the co-evolving font of novelty, creativity, and freedom, humanity's future evolution is open as well.

It seems rather cruel for a deity to create sapient, sentient life, then force it to jump through predetermined hoops (a critique often leveled against the divinities of our world, as well!). But the evidence in BSG, unlike the evidence in our world (which is open to more than theistic interpretation), strongly suggests that the BSG deity has been specifically channeling humanity along a certain narrow path. Why the deity even bothers with prophetic visions, angels, and resurrected saviors is a mystery.

If the ostensible goal of the deity is humanity's eventual leap off the samsaric wheel, the deity needs to resolve its own internal contradictions first. The freedom that the humans and Cylons cherish is largely absent from the BSG universe. The existence of prophecy confirms this state of affairs: things will happen a certain way. BSG thus has some uncomfortable parallels with the world of Jack Bauer in "24." Bauer rarely claims to be making choices; he tends to view what he does as the only possible course of action. Bauer's world is a world of brute necessities, and as we muddle through the cosmology of BSG, we see much the same thing. (FYI, "24" is my other favorite show.)

The God of process theism and the BSG deity both seem to be aiming at the creation of a fulfilled humanity. For process theists, this means a humanity that enjoys maximal freedom and cosmic novelty; for the BSG deity, this means a leap off the samsaric cycle of violence and suffering. The BSG deity is aiming for that one moment when humanity will finally do something "surprising," perhaps embracing peace and love and breaking free of what René Girard would call mimetic violence.

But the critique of process theology applies to the BSG deity as well: does all this mean that we are merely grist for the cosmic mill, beings to be ground up in the hope of producing a wavefront (or a future generation) that finds fulfillment or divine blessing? Is all this cosmic churning merely to produce an ontological crème de la crème, and screw the rest? True: BSG has always been about the fleet's collective survival, humanity's collective survival, and not merely about the survival of just a handful. But BSG's darkness arises from a tacit affirmation of the theodicy I've tried to explain here: of the billions of people on the Twelve Colonies, only 38,000 make it to the promised land. Of them, only Hera, a newcomer to that group, is the true hope for the survival of both humans and Cylons. Evil and suffering are a necessary part of the divine experiment which will, it is hoped, evolutionarily produce people who free themselves from the vicious cycle. But evolution is a meat grinder, and many will be lost along the way to such a fulfillment.

III. Why God is Doomed to Fail

The problem for BSG's deity, though, is in the self-defeating combination of the divine experiment with the deity's behavior. We've already explored one aspect of this problem by noting the deity's continued desire to meddle even after the experiment has begun, a meddling that was probably instrumental in leading to humanity's fall in each case. We need to talk about another problem, though-- one hinted at by the way the series concludes.

Let's assume that the humanity discovered on the second Earth is truly human, untainted by Cylon DNA. We now add to the relatively small native population 38,000 humans plus Hera, a half-Cylon. I think we can assume that the pure Cylons won't be having children with any colonials or any native Earthlings: their track record in that department has been abominable. Even if the Cylons do have children, the most important thing to remember is that it's Hera who is the Mitochondrial Eve for our world: she is the MRCA-- the most recent common ancestor-- for all humans alive today. Hera is everyone's great-great-to-the-Nth-power grandmother; mitochondrial DNA is passed down matrilineally. We are all, therefore, part-Cylon.

We've already established that the BSG deity repeats initial conditions as precisely as possible on each "lab" world by meddling with evolution, and that this evolution-- for whatever reason-- continues in precisely the same manner on each world, culminating in a Fall involving human-machine violence. This means, then, that modern humans on the Twelve Colonies are very likely also descendants of a Mitochondrial Eve like Hera: ancient humans there might have started off as purely human, but pure humans are gone by modern times. In other words, the colonials are already part-Cylon when we first meet them. The ancient Hera who visited the Colonies might have come, for all we know, from Kobol, itself a "lab" world (the evidence for Kobol's "lab" status comes from the angelic Baltar's "take your pick" utterance, which implies that the BSG deity's experiment was performed elsewhere).

