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Further Reading

SCIENCE: Feature

X-Men Ethics Class

Why Help the Weak If It Thwarts Evolution?

by Cameron Wybrow

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 18

Those who enjoy "summer blockbuster" films may have seen X-Men: First Class, which is ­arguably the cream of the 2011 crop. This film is the latest in the very successful X-Men series, a series whose value goes beyond summer entertainment. In the X-Men films we are confronted with the philosophy of "evolutionary ethics" in an instructive way.

For those readers who aren't yet familiar with the X-Men, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics in 1963, here are the essentials: Dr. Charles Xavier, a mutant with awesome mental powers, including telepathy and the ability to control the minds of others, founds a private school for teenage mutants. These mutants have superhuman powers of a frightening kind—Iceman can freeze someone alive with a wave of his hand; Cyclops can punch holes in steel with rays from his eyes, and so on. With these powers often comes a freakish physical form—the Beast has apelike limbs and fur; the Angel has wings sprouting from his back; Nightcrawler, with hooves, pointy ears, and a tail, looks like the Devil.

Because of their dangerous powers and their strange appearance, these mutants would be hated and feared by normal people. Professor Xavier's school provides them with an environment free of fear and hatred, where they can learn to control their powers to useful ends. For an additional touch of pathos, Xavier himself (codenamed Professor X), though a mutant of great power, is also a wheelchair-bound invalid.

Magneto's Rationale

The X-Men have an arch-foe, Magneto. Magneto is an evil mutant of immense power. He can control all metal objects with magnetic force. He can turn a scrap of metal into a deadly missile, and even (as in this summer's film) lift a nuclear submarine out of the water. He gathers around him a group of evil mutants, mutants who are convinced that normal humans hate them for their freakish powers and will try to imprison or exterminate them unless they band together under Magneto's protection. Magneto and his evil mutants continually scheme to recruit more mutants to their cause, and to achieve world domination, under which normal people will be either annihilated or subjugated to mutant rule.

It must be noted, however, that Magneto's campaign to conquer humanity is justified not merely for reasons of prevention—that is, on the grounds that humans are a threat to mutants. Magneto also offers a justification based on biology. He distinguishes between normal humans, Homo sapiens, and mutants, Homo superior. In one dramatic scene in an early story, Magneto and Professor X meet in disembodied mental form, and debate the fate of man and mutant alike. Magneto declares that mutants, by right of their extra powers, should rule over normal humans, who are, because of their biological inferiority, natural slaves. He rails at Professor X for his naive belief in cooperation between superior and inferior, and demands that Xavier join his side or be counted a deadly foe. Xavier, of course, nobly refuses, thus setting up the central conflict of the series.

The X-Men films, with their elaborate plots and dazzling special effects, make for highly entertaining cinema. But my purpose here is not to offer a film review, but to meditate upon the significance of the argument offered by Magneto and rejected by Professor X. It seems to me that this argument is very much pertinent to current debates over "evolutionary ethics."

Comic Book Darwinism versus Real-World Darwinism

En route to our discussion of evolutionary ethics, we here comment briefly upon the scientific plausibility of the transformations postulated in the series. All the X-Men stories presume that neo-Darwinian evolution is a fact. In neo-Darwinian evolution, random mutations in the genome are filtered by natural selection, and, over time, beneficial mutations accumulate and produce entirely new species, families, classes, and so on.

Natural selection performs the stabilizing role in the process, but the truly creative work is done by the mutations. Mutations have created such marvels as the sonar of the bat, the wings of the bird, and the brain of human beings. Mutations are, it appears, in the business of creating creatures with amazing new powers. Thus, in the X-Men stories, they are treated as capable of producing humanoid beings with new, superhuman powers.

In the real world, of course, most mutations are harmful (or do nothing—see Salvo 17), and the tiny fraction that are beneficial would be unlikely to provide significant advantages of any kind—let alone super-powers—for their beneficiaries. And given the time-scale required by the neo-Darwinian theory, it is even more unlikely that dozens of new, selectively fit, super-gifted humanoids (each different enough to constitute at least a new species, if not a new genus or family) would emerge in the space of three or four decades. So even if we provisionally accept the neo-Darwinian (henceforth abbreviated as "Darwinian") view as true, the X-Men are based on fantasy science. But in a comic-book universe, suspension of disbelief regarding scientific premises is an entrance requirement, so we can let that pass.

For our purposes here, it is more important to focus on what the X-Men stories get right about Darwinian evolution. While they grossly exaggerate its power and its speed, they portray its general character bang-on. And this is where they lead us to clarity in discussions of "evolutionary ethics."

Evolutionary Ethics

According to Darwinian theory, new species emerge when mutations produce individuals who can outperform the stock they came from, with the result that, eventually, the mutant stock replaces the original. Thus, the intermediate creatures between the bat and the primitive insectivores are all extinct, because the modern bat is more fit for its flying environment than were any of them.

The bat has no pity for the failed creatures from the earlier stages of its evolution that were not good enough to survive. Nor, on Darwinian premises, should it. Nature decides, in its cold and pitiless way, who will live and who will die, and which species will thrive and which become extinct. It is pointless and ethically irrelevant to question nature's decisions.

