What are the best humorous portrayals of evolution?

I’ve been rereading a lot of Terry Pratchett over the past year-plus. He’s my favorite author, and I’ve found rereading the Discworld books very comforting.

Pratchett often makes very funny jokes about evolution. He wrote an entire humorous fantasy novella, Darwin’s Watch, centered on evolution.* But there are plenty of other evolutionary jokes scattered throughout the rest of his work. I love this mock natural historical note about the Ambiguous Pazuma, from Pyramids. It’s a hilarious mashup of biology jokes and physics jokes:

[T]he fastest animal on the Disc is the extremely neurotic Ambiguous Pazuma, which moves so fast that it can actually achieve near-lightspeed in the Disc’s magical field. This means that if you can see a pazuma, it isn’t there. Most male pazumas die young of acute ankle failure caused by running very fast after females which aren’t there and, of course, achieving suicidal mass in accordance with relativistic theory. The rest of them die of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, since it is impossible for them to know who they are and where they are at the same time, and the see-sawing loss of concentration this engenders means that the pazuma only achieves a sense of identity when it is at rest–usually about fifty feet into the rubble of what remains of the mountain it just ran into at near light-speed. The pazuma is rumored to be about the size of a leopard with a rather unique black and white check coat, although those specimens discovered by the Disc’s sages and philosophers have inclined them to declare that in its natural state the pazuma is flat, very thin, and dead.

Passing remarks to silly species are among the many recurring bits in the Discworld books. Like this line from The Last Continent:

The Sledgehammer Plant of Bhangbhangduc takes the occasional human victim who doesn’t see the mallet hidden in the greenery.

Here’s a compilation of the Discworld’s ridiculous flora and fauna. Other favorites of mine include the clock cuckoo (the males of which build cuckoo clocks to attract mates), the re-annual plant (which flowers and grows before its seeds germinate), and the counting pines from Reaper Man, which pull off the difficult trick of being simultaneously hilarious and touching:

Whereas the oldest things on the Discworld were the famous Counting Pines, which grow right on the permanent snowline of the high Ramtop Mountains.

The Counting Pine is one of the few known examples of borrowed evolution. Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone. This is probably fine from the species’ point of view, but from the perspective of the actual individuals involved it can be a real pig, or at least a small pink root-eating reptile that might one day evolve into a real pig.

So the Counting Pines avoided all this by letting other vegetables do their evolving for them. A pine seed, coming to rest anywhere on the Disc, immediately picks up the most effective local genetic code via morphic resonance and grows into whatever best suits the soil and climate, usually doing much better at it than the native trees themselves, which it usually usurps. 

What makes the Counting Pines particularly noteworthy, however, is the way they count. Being dimly aware that human beings had learned to tell the age of a tree by counting the rings, the original Counting Pines decided that this was why humans cut trees down. Overnight every Counting Pine readjusted its genetic code to produce, at about eye-level on its trunk, in pale letters, its precise age. Within a year they were felled almost into extinction by the ornamental house number plate industry, and only a very few survive in hard-to-reach areas.

The six Counting Pines in this clump were listening to the oldest, whose gnarled trunk declared it to be thirty-one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-four years old. The conversation took seventeen years, but has been speeded up.

‘I remember when all this wasn’t fields.’ The pines stared out over a thousand miles of landscape. The sky flickered like a bad special effect from a time travel movie. Snow appeared, stayed for an instant, and melted.

‘What was it, then?’ said the nearest pine.

‘Ice. If you can call it ice. We had proper glaciers in those days. Not like the ice you get now, here one season and gone the next. It hung around for ages.’

‘What happened to it, then?’

‘It went.’

‘Went where?’

‘Where things go. Everything’s always rushing off.’

‘Wow. That was a sharp one.’

‘What was?’

‘That winter just then.’

‘Call that a winter? When I was a sapling we had winters -‘

Then the tree vanished.

After a shocked pause for a couple of years, one of the clump said: ‘He just went! Just like that! One day he was here, next he was gone!’