So when Athena hooks up with Helo to produce Hera, the union is more Cylon in nature than it first appears, because Helo is already mitochondrially part-Cylon. Hera is thus more than half-Cylon. Her entire purpose, based on what the angelic pair tell the human Baltar and Six on our Earth, seems to be her assumption of the role of Mitochondrial Eve on the new world. The fleet might have seen itself as trying to find a safe haven, but what the deity was actually doing was using the fleet to bring Hera-- leaven for the new human-Cylon bread-- to the second Earth.

Because the BSG deity is not involving only one world in its experiment, we have to expand our scope to consider the deity's activity in the entire galaxy. The origin stories for modern humanity will vary according to which groups of humans visit which planets. In some cases, modern humanity will have evolved in "pure" form, created Cylons that rebelled against it, and either imploded or ended up breeding with those Cylons on a small or large scale, resulting in a Hera or Heras. In other cases, modern humans will have been the result of Cylon involvement, having descended from a Hera in their past. These humans, part Cylon, will evolve until there's a Fall, and the surviving remnant will either end up breeding with local Cylons or not. If they do breed with them, they'll produce a girl (it's always a girl, given the matrilineal nature of mitochondrial DNA) who will have a higher concentration of Cylon DNA in her than a regular human-Cylon half-breed. This latter type of being is what BSG's Hera is. Hera is actually a super-Hera, which makes us, here on our Earth, more Cylon than we might seem at first blush.

The human members of the colonial fleet are also, as I've noted, part-Cylon thanks to the probable introduction of a Mitochondrial Eve in their past. They, too, might breed with the local population (otherwise, their scattering will produce a population bottleneck; it boggles my mind that Adama would think humanity's chances for survival would be increased by sprinkling them around on empty continents). Even if our human protags are really, purely human, the eventual result is nearly seven billion part-Cylons: us.

When the BSG deity's experiment fails on a "lab" world, the evidence of failure is a nuked-out, useless planet. The deity either can't or won't go back again (cf. Kobol), and real estate is limited. You begin to see the problem, yes? Humanity has shown, up to now, no tendency to break out of the cycle in which it has been trapped (by its own devices, or by the deity's well-intended but destructive meddling, or by a combination of factors). The probability that it will escape the cycle at any given period in cosmic history is therefore low, and planetary real estate in our galaxy is limited. Pressure is therefore building: land is running out, and with each failure, with each new, nuked-out world, the problem is worsening.

But pressure is coming from another quarter as well. Imagine us, the descendants of Hera, with an already-high proportion of Cylon DNA. If a Fall happens on our world as we fight our own homemade Cylons, chances are that some of us will also conclude that our Cylons are people, too, and will breed with them. The resultant Hera will be even more Cylon in nature. On the first Earth, Cylons evolved to the point where they could reproduce (hence the casting-aside of resurrection technology), so it's conceivable that, on some worlds, the production of Heras between humans and Cylons can occur more easily, given more fecund Cylons.

The overall picture, if we look at the human population as a galactic whole, seems to be that aggregate Cylon-ness will increase over time: the deity's experiments will ultimately lead to the Cylonization of all anthropic life. The general increase of Cylon DNA in the galactic population, added to the rapidly increasing number of nuked worlds, points to the squeezing-out of all true human life.

And the clincher is this: BSG establishes that most Cylons have a hard time dealing with the notion of free will. They are shown, at many points throughout the series, to be prisoners of their own machine nature. Cylons as a whole have less libertarian free will than pure humans do. And if the proportion of Cylon DNA in the galactic population is always on the rise, the chances that humanity-- or maybe we should call it "humanity" in scare quotes-- will break out of the cycle of violence spiral concomitantly downward.

Maybe it is important to ask why the hell the BSG deity would put its humans and Cylons through such a cosmic wringer. At the very least, we can agree that Ronald D. Moore's theology and cosmology, when teased out like this, offer us a much darker ultimate scenario than the happy one portrayed in the series finale. And even if the BSG deity decides to redo this experiment in other galaxies, the ultimate results will be the same, especially if the deity insists on undermining itself every time.

