Speculative biology is an art form that combines scientific principles with a lot of fiction and creativity. It asks “what if” questions about how life might develop in different scenarios.
Dougal Dixon’s 1981 book After Man was the first to systematically explore these possibilities. The book envisions the life forms that might evolve on a world where mankind has disappeared.
The Origins of Speculative Biology
Speculative biology is a form of creative art that envisions what life might be like on other planets. Its roots can be traced to science fiction and fantasy, with Dougal Dixon credited as the first creator to use the phrase speculative biology in his 1981 book After Man. Dixon’s work explored what life might be like about 50 million years in the future, imagining a new world with a variety of hypothetical animals and plants.
While a number of scientists have speculated about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it was largely left to science fiction authors to create detailed creatures that might inhabit other planets. The earliest examples of this include H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series of novels from 1912 to 1941, and Gerolf Steiner’s Rhinogradentia — a fictional order of mammals created in 1957.
In more recent times, the concept has become a popular trend in science fiction books and films such as The Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (2001) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). A broader range of speculative works are available on the internet, with some aiming to adhere to real-world biological constraints while others take a more freeform approach.
Using imagination to examine sometimes overlooked prehistoric creatures can also help modern scientists to test evolutionary patterns. When Darwin came up with his pond idea for how life might have started on primordial Earth, he didn’t have the resources to put it to the test in a way that would be meaningful for today’s scientists.
Speculative biology allows scientists to use their knowledge of how living organisms have evolved and adapted to imagine what might happen to alien organisms in various ecological conditions. This can lead to the development of new theories about the natural history of life. This sort of scientific speculation is also common among palaeontologists, who work with incomplete fossils to reconstruct long-dead species. How far palaeontologists allow their speculation to go is, however, a matter of personal choice and a judgment call they must make in the face of ever-expanding physical evidence about past life.
Afterlife is a major theme for works of speculative biology. One of the most common themes is imagining how species might survive in the future in the absence of humans, often on islands or other isolated habitats. The work of Dougal Dixon in particular has been particularly influential here, with his book After Man creating a vast fauna for the world to come, illustrated in lavish colour. Other examples include work by palaeoartists re-designing prehistoric animals (as in the 2013 book All Yesterdays by John Conway, CM Kosemen and Darren Naish), as well as other speculative works based on hypothetical phylogenies and chemotaxonomic reconstructions.
Xenobiology, the subgenre of speculative biology that focuses on life beyond Earth, is another common theme. Here, the speculative work is often not intended to be art; rather it serves as a tool to help scientists understand the biological processes that might create life on other planets and in other dimensions.
It’s a genre that has roots in science fiction, dating back to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels and short stories from the early 1900s. However, a more modern and sophisticated form of xenobiology is now emerging, with works focusing on imagined creatures that could live in other biospheres or in alternate histories of Earth.
The resurgence of this form of speculative biology coincided with the rise of the internet and the advent of digital imaging technology, which allows for high-quality renderings of fictitious species and ecosystems. This enables the genre to be incorporated into both scientific literature and popular media.
In some cases, works of speculative biology have even proved to be predictive in nature. For example, the imaginary filter-feeding anomalocarid illustrated by artist John Meszaros in the speculative biology books All Yesterdays and After Man was later proven to have existed through fossils of the real creature Tamisiocaris. Despite this, it’s still the case that a significant amount of speculative biology is rooted in theory and hypothesis. This is in contrast to scientific fields such as astronomy, where predictions are more based on current knowledge and data than speculation and wishful thinking.
The Future Is Wild
Speculative biology is a genre of art that utilizes scientific principles to create highly considered, imaginary ecosystems and creatures. These works explore evolutionary and ecological processes with a focus on the interactions between humans and nature while also encouraging artistic experimentation.
Speculation of future faunas is often connected to the field of astrobiology – the exploration of the possibility of life beyond Earth – and to the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology (sometimes referred to as “synbio”) is a contemporary multidisciplinary praxis that seeks to harness the power of biology and physics by enabling the design of tissues, organs, organisms, biological systems, ecotypes and ecosystems.
The modern era of speculative zoology can be traced back to Dougal Dixon’s 1981 book After Man, which explored what the world might look like 50 million years in the future. It is often seen as the first work to technically take on the “what if” questions that are now a staple of this genre of art.
A slew of similar books and TV shows followed, including the documentary series The New Dinosaurs and The Future is Wild, which used computer-generated images to show what creatures might exist on future Earths after millions of years of evolution. These shows helped bring speculative biology into the mainstream and encouraged many others to join in on the fun.
These works often feature a wide range of animals, including reptiles, birds, mammals and even plants. However, the majority of speculative zoology focuses on a few specific animal groups. These include:
One subgenre of speculative biology is cryptozoology, which seeks to re-design mythical creatures from fantasy and folklore into more biologically plausible forms. Mer-people and dragons are a few of the most popular candidates, but the genre is also home to reconstructions of Bigfoot, unicorns, vampires, angels and demons, and fairies/pixies. Another subgenre is xenobiology, which explores the development of life on other planets and other dimensions. This is a more technical branch of speculative biology, and it requires a deeper understanding of genetics, ecology and physics than some of its other relatives.
This subgenre of speculative biology and speculative zoology is focused on hypothetical scenarios in the evolution of life. This may involve entirely conceptual species that evolve on a planet other than Earth or an alternate history focused on an alternate evolution of terrestrial life. These works generally have a strong connection to and basis in science, particularly biology. They are often considered hard science fiction as opposed to soft science fiction.
In addition to creating new fictional creatures, this type of art is also used for depicting what the evolution of existing animals could look like in a given scenario. For example, a bird may evolve to fly if it is placed in an environment that requires flight. Another example would be a ground-dwelling mammal that develops a webbed foot for navigating water.
While these types of speculative evolutions are often based on the natural world, they can be influenced by other areas, such as technology or culture. A popular trend in speculative biology is that of creatures evolving with features from other areas, such as cybernetics or alien technology.
The use of speculative evolution in these types of scenarios is often seen as an alternative to genetically modified organisms or other methods of altering living things to make them better suited for certain purposes. It is also considered to be a more ethical approach as it does not alter the genetic code of the organism, nor does it create artificially evolved creatures.
Speculative evolution has been used in many works of science fiction, from the film King Kong to Dougal Dixon’s books After Man and All Your Yesterdays. The latter books took a look at what the world could be like about 50 million years after man went extinct. Although some of the ideas from these works have been deemed to be unrealistic – such as a large-brained human with a reduced body – other suggestions were more in line with recent scientific discoveries.
Other speculative evolutionary works take the concept beyond the boundaries of the Earth and its history to explore the possibility of life on other planets or even other dimensions. This is referred to as xenobiology and works in this genre often focus on the biomechanics of extraterrestrial life, including considerations of its likely environmental niches. Examples of this work include the Encyclopedia Galactica project by Finnish artist Ken Ferjik, which envisions life forms for several fictional planets, and the Furahan Biology project by Turkish artist C. M. Kosemen, which explores the possibilities of life on the fictional planets of Furaha and Snaiad.