If the other trees had been humans, they would have shuffled their feet.

‘It happens, lad,’ said one of them, carefully.

‘He’s been taken to a Better Place, you can be sure of that. He was a good tree.’

The young tree, which was a mere five thousand, one hundred and eleven years old, said: ‘What sort of Better Place?’

‘We’re not sure, ‘ said one of the clump. It trembled uneasily in a weeklong gale. ‘But we think it involves . . . sawdust.’

Since the trees were unable even to sense any event that took place in less than a day, they never heard the sound of axes.

Right now I’m rereading The Last Continent by reading it aloud to my 10 year old son. It’s one of the weakest Discworld novels, basically just an excuse to make fun of Australia. But I’m still enjoying it. I had forgotten all the bits about the god of evolution (who doesn’t believe in himself). The bit about how camels colonize islands (by floating across the ocean on bits of driftwood). And the running gag in which poor Ponder Stibbons’ attempts to explain evolution keep running aground on the rocks of Mustrum Ridcully’s “common sense”:

“Are you tellin’ me,” said Ridcully, like a man with something on his mind, “that you think when you eat an apple that you’re helping it to…” He stopped. “It was bad enough about the trees.” He sniffed. “I shall stick to eating fish. At least they make their own arrangements. At a decent distance, I understand. And you know what I think about evolution, Mister Stibbons. If it happens, and frankly I’ve always considered it a bit of a fairy story, it HAS to happen fast. Look at lemmings, for one thing.”

“Lemmings, sir?”

“Right. The little blighters keep chargin’ over cliffs, right? And how many have ever changed into birds on the way down, eh? Eh?”

“Well, none, of cou–“

“There’s my point,” said Ridcully triumphantly. “And it’s no good one of them on the way down thinking ‘Hey, maybe I should wiggle my claws a bit,’ is it? No, what it ought to do is decide really positively about growing some real wings.”

“What, in a couple of seconds? While they’re plunging towards the rocks?”

“Best time.”

“But lemmings don’t just turn into birds, sir!”

“Lucky for them if they could, though, eh?”

I’d nominate Pratchett’s work as the best humorous treatment of evolution ever. In part because I know of so few other candidates! The only other good candidate I can think of is The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists.

So help me out: what are your favorite humorous portrayals of evolution?

*The fiction chapters are interspersed with nonfiction popular science chapters by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, explaining the real science that Pratchett referenced.

24 thoughts on “What are the best humorous portrayals of evolution?

  1. In case anyone missed it, the reference to ‘morphic resonance’ refers to a fringe theory about evolution by Rupert Sheldrake: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake#Origin_and_philosophy_of_morphic_resonance

    His ‘A New Science of Life’ was the subject of a famous 1981 editorial in Nature by John Maddox entitled ‘A book for burning?’

    Broadly speaking, Sheldrake’s work falls into the ‘unintentionally humorous’ category.

    • Thanks! I didn’t know that.

      Pratchett’s *amazing* for references. Based on listening to various podcasts about his work, I feel like I get more of the references than a typical reader does. And I *still* don’t get *nearly* all of them!

  2. Terry Pratchett was so so so good. Just reading your quotes has me smiling.

    I haven’t read it for a long time, but Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine is hilarious. It’s focus is conservation (they travelled around the world trying to see almost-extinct species) but I bet there’s evolution gems in there too.

    • Ooh, I’d forgotten Last Chance To See! Meant to read it when it when I first heard about it many years ago, never did, and then forgot about it. Will put it on my list.

  3. So I’ve never heard of Terry Pratchett or Discworld. Apparently they hadn’t penetrated my small-town childhood library. Seems like a good lead for my daughter though, who’s reading similar stuff now. Wonder if they are at our current small-town library…

    The excerpts remind me of Xanth though, with more in-depth/sciency references. That’s the kind of comment that would probably cause a Reddit thread of Discworld enthusiasts to explode…but I’ll throw caution to the wind on the DE blog.