A final note for this section: the Cylons we first encounter, before we know anything about the Final Five, prove to be shockingly militant, mass-producing resurrection bodies and war machines at a frighteningly geometric rate, taking over tylium-rich planetoids and establishing bases on them, extending their hegemony through resurrection ships (I've long wondered: why only one Hub?) and so on. Such beings are far more viral and virulent than humans, especially when they lack internal quarrels and can still act in concert. What's to prevent loose Cylons from one failed experiment from finding a planet on which the deity's experiment in peace and love has proved successful? Imagine the bloody result of that encounter. All in all, no matter how you slice it, BSG offers us little more than the infamous "grey goo" scenario-- one in which the machines overrun us all, leaving nothing but ruin. The logic of this process is inevitable, and stands in contrast with claims that the BSG god is loving or has all our best interests at heart.

IV. Conclusion

The deity of BSG has its own reasons for creating humanity. We can't know those reasons, but we can divine, based on the "canonical" evidence of the show, that this deity is interested in humanity's ability to break free of a cycle of violence of which the deity apparently disapproves (why Baltar describes God as "beyond good and evil," if the deity seeks humanity's good, is beyond me). We've seen, though, that this being, which is far less powerful than the God of classical theism, often seems to be working at cross-purposes to itself, sculpting the biology of many worlds into recognizable earthlife and recognizable humans, but not stopping there.

The deity seems to want, simultaneously and paradoxically, (1) to guide humanity's biological and sociocultural evolution (even beyond the sapient stage, such that carbon-copy civilizations arise), and (2) to allow humanity the chance to choose to escape the cycle of violence that repeatedly ensnares it. Because of the deity's constant meddling-- not merely in the way it coerces biological and sociocultural evolution to result in North American cultures, but also in the way it sends "help" in the form of prophecies, angels, and resurrected heroes-- the deity is, ultimately, responsible for keeping humanity in the painful samsaric loop. Along with lacking omniscience, this deity apparently lacks the wisdom to recognize the probable results of its actions, despite repeated failures on different "lab" planets. There is a good case to be made that all this internal conflict and self-undermining behavior point to divine insanity and/or stupidity.

This divinity therefore can be said to possess, at best, a questionable moral nature. But beyond its nature is the problem of the deity's actions. As we saw, there is a numbers game going on, but it's not the one alluded to by the angelic Six when she spoke of the "law of averages." No: here, the problem is one of limited real estate, the high probability of experimental failure, and an overall increase in the Cylon-ness of the galaxy-wide "human" population. While it might be possible for certain isolated populations of humans to remain genetically pure, it's more likely that any given modern human population will already contain Cylon DNA in low or high concentrations. The pressure of Cylonization and property-loss (i.e., nuked worlds) will ultimately lead to nothing but Cylons-- the scenario on which I was betting before I saw the finale. While I'm glad the finale very cleverly defied my expectations, the end result of the BSG deity's actions will be Cylon omnipresence.

Given this outcome, the deity's experiments with humans can be said to be doomed to failure, no matter how the experiment initially runs. The only true hope for humanity is for the deity to cease all meddling and allow humanity, finally, to run its course-- preferably on as few worlds as possible, to allow people enough real estate to succeed or fail on their own. That sort of deity, whatever name it likes to be called, might-- possibly-- be worthy of worship.

*My atheist friends will wryly note that most theistic cosmologies are disturbing. To be honest, I agree, starting with the idea that an omnipotent god requires any sort of propitiation.

**Head Six hasn't been the most consistent virtual being in this matter. On many occasions, she seems to cajole Baltar into actions that explicitly benefit the Cylons more than the humans. Part of the consistency issue has to do with BSG's writers' having made up the details of the story as they went along. But since much the same can be said for the real world's holy scriptures, which are a crazy-quilt of edited compilations, we'll just go with the flow and keep hermeneutics to a minimum.

