Dougal Dixon’s book After Man was a landmark for speculative biology. It was the first work to create a vast pantheon of creatures – and did so in lavish colour – in a work accessible to the general public.
Speculations include what would happen to life on Earth if some event in its past had gone differently; or what could have evolved on other worlds. It also explores cryptozoology – the practice of reconstructing mythological creatures into biologically plausible forms.
Speculative biology takes science and applies it to a variety of “what-if” scenarios. The most common type of work is to explore the hypothetical future evolution of humans into different species, which can involve a range of possible outcomes. Other works may focus on the future evolution of creatures other than humans, such as dragons, apes or aliens.
The genre of speculative biology has roots that extend back as far as the 19th century, but it’s only recently that it’s become established as a distinct subgenre. Its beginnings are generally credited to a Russian biochemist named Aleksandr Oparin, who published a booklet in 1924 about the origins of life. Oparin’s ideas were controversial, and some viewed them as challenging to Darwin’s theory of spontaneous generation.
Oparin’s work was not well-known outside of Russia, and it wasn’t until later that John Burdon Sanderson Haldane began working on similar concepts. Unlike Oparin, Haldane was a highly visible scientist who worked as a publicist for biology, making scientific discoveries accessible to the general population. His work was the first to seriously challenge the notion of spontaneous generation, but his alternative views on the origins of life were often ignored by the general scientific community.
Speculative biology’s rise continued through the years, culminating with the publication of Dougal Dixon’s 1981 book After Man, which envisioned a fully developed, future Earth with its own ecosystem of fictional animals. The book was a landmark of its time, and it spawned several sequels that explored various alternate evolutionary pathways. It was also one of the first works to make use of digital illustration, which would be a major influence on speculative biology for decades to come.
A reprint of After Man was published in 2018, marking the 40th anniversary of its initial publication, and it continues to inspire a wide range of authors and artists to create their own visions of the future of life on Earth and beyond. Speculative biology can be used to explain the emergence of fantastical creatures, such as dragons or flying monitor lizards, but it can also provide real-world explanations for evolutionary patterns that have only been observed in fossils, such as the transition from egg-laying to viviparity in birds.
Speculative biology is an interdisciplinary field of art and science fiction that imagines hypothetical evolutionary scenarios for life on Earth or other planets. It is often used to create fictional creatures that would be unlikely or impossible to develop through natural selection, such as a giant filter-feeding anomalocarid. Speculative biology can also take on a more serious approach, such as the design of alien lifeforms for films and books. A notable example is the enigmatic Hellfire wasp from James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar.
One of the most prominent subgenres of speculative biology, this style imagines creatures that could be evolved in the future or on other worlds. It is a long-standing trope of science fiction, starting with H. G. Wells’ depictions of futuristic animals in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. In some examples, the evolution of humans into different species is a main focus of the work; however, in other cases, humanity is completely written out of the picture, either by becoming extinct or migrating off-world, to allow for the development of creatures that are more suitable to the new environment.
Other examples of works that use this approach include science-fiction novels that explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which are often referred to as “speziology” or “spezifilogy”; astrobiology – the study of the probability and potential existence of life outside the Earth; and paleoart – the recreation of fossilized organisms using modern scientific techniques. Speculative biology is sometimes compared to other genres of art, including cryptozoology and fantasy art, where artists attempt to re-design mythical creatures such as dragons or mer-people into more biologically plausible forms.
Speculative biology is a broad genre that can be explored through a variety of artistic media, such as painting, sculpture and digital art. It is an important part of contemporary art practice, and it often intersects with other genres such as surrealism, neo-futurism and science fiction. Many works of speculative biology are created by individual artists, but there is an active community of writers and artists working in this area. Several publications, such as The Future is Wild and the online wiki Project Perditus, offer a platform for this work.
Speculative biology is popular with biologists and animal fans online, and it’s seen in fan art of fictional animals such as dragons and basilisks. It’s also a common theme in sci-fi, for example in the Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (which featured a four-armed green martian riding a thoat).
In more recent times, Dougal Dixon has created a popular series of books on alternative dinosaurs, with one book – The New Dinosaur Project – being a particularly good example of a large work in this direction. Other works explore what life might look like if certain key events in the evolution of Earth’s biosphere had gone differently. A famous example is what might happen if non-avian dinosaurs had not become extinct, and another common theme in this genre is what might happen if the global climate had changed significantly at some point in the past.
Some works in this genre are intended to be a warning about possible future events, and the genre is sometimes referred to as apocalyptic fiction or apocalypticism, although some authors of this type are more concerned with exploring what might be rather than predicting what will happen. Peter Ward’s 2001 novel “Future Evolution” is a good example, as is his 2010 book Greenworld, which examines the potential impact of human activity on other planets and their biodiversity.
Many works in this genre explore biological possibilities that may be more likely to occur than others based on the trends we have observed in nature. For example, a number of works speculate that the expansion of nasal bones in duck-billed dinosaurs would have allowed them to breathe fire, and some authors attempt to create a plausible mechanism that might explain how this might have happened, pointing to the bombardier beetle as a model.
One of the most famous works in this genre was Gerolf Steiner’s 1957 book The Snouters of the World, which describes a whole pantheon of fictitious creatures living on a small island archipelago and using their snouts to catch fish. It is important to note, however, that Steiner’s work was not an academic text and was not intended to be a scientifically accurate account of the natural history of these speculative creatures.
Speculative biology has not yet been firmly established as a separate literary genre. However, works of this kind do exist. They can be divided into several categories. The first category includes works describing the appearance of the Earth five, 100 and 200 million years in the future with creatures inhabiting it. This kind of work is often criticized as unrealistic and even ridiculous from the point of view of biology, but it has nevertheless attracted a significant number of admirers.
The second category of speculative biology contains works that describe the appearance of living organisms on extraterrestrial planets. This kind of work is usually based on the principles of the laws of nature and the evolutionary process, but sometimes it also takes into account fictitious features such as telepathy or hereditary memory. This genre of literature is characterized by an attempt to find ways to explain the origin and evolution of living organisms on other planets.
Another very popular type of speculative biology is the imagining of possible futures. This approach allows the writers to explore the possible consequences of various changes in our environment or the world’s ecosystem. It is not unusual for the authors to suggest possible solutions to these problems.
The most popular literary genre involving speculative biology is science fiction. It is not uncommon to find a plot that involves a hero that can fly, has telepathic abilities or is able to regenerate from an apparently dead body. The best-known examples of this genre are the works of H. G. Wells, who drew inspiration from biology when creating his heroes. In Russia the genre of speculative biology is rather rare, whereas in Europe and America it has already become widely accepted. This is probably due to the fact that a writer has to be very skillful to create characters and a storyline which can attract the attention of readers and convince them that his or her ideas are realistic. A writer who is not capable of doing this will not be able to gain any success. This is why the genre of speculative biology is very difficult to master.