    • Hi Skip,
      How old is your daughter? If you want some advice on entry points into the Discworld, drop me a line (jefox@ucalgary.ca). The best entry point will differ a bit depending on your daughter’s age and reading preferences. Here are a couple of quick recommendations that would work well if your daughter’s in elementary school:

      -The Tiffany Aching books are a sub-series of Discworld books aimed at younger readers. Tiffany Aching is a girl who learns to be a powerful witch. She’s 9 years old in the first book (The Wee Free Men) and gets a couple of years older in each subsequent book. Much of the humor comes from her sidekicks (if that’s the right word…), the Nac Mac Feegle. They’re a hilarious parody of Mel Gibson in Braveheart–6 inch high “fairies” who are basically good at heart but in an extremely drunken, combative way.

      -The Bromeliad trilogy is another YA fantasy series Pratchett wrote, set in our world rather than the Discworld. It’s about a colony of gnomes who live in a department store, and discover that the world is much bigger and different than they imagined (they start out thinking the Store is the whole world, and was created for their benefit…). Grownups will recognize some profound themes here (almost all Pratchett books work on multiple levels), but kids can enjoy them just as an adventure story.

      Reading a *lot* of YA fiction to my now 10 year old son over the past 18 months has only reinforced my love of Pratchett. He writes circles around pretty much any other YA author. Now, my son doesn’t necessarily see the difference; he likes plenty of other YA fantasy series as much as he likes Pratchett. But I bet when he gets older, he’ll still be into Pratchett even after he’s grown out of a lot of other stuff he’s currently reading.

      Re: the Xanth comparison, I devoured Xanth as a teenager, before I discovered Pratchett late in high school. I’ve never gone back to the Xanth books and don’t remember them that well. Based on my dim recollection, I think it’s fair to compare the earliest couple of Discworld books to Xanth. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic have a lot of silly humor and puns, and a lot of parody of sword-and-sorcery tropes. They share those elements with the Xanth books.

      • Thanks for this, I tried Pratchett in my 20s and it didn’t take but as a parent of 10-yo twins these may be a good way for me to try again and discover with my kids.

  4. In a different genre, my former lab head, Joe Felsenstein, has performed “The Amphioxus Song” at a lot of evolution meetings and workshops. Here’s a link to a web page with lyrics and history:

    https://evolution.gs.washington.edu/amphioxus/

    I have had to sing it a couple of times, by popular demand, when Joe couldn’t be there. A lab duty they didn’t mention in the job ad!

    Dave Swofford performed a song of his own invention during his keynote address at an Evolution Society meeting:

    I am not much of a singer, but my proudest singing moment was when Dave performed this at a Workshop on Molecular Evolution and asked people to jump in with new verses. Here is mine (it should be sung vamp-style):

    Well, you’re making your trees, you might make one or two,
    Yeah, you’re making your trees, you say one tree’s enough for you–
    Mr. Bayes gives me a million trees, so what do I need with you?

  5. Whoops, had forgotten just how many bits of The Last Continent have to be…edited for a 10 year old. All the jokes about the wizards trying to explain “sex” to the god of evolution…

    It’s fine, my son accepts it when I tell him “The next bits are some grown-up jokes that would take too long to explain, we’ll have to skip ahead…”

  6. Pingback: Want to read some Terry Pratchett, or get some for a kid, but don’t know where to start? I’m here to help! | Dynamic Ecology

  7. How was the Cohen-and-Stewart science part of Darwin’s Watch? I’m curious because even though I’m an enormous Pratchett fan, I gave up on the “Science of Discworld” sub-series after the second book. The Pratchett novella was fine (though not as good as the one in the first book), but the “science” bits were very hit-and-miss — and part of that was what I thought was a really terrible (and disturbing) attempt at an evolutionary argument. (There was some really dubious discussion of folklore and mythology as wellm and a discussion of entropy that started off fine but went off the rails when they tried to suggest that it didn’t apply to astronomy…)

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