***Come to think of it, our Earth seems to host thousands of languages, whereas the civilization of the Twelve Colonies, despite its hints at Latin (sine qua non makes an appearance), French (coup d'état), certain Asian languages (a ship called Incheon Valley), and older forms of English (the phrase "honor thy father" is heard at one point), is entirely anglophone, with variations occurring only in accents and local idioms. BSG's embarrassing lack of other languages is, I think, a linguistic chauvinism equivalent to the Star Trek alien problem: they all look and act human, and they all speak English. There are no aliens, per se, in BSG, but for the viewer's convenience, everyone speaks English. George Lucas got a lot of things wrong, but one of the things he got right in the Star Wars universe was its gleefully polyglot nature. Star Wars droids and aliens understand English, but feel no inclination to speak it... and if you listen carefully, you'll hear humans in that universe who also speak no English.



Anonymous said...


I'm not a BSG watcher, but have enjoyed your reflections on the series. A bit meta, no?

At any rate, on the proportion of humanity that is Cylon, either you or I are missing something.

If the human populations evolve wholly human until the injection of the half-Cylon mitochondrial Eve, then humanity will never be more than half-Cylon.

First Hera = 1/2 human and 1/2 Cylon

She mates with "unsullied" humans - and produces a 3/4 human and 1/4 Cylon offspring.

Now, she can't biologically be mother to every member of the next generation - her body couldn't do it and one wonders what would happen to the all human children of that generation. So while she may end up being the mitorchondrial Eve, it won't be directly - the mitochondria may be passed down intact, but the rest of her DNA would be overwhlemed by the human genome over the generations.

Even assuming that being part Cylon creates some evolutionary advantage, 38,000 hominids is a big gene pool.

But set that aside - even if the ratio of Cylonness stays constant - Hera's children interbreed, Egyptian Pharoah style in order to maintaining the 25% Cylon blood and when they have a critical number mass, exterminate all those with less than 25% Cylonness, the new population will never be more than 25% Cylon.

So when their ur-future descendants spawn their own Hera who is the product of their rebellious constructed servants and themselves, the new Hera would be 5/8 Cylon. Her descendants would be 5/16 Cylon.

Over many experimental repetitions, the Hera seed may approach 100% and her offspring will approach 50% - but given the nature of reproduction, they will never be able to cross the 50 and 1 threshold - we will always remain at least 50% original human - because there is always a 50% human component at the restart stage.

Alternatively, what if the panspermia Hera's offspring don't survive the genetic sweepstakes? Genetic drift ( is always a concern when dealing with small gene pools. Random chance may eliminate elements of Cylonness - especially when the Cylon DNA is being dumped into a large pool of competing genes.

I'm also confused - if Cylons can reproduce with humans, doesn't that mean that they have constructed a genome compatible with human DNA? And not just for a single generation of mules - compatability at a level that does not compromise multi-generational fertility. Doesn't that imply that the Cylons have made human DNA and their descendants are 100% human gneetically, even if they have some Cylon cultural heritage? Of course, I don't watch the show and maybe the show imputes some genetic Cylonness that is post-human but still compatible.

Kevin Kim said...

Reader Andrew R. writes the following in an email:


Hi Kevin,

I made it through your tome (didn't think I would make it tonight), here are some thoughts....


What if the BSG deity wasn't "God" ("It doesn't like to be called that"), because it was "The Devil"? Or if not "The Devil" of Pure Evil™ fame, then a lesser-evil, lesser-capable force, with less omnipotence and a therefore lesser-consistent ability to bring about happy endings?

Such a scenario would seem to cover the bases of some issues. I'm doing this off the cuff, so if it gets weird, stop reading here and consider the core idea, above.

Issues presented by the BSG Deity (the one speaking to everyone) is actually a devilish being:

1) "God..... It doesn't like to be called that".

Since the God of Formation is silent or a predecessor of the deity, the active deity may not like the comparison.

Note: this could apply if the deity is a Holy Spirit type entity from Christianity.


2) The pattern repeats, but it never gets it right.

It could be that the deity is mucking about in the universe of many humans-and-Cylons which the original God created.

Perhaps the deity is trying to swing things *it's* way. That is, the creator God set things up in a pretty vanilla fashion (planet, plants, fish and humans - let 'er rip!) and the deity tried to get life moving in a more.... dynamic fashion.

