“Dear Doctor” – ENT 1X13 – Evolution and Ethics

I’ve been dithering over this review for a couple of weeks now, because “Dear Doctor” is already so widely discussed and debated. A lot of fans really seem to love it. Jammer’s Reviews calls it “by far, the best episode so far”, though it’s worth noting that saying something is better than “Silent Enemy” or “Fight or Flight” or “Unexpected” is the ultimate backhanded compliment.

Even Michelle Erica Green, whom I usually agree with, calls it “the first truly great episode of Enterprise” and Timothy Lynch says it’s “the first 10 of the series. Exceptional work.”

But a lot of fans hate “Dear Doctor” like Klingons hate tribbles. The big dividing line seems to be people’s thoughts on the episode’s ethical dilemma.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it and doesn’t mind a spoiler, the episode is largely told through Phlox’s correspondence with a human doctor friend, and covers his day-to-day thoughts and experiences in the context of a serious situation.

Archer, Phlox, T'Pol and Hoshi in a Valakian hospital

The Enterprise encounters a dying race of people, the Valakians. The Valakians are a pre-warp civilization who peacefully coexist on their planet with another, ostensibly less-advanced species, the Menk. Phlox learns that the Menk are “evolving” to become more advanced than is congruous with their subordination in society.

Though Phlox ends up figuring out a way to cure the Valakians, he recommends to Archer that they withhold the information since sharing it would mean the Menk’s process of evolution would be stunted. Archer initially says they have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering, but then totally changes his mind because giving people medical attention is apparently “playing God”:

Archer in a T-shirt in his quarters

I have reconsidered. I spent the whole night reconsidering, and what I’ve decided goes against all my principles. Someday my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that tells us what we can and can’t do out here, should and shouldn’t do. But until somebody tells me that they’ve drafted that directive I’m going to have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play God.

So while the core ethical dilemma isn’t, per se, a feminist or women’s issue, I felt like I had do have something to say about it.

“Dear Doctor” doesn’t make me want to throw my TV out a window, but I’m definitely in the camp with people who feel like Phlox and Archer made a heck of a terrible decision.

The point on which Phlox’s argument hinges is that “evolution is more than a theory; it is a fundamental scientific principle.” But his and/or the writers’ understanding of evolution is seriously un-scientific.

The idea that the Valakians’ evolution would naturally lead to the entire population contracting a deadly genetic disease makes zero sense. Evolution selects against mutations that decrease individuals’ ability to survive. Species don’t evolve into extinction; it’s possible an environmental change could cause something in their genes to become a problem, but Phlox’s argument seems to be that the Valakians’ death is a natural end to a process of evolution. That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Group of Menk

It’s also incredibly arrogant for Phlox to believe he has objective knowledge of what is best for the Menk and how they are destined to evolve, especially based on his limited interaction.

The fact that Archer goes along with Phlox’s pseudoscience, though it “goes against all [his] principles” is appalling. Instead of misusing evolutionary theory, Phlox and Archer should’ve adhered to an actual guideline, the Hippocratic Oath, and decided “to do no harm” and save actual lives rather than speculating on what might happen in the future.

Phlox

Though I said earlier the dilemma in this episode isn’t a feminist issue, there is an aspect of feminist theory that helps to analyze it. Many feminist theorists have for decades critiqued claims of “objectivity” and “neutrality” in scientific disciplines. 

According to Lauren A. Pressley: “feminist epistemologists (people who study the nature of knowledge) do not suggest that empirical evidence is wrong, but rather that it is necessary to understand that most beliefs are as much a result of their social context as they are factually true.”

For example, Emily Martin’s fantastic paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” looks at how the way reproductive processes are inaccurately described in science texts, influenced by the idea of sperm as masculine romantic conquerors and eggs as fortresses passively waiting for penetration.

Basically, scientists – like all of us – are “situated knowers” who are individually influenced by their background, class, gender, and other elements of their identity. 

Phlox with a microscope in sickbay

Keeping this in mind, I would’ve wanted Archer (or T’Pol as a fellow scientist but from a very different background) to more thoroughly question Phlox’s methods and conclusions. Even if his explanation were scientifically-plausible I’d want to have the findings thoroughly interrogated before deciding to wipe out an entire species.

Feminists especially highlight the potential danger of people in dominant groups creating scientific knowledge about people in marginalized groups. They argue if researchers are not accountable to their subjects that the result can be data or theories that misrepresent or even harm them (more on this here).

Phlox’s claim to complete scientific objectivity and neutrality should have been challenged as a matter of course, and especially because his research would have significant, life or death impact on people from two more powerless species. Other than needing to wrap up the story at the end of the episode, there was no real reason to rush away from the planet. It surely would’ve been worth spending more time with the Menk and Valakians to fully understand the genetic, environmental and social factors they were facing.

I believe the point of the Prime Directive is not just about not disrupting other life forms’ natural course of development, but also not saying to them: “We know better than you what’s good for you.” It’s about recognizing the value of diversity and allowing that to develop unimpeded, not implying we have some supreme knowledge that we can’t trust others with.

As “Dear Doctor” stands, Archer and Phlox do play God by letting one man’s (flawed) scientific findings stand that it’s natural to let an entire species go extinct. And at the end of the episode, instead of seeming to be really conflicted, Phlox just notes that “this incident has helped me gain new respect for [Archer]” and then takes Cutler out for a snack in the mess hall.

I realize I have spent a lot of time on this aspect of the episode and I haven’t even talked about all the other stuff, like the representations of Hoshi, T’Pol and Cutler. So this will be a rare two-part review. Stay tuned for that.

Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Hoshi translates for Cutler what she was saying to one of the Menk.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.