Ironically, when we come to analyze the positions of Professor X, the hero, and of Magneto, the villain, we are led to the curious conclusion that Magneto is philosophically the more coherent of the two, because he is actually more in tune with the pure logic of Darwinism. This becomes clear if we consider the positions of two real-life writers on evolution and ethics, Richard Dawkins and Larry Arnhart.

Dawkins's Problem

Richard Dawkins, who argues for standard twentieth-century Darwinism in his famous book The Blind Watchmaker and elsewhere, has stated that, while evolution is a blind, ruthless, competitive process that picks winners and losers without compassion, he would never want human society to be run that way. He does not think that in human society the strong should eliminate the weak by competition. He thinks that human society should be run on non-Darwinian principles of justice and compassion and so on. The question arises why he thinks this.

Given that, for Dawkins, evolution is "the greatest show on earth," which has taken uninteresting things like gray sea-worms and produced beautiful peacocks and intelligent human beings out of them, one would think that he would be all in favor of letting evolution take its course, even today. Why should we interfere with this majestic process simply to save inferior human beings from dying off because they can't compete with their superiors?

It appears that Dawkins's morality is a holdover from the Victorian period and that, deep down, he adheres to a Christian sentiment that the meek, not the strong, should inherit the earth. But how can he justify this sentiment, if human beings, along with all their morality—including the morality that would protect the weak from the strong—are just transient way-stations en route to a higher stage of development? It appears that Dawkins's ethics make a poor fit with his philosophy of nature.

Arnhart's Problem

A similar contradiction is seen in the writings of political philosopher Larry Arnhart. Arnhart is famous for his thesis that the account of human nature given by Charles Darwin is capable of undergirding what he terms "natural right"—a set of fundamental principles governing human ethical and political conduct. This seems implausible, however, for whereas before Darwin it was believed that human nature was a stable thing, and therefore that ethical and political inferences could be made from it (as in Aristotle and Aquinas), Darwin destroyed the stability of human nature by making every species merely a transition between an earlier and a later one. Darwinism, then, would seem to threaten natural right, not to safeguard it.

Not so, says Arnhart; Darwin's account of human nature is sufficient to ground an ethical and political order. For although our present human nature arose through a historical process, yet it is stable enough to provide present guidance. Homo sapiens has, after all, already been around for thousands of years and will presumably be around for thousands more. Maybe two million years ago we were subhuman ape-men; maybe a million years from now we will be super-brains floating in energy spheres; but for now, we have a stable enough nature from which to draw political and ethical rules for ourselves.

Arnhart could thus say that the speed of evolution depicted in the X-Men films—where the difference between a normal human being and Magneto is covered in one generation—is unrealistic. No such conflict between "man" and "superman" would occur under normal Darwinian processes. Human children might get a little taller than their parents, or a little brighter, but they wouldn't develop into a different species overnight, or even over several generations. Therefore, the moral obligations Arnhart discerns from our evolution-derived nature would hold over a period of time.

The Darwinian Reluctance to Follow Through

Yet the ethical implications of Darwinian evolution remain troubling. The small differences in height or strength that give a competitive advantage to a son over his father (or, more importantly, over his brothers), and the huge differences in power and strength that give a competitive advantage to Magneto over a normal human being, are differences in degree only, not in kind. Thus, if it is unclear why Magneto should not simply exterminate, or at least rule over, weaker humans, it is equally unclear why a superior fighter or organizer or charmer should not have more food, more mates, and more offspring than his inferior brothers, and in the long run eliminate their inferior traits from the gene pool. Why should he not let his "selfish genes" govern his behavior? Why should he conform to some Christian-derived or Greek-derived notion of "human nature" rather than push the borders of "human nature" in the direction of the future?

It seems to me that Arnhart and Dawkins, both devotees of Darwinian biology, should be reasoning like Magneto, not like Professor X. It seems to me that they should follow through on the implications of their theoretical commitments, and advocate that the strong and the superior should not worry about the weak and the inferior, but should do everything in their power to supplant the inferior, both in the present and, through their seed, in the generations to come.

Yet a quaint form of secularized Christianity holds them back. They still believe that human beings have some sort of nature that binds them to behave decently and morally, even though their Darwinian assumptions do not allow them to justify this belief.

Thus, in a strange way, the entertaining fantasy of the X-Men sheds light on a contemporary question: How there can be ethics in a world where the ultimate reality is dog-eat-dog competition, and in which the idea of the "nature" of anything—including a "human nature" that binds us to obey certain moral precepts in our behavior toward each other—is highly problematic?

I myself side with Professor X, and with Dawkins and Arnhart, on the reality of ethical obligations; but unlike them, I do not accept the Darwinian premise that creates the contradiction in their thought. If pure Darwinism is the ultimate truth about human nature, then Magneto is right: Xavier's case for humanity does not have a leg to stand on (no pun intended), and the moral sentimentality of Dawkins and the political conservatism of Arnhart are indefensible.

A Consistent Answer

Of course, we cannot enter the comic-book world and disprove Darwinian evolution to Professor X; Darwinism is the premise required to sustain the series. But within the actual world, we can deny, to Dawkins and Arnhart, that human existence has come about in the way they suppose it has. And to say this is not to oppose "evolution" with "creationism." Rather, it is to say that if human beings are to have natural ends, and natural obligations, then any "evolutionary" process that may have occurred must have been end-directed, producing human beings not as a transient phenomenon but as a goal; and such human beings will have a genuine essence in the classical sense, from which ethical and political obligations can be derived. 

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