This would mean that the deity might not be *EVIL* in the renaissance sense of a goat-themed entity... but simply a less-powerful entity whose priorities for God's creation were different ("Give them free thought!" it might argue, for example).

Or the deity might be a fancy version of the Trelane being from that episode of Star Trek where the guy wanted to duel on his magic planet... but he himself was simply a child of a super-powerful alien race.


3) Small "coincidences" would be likely to occur with a less-powerful entity watching (Racetrack just happening to fire the rockets at the right moment, and all because of a collision). The end of BSG seemed to come down to more and more risky scenarios needing to unfold in just the right manner to have a happy ending.... hardly a "well-thought-out" plan of a great deity.

This assumes that a more omnipotent being would be less in need of frantic last-minute adjustments to a grand-plan than what happened at the fight near the black hole.... that's a bias of mine, assuming that scale of events would matter, or should matter... but there it is.


Further thoughts.....

Re: "only Hera, a newcomer to that group, is the true hope for the survival of both humans and Cylons"

Maybe the whole point of the Human experiment is to get humans evolved to the point where they can survive/co-exist with their "off-spring" (the Cylons). That is, humans deal themselves a bad hand (robots that wanna kill 'em) and turn it around into a positive situation (well, sorta positive).


Re: ".... most Cylons have a hard time dealing with the notion of free will."

Ever seen "They Live" with Roddy Piper? The theme of the story is that aliens take over Earth by hypnotizing folks into mindless activities: consumerism, reproduction, etc. All because they've been hypnotized and "have no choice". Maybe the "Cylons" represent humans who go along with things mindlessly because they "have no choice".....


Re: "The logic of this process is inevitable, and stands in contrast with claims that the BSG god is loving or has all our best interests at heart"

Maybe the BSG god is preparing humanity (et al) for a future wherein they must face a calamity/threat beyond comprehension (e.g. the Borg in ST:TNG), and this trial is needed to "toughen them up". Tough love sucks, but if successful, is useful, in hindsight.


Note, re: "BSG's embarrassing lack of other languages is, I think, a linguistic chauvinism equivalent to the Star Trek alien problem"

Yeah, that was a bit odd (in light of your awesome post). But I can chalk most of that off to the fact that: it's for American TV. The effort/reward for having folks in the background chattering in many misc. languages would be difficult and without payback.

I mean, George Lucas pulled off a minor coup with Lando Calrissian's (sp) co-pilot in "Jedi" speaking in the obscure dialect of a SE Asia island group... but that was 2 lines to the effect of, "WTF?!" Incorporating more languages into BSG, from a logistical point of view, would be problematic - especially considering that they might not get a 2nd season. Or a 3rd.

Keep in mind, "Deadwood" on HBO only got 2 seasons - out of the 4 seasons clearly mapped out ahead of time - and they had a huge following at the time. The face that BSG got to an on-air finale.... everyone watching should kiss the ground - being able to view the 4th season finale is, statistically, about the same as the Galactica survivors making it that far.

I think the best use of a multi-culti background on tv would be "Firefly". The world was constructed as a post-Earth hodge-podge of American and Chinese... with the non-Asian folks knowing a tiny amount of Chinese (mostly in swears). In a logistic sense, it didn't matter what the Chinese phrase was, the viewer knew from the context what was being said.


OK, that's about it. Your thoughts?


P.S. - Great post. You really covered the bases. As an observer rated (at best) as 'casual', I hope I had some useful input.

Kevin Kim said...


Excellent thoughts. Something is indeed missing, and my essay probably should have been clearer on what this was.

The thirteenth colony, the one on the first Earth was, according to Baltar, Cylon. In my opinion, Baltar arrived at this conclusion too hastily, from the examination of only a few hundred scattered samples and no real archaeology. But if we take Baltar at his word (I've been trying to construct my argument using elements from the show as evidence), then the thirteenth colony, which presumably started off human (I'm not sure this issue is ever made clear), was taken over by Cylon DNA. How this is possible, I don't know.

In any case, the BSG deity seems to have believed that Hera represented the perpetuation of the Cylon race as much as of the human race. It's an odd stance, when you think about it: pure humans apparently already exist on the second Earth (our Earth), so from a godly standpoint there's no survival issue for the humans. That means Hera's sole function is the propagation of Cylon DNA.

