We often think of scientific and technological progress as a steady march forward, but the reality is more complex. Factors such as natural disaster, war, or even isolation can cause a culture to ‘forget’ its previous advancement. This is known as technological regress and the idea behind it, according to Aiyar et al. (2008), is that as a population increases, its technology and skills grow into new divisions of labor, but, if a temporary disruption of population or productivity makes certain niches unprofitable, those skills will be lost to the following generations. Since technology is necessary for growth and advancement, the stunted civilization would have to rediscover its lost knowledge just to achieve its past status. It is understandable that a society facing a crisis would be forced to abandon its more superfluous pursuits. Without the luxury of stability, hobbies or skills which don’t immediately aid survival would be the first to disappear.
Although anthropologists have documented cases of technological regress caused by social upheaval, few have explored the possibility of a civilization becoming so dependent on technology that their own individual abilities regress. We live in a time of exceptional abundance and advanced technology, but we are losing the cognitive abilities our ancestors have taken for granted. Remembering phone numbers or navigating without a GPS are things of the past, and so our ability to do them fades. There is a trade-off between fending for ourselves or living in a technologically advanced society. Our superior social structure provides goods and services our ancestors could only dream of, but individually we are helpless. Prehistoric humans had incredible navigational and survival skills because they needed them. In exchange for our technological infrastructure, we need specialized skills. It seems we are faced with a regression at the individual or societal level. Let’s just hope we don’t lose so many of our cognitive abilities that we become as stupid as the civilization which stole Spock’s brain in the most ridiculous episode of Star Trek ever written.
As the Enterprise travels through space, a strange woman suddenly beams aboard the ship and knocks out the crew. She fixates on Spock’s head and smiles. When the crew wakes up, they discover Spock’s brain has been stolen, but he is able to survive for another 24 hours due to his robust Vulcan physiology. How convenient that his body runs on Earth time, and not a Vulcan day, or any other planet’s rotation for that matter. Kirk, Scotty, and McCoy set off to find Spock’s brain, which they easily locate on the first planet they try. Contrivances aside, the crew comes into contact with a regressed culture, where males live on the surface and females, along with some male servants, live underground.
Kirk and crew try to learn more about what happened to these people as they search for Spock’s brain and continue to make ridiculous assumptions. Kirk claims that the skills to remove a brain exist so the skills to return one must be possible. How? These are two different procedures! Also, there are many things in the universe that only work one way. It would be like saying the technology to bake a cake exists, so there must be a way to return the ingredients to their original state!
Wacky writing aside, there was at least one profound insight. When Spock is asked to comment on what he feels, being a disembodied brain, he claims to have a body that stretches into infinity, but Scotty says he has no body. This view of consciousness is similar to the analysis we find in the episode “Return to Tomorrow”, in which Kirk’s disembodied consciousness experiences all of time and space at once. It’s interesting to see how Star Trek stayed consistent with its philosophy.
The philosophical lessons of this episode were a little shallower, as it presents a simple trolley problem during the climax. The alien woman who stole Spock’s brain argues that the fate of her people is more important than Kirk having his first officer back. (Ironically, Spock would probably agree). In the end, Kirk convinces the alien that her civilization would be better off rebuilding itself than relying on a ‘controller’ to run everything. Essentially, the best solution to a trolley problem is to take the third option; in other words, when you are faced with a choice to kill Spock, or kill an entire alien civilization, just enlist Starfleet to help rebuild the civilization instead!
McCoy uses the alien technology to return Spock’s brain, and once Spock is out of surgery, he shares his knowledge of the planet’s culture. They were an advanced civilization, and the complex below was developed for the women while the men lived above. Somehow, the society split, possibly when the catastrophic event occurred which caused the civilization to revert back to a primitive state. Just like the technological regresses we observe in our past, the alien society in this episode lost the ability to understand and use their own advanced technology. However, they also became so dependent on said technology, that they were completely helpless without it. It is unlikely they would have survived at that level of dependence, but the scenario illustrates that we need a good balance of technology and personal skill, or the next catastrophic event could be the end of human civilization.
Aiyar, S., Dalgaard, C. J., & Moav, O. (2008). Technological progress and regress in pre-industrial times. Journal of Economic growth, 13(2), 125-144.