This again leans me toward the notion that the BSG deity is specifically the Cylon God: practically all of humanity on the Twelve Colonies was destroyed, and what God cared most about was getting Hera into a clement environment where her Cylon genes would have free rein.

Another problem (which I thought I had covered, but might not have made as clear as I could have) is that part-Cylon humans can probably interbreed, so the concentration of Cylon-ness might not die down as fast as all that. Whether that concentration ever gets above 50% might be a question of whether humanity, further down the line, ends up mating with its own homemade Cylons or with Cylon visitors.

I may have to restructure my argument to make all this clearer, but as I told commenter Andy (above), my brain is empty after writing that essay, so I need to recharge first.


Excellent comments. I, too, wondered whether we might be looking at a "Pascal's demon" scenario (the demon is one rebuttal to Pascal's Wager). The BSG deity does seem, overall, capricious and possibly malicious.


Kevin Kim said...

Whoa... in my previous comment, I referred to a "clement environment" for Hera's DNA, but as you point out, Mark, there was always a chance that she and her descendants wouldn't survive, what with all the beasties and barbarians roaming our Earth 150,000 years ago. This point has been made by fanboys who are even more serious about the show than I've been (for me, the religious ambiguity, combined with the general grittiness and darkness of the tone, were what kept me coming back): 150,000 years ago, you'd have very large mammals walking the earth, and those primitive humans (hunter-gatherers, by the look of them) will have already become familiar with the idea that nature is red in tooth and claw, i.e., they're as likely to react violently as they are to react peaceably to the arrival of the colonials.

Because the colonials have chosen to scatter themselves over the empty continents (probably interacting only minimally with the natives), they've effectively chosen to die out as a people. The only tech they've got with them is whatever they scrounged from their ships, and that won't last as supplies run out and machines run down. The presumption is, I think, that all evidence of colonial technology will have disappeared after 150,000 years. Sturdy stuff, like Adama's Raptor, will have been dismantled and/or burned (or buried) by the natives after Adama was gone. Many of the 38,000 colonials will die from starvation, disease, and from other problems as they prove unable to cope with a cold Hobbesian reality.

Following the BSG finale, though, it appears that Hera, at least, survived and inserted her genes into the timestream. Who knows whether Cylon genes are similar to their human analogues, or whether they can "take over" a person's genome? None of this ever gets explored in the series (in fact, what Cylons are and what capabilities they have are never consistently portrayed on the show), so anything's possible.

I'd still stand by the idea that the end result of all this experimentation will be Cylonization of the galactic human population, though. Even if Cylon DNA is diluted in the manner you've written about (and that's a legitimate point), you've still got the problem of disappearing real estate combined with the Cylons' massive production capability and overall warlike tendencies.


Kevin Kim said...


Isaac Asimov's Foundation series gets into the idea that humanity is being prepped for an extragalactic threat. Humanity invents robots; one among them, R. Daneel Olivaw, becomes the orchestrator of human evolution such that the world Gaia is created. Gaians are in many ways superior to normal "isolate" humans because they are more intimately tied to their home planet, and can draw on its energy at need, allowing individual Gaians to perform feats of telepathy and telekinesis not possible for normal humans. The problem, though, is that collectivism is part of the Gaian paradigm, an idea many humans, including one protagonist named Golan Trevize, find repugnant. Trevize is given the power to determine the galaxy's fate, and he ultimately decides that humanity should evolve along the Gaian path, which is the outcome that R. Daneel Olivaw was hoping for.

The BSG universe is very Asimovian in tone; when the fleet found the first Earth, I was strongly reminded of Asimov's series: in the Foundation books, Earth is initially considered a legendary planet, but when it's finally found, it turns out to be uninhabitable, as it's awash in radioactivity from whatever disaster the Earthlings had brought upon themselves (nuclear war being most likely). Olivaw's outpost was hidden inside Earth's moon. Strong echoes of Asimov's story can be heard in the BSG narrative.

Ron Moore probably didn't want to go totally Asimovian, but I'm thinking he was heavily influenced by the Foundation mythos.


Having reread my essay in light of your remarks on genetics, I'm thinking I may need to tweak it a bit. Most of it still stands, because for the most part, the only thing I'm implying is that the galactic human population will, in the aggregate, become less human overall as more human-Cylon combinations appear. The Cylons get a jump on the humans in every case in which a Mitochondrial Eve is inserted into a planet's history, ensuring that all modern humans on that planet will be at least part-Cylon by the time those humans reach a stage where they begin building their own Cylons.

In rewriting the essay, what I'll need to say is that, in the best-case scenario for humans, the eventual outcome will be a galaxy full of part-Cylons. The humans will develop extrasolar travel capabilities, and will cross-pollinate. In many cases, these humans won't be pure humans, but will be mitochondrially Cylon. As this continues, and as real estate runs out, everyone will eventually be mitochondrially Cylon. As the Cylons themselves-- with their superior assembly-line capabilities-- produce more Cylons at a geometric or logarithmic rate, total or near-total Cylonization will be the next step up because the number of pure Cylons will overwhelm the number of part-Cylons. (And "Cylonization" need not mean the production of 100% Cylons.)

I should have laid the argument out that way in the first place.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking my genetic query seriously. I'm not sure that seriousness is earned because my only real involvement with genetics is cattle related. The real person to ask is Dave's wife Andy - she's the real McCoy.

Not being a BSG fan, I hadn't considered the possibility of Cylon conquest - pure Cylons simply wiping out all the parallel evolution worlds until their is no longer a "reset" button because all life-nourishing planets have become cinders. Then we become majority Cylon right quick (if we accept the fact that the artificial Cylon DNA is distinguishable from human DNA - I'd like to see some more clarification on that point for the non-BSG watcher).

Another side thought: it's too bad the God's template seems to be North American culture. What if a group of Cylons embraced a Mongol-style culture and launched a war of genetic conquest? 8% of Asian males can trace their Y Chromosome back to Genghis Khan. Heck, with industrial technology, they could kill or castrate all human males and then keep only female children they would breed back to Cylon fathers.

Of course, if Cylons can replicate themselves from scratch, even that is unnecessary - just kill all humans and settle their world with purebloods.

This is odd - I've never watched more than a snippit of the show, but you've got me thinking about the implications based just on your essay. Kudos for your evocative writing.

Anonymous said...

One more thing regarding the small clusters of survivors seeded over the continents:

I think they thrive and do well.

The population bottleneck and inbreeding problem can be solved by interbreeding with local populations.

In the short term, the salvaged technology would give a huge competitive advantage of early tool using hominids. That keeps them alive long enough to establish their society and defenses.

When the technology wears out (in a generation or two?), they still have a huge advantage. They are scientific thinkers and will be able to solve problems much more efficiently than their non-rational neighbors. That in itself will be a huge, lasting advantage. I don't see them being subsumed by a sea of superstition because they will see the efficacy of rational thought on a daily basis. The transition to a rational culture is difficult in the real world and even in cultures were the elites are scientifically oriented, atavistic primitives still dispute the emerging rationality (See: The Discovery Institute). But spacefaring crewmen aren't going to return to the dark ages overnight.

You might argue that the Romans degenerated culturally, but I'd reply that rationalism was never as deeply embedded in the average Roman's mind as it would be in a spacefaring culture - if I'm a Roman nobleman, I'm not going to explain scientific principles to my Latifundia slaves.

So, if we posit that the seeded survivors are committed to rationalism, then their advantage will long outlive their spaceship detritus.

Furthermore, knowing what technology is capable of, they can bootstrap themselves rather quickly. They don't have to test competing theories about how things work - they can simply figure out how to build things based on the understood principles. A particularly good examination of those bootstrapping principles is found in Eric Flint's 1632 series. Flint drops a West Virginia coal town into Germany in 1632. The modern firearms are handy to keep the French at bay in the short term, but the real transformative effect is the idea of multicultural inclusion, feminism, capitalism, and representative democracy. Flint's antagonists aren't stupid and begin mimicking large parts of American culture, but they are more successful at copying tools than adopting the mindset. The gap between BSG crewmen and early hominids is much wider - 1632 minds can see that 2001 technology is technology*. To pre-Neolithic people, even rudimentary technology would seem, in Clarke's phrase, "indistinguishable from magic." They wouldn't even know how to think about the survivor's techniques. But if they intermarried, their children would be raised by the otherworldly magicians and would have a much higher standard of living.

I think that higher standard of living solves the population bottleneck problem - indigenous people would beg to be taken into a society that doesn't bury 3/4 of their children (think about how the knowledge that germs exist would be an advantage even without having the ability to buy microscopes are "Scientific Instrument 'R Us.").

Additionally, the idea of feminism would naturally double the ability of the survivors' society to solve problems - our primate patriarchy may be natural, but societies that don't jettison the subjugation of women are ignoring half of their potential pool of leaders and innovators. If BSG is on a North American template, I'm guessing that, whatever male chauvinism lingers in the locker room, they culturally have avenues for bright women to contribute - as I recall, they have an Israeli-style pilot corps chock full o' hot chicks.

In short, I think the cultural "technology," not space lasers, is what will make the seeded survivors' societies last. I disagree with your easy dismissal of their chances.

* Joel Rosenberg's "Guardians of the Flame" series also sends moderns to a pre-technological society and they start bootstrapping a munitions industry, rail lines, and telegraphs pretty quickly.

Kevin Kim said...


The series finale leads us to believe that the colonials pretty much die out as a people and perhaps as a culture. Hera's status as Mitochondrial Eve attests to the fact that other females' DNA didn't make it that far down the historical line. Kara Thrace (Starbuck) was prophesied to "lead humanity to its end," and the show ended up taking the word "end" more literally than I thought it would (or should) have.

Lee Adama (Apollo) is the one who makes the decision not to have the colonials build cities and rely on their mechanical advantages. He argues for a "fresh start," and if the colonials interact with the natives, then the former should give only "the best" of themselves to the latter-- things like language and maybe some sort of appreciation for art and beauty. But weapons and all that other tech? No.

There has been, as a result, a huge online outcry about this "hippie" ending to the series. One commenter on another blog very astutely noted that the colonials' decision to cast aside their own civilization is a damning commentary on that civilization, which had probably produced some amazing cultural memes and artifacts. Most of the other online comments were along the lines of "gimme my high-tech society any day!" I'd have to agree. I, too, was a bit disappointed by the "hippie" ending. (Of course, it's all for naught: since it's our Earth that's shown as the result 150,000 years later, we know that Apollo's wish for a fresh start was in vain.)

Some commenters, including the show's creators, seem to view the colonials as our progenitors-- that they brought elements of language and culture that became our language and culture. Ron Moore himself is one of the people arguing that the persistence of cultural and linguistic similarity is the result of some sort of Jungian collective unconscious (plus whatever influence the earthbound colonials have on the natives). The music and lyrics for "All Along the Watchtower" are among the elements that will, apparently, be repeated in all human cultures; it's our "connection with the divine," as Moore claims, which is why the song is significant in the series.

Alas, this shows a real lack of understanding of the nature and power of the collective unconscious, whose existence is still debatable. Even if Jung's concept of racial memory is assumed to hold true, the various archetypes that reappear in various cultures can nevertheless acquire different valences. A snake, for example, might symbolize fertility in one culture, but symbolize the sky in another, and death or evil in yet another. There's nothing inevitable about what the snake, as archetype, can mean. There's nothing inevitable about the arising of North American culture. And that's why the only sensible explanation for such closely parallel biological evolution-- since we now know that the universe of BSG definitely includes a deity-- is extensive divine meddling for the sake of tight control of the evolutionary process.

So even though I've tried, in my argument, to use data from the show to piece together the show's actual theology and cosmology, I don't think that the show itself supports Moore's own thinking about it.

This is a strange position for me to be in, because I'm normally a huge respecter of authorial intent. If the author says, "This is what I was trying to portray," then that's probably how I, too, should view the work. But I strongly feel that Moore's universe doesn't bear out Moore's own claims about it.