I just saw Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, and I loved it. The action was awesome, the characters complex and interesting. I was blown away, but as I walked out of the theater with my sons, something bothered me. I won’t give any spoilers, but Tony Stark creates a super powerful android named Ultron to protect Humanity, and let’s just say it doesn’t go well. What, you didn’t see that that coming? Anyway, Ultron decides that instead of protecting humanity, he wants to make humans evolve, and not in a good way.
He seems to think that destroying all humans will make a new, better lifeform evolve. I mean it worked for dinosaurs and birds, right, so why not human beings? The problem is that he makes the same mistake we humans have been making since Darwin came up with his theory. Everybody seems to think that the word “evolve” is synonymous with the word “improve.” As if every time something evolves, it leads to a higher and higher form, like those old human evolution posters that show chimps becoming Homo sapiens.
It doesn’t work that way. Evolution is not some sort of perfection machine that inevitably leads to higher life forms. It’s not directional. It doesn’t have a goal in mind. There is no perfect creature at the end of the evolution assembly line. That evolutionary tree, going from roots up to higher branches, that we all saw in our biology textbooks, is just wrong. It’s a lot more chaotic than that. The only goal is for organisms to be better adapted to the particular environment they happen to be living in at that time.
It’s not so much a tree as a noxious weed, like kudzu, spreading unstoppably in all directions. Each time one of its shoots survives, it gets to reproduce and keep on growing, but what determines whether it gets to do that isn’t whether the new shoot is superior to the last one. The new shoot simply has to be better adapted to the new place it’s growing. That might mean deeper roots in one place or larger leaves in another. Everything is dependent upon the environment. That’s what dictates which shoots survive and which ones don’t. The ones that can’t adapt to that environment go extinct and new shoots fill that place instead.
I realize it’s kind of a leap to go from sprouting shoots to genocidal androids, but they’re both playing by the same set of rules. If Ultron creates an environment that’s been devastated by his evil plans, then what evolves there is going to have to be adapted to those conditions. Those adaptations might not, and probably wouldn’t be greater intelligence or kindness or logic or anything else that you and I might consider to be qualities of a higher lifeform. I’d go into more detail about the types of adaptations it might require, but it would be difficult to imagine and involve too many spoilers.
As much as I love Marvel comics, and I do, Ultron’s not the only one over there who doesn’t understand evolution. In the comic books, the X-Men and all those awesome mutants are given the “scientific” name Homo superior, because obviously being able to fly and shoot death rays from your eyes is way superior to being an ordinary, boring Homo sapien. Sorry, Stan, there ain’t no superior about it. They’re just Homo different. Who knows what type of environment would lead to adaptations like that. If anything, the regular humans are better adapted simply because they reproduce so much faster, Multiple Man notwithstanding.
Yeah, I know, they’re only movies and comic books and most folks don’t worry too much about them having accurate science, but the idea that evolution is inevitably leading to higher and higher lifeforms is so ubiquitous that it needs to be pointed out and questioned as often as possible. We need to pull up all those weed shoots because everyone we don’t pull is going to take root, and we’ll forever have to deal with supervillains who think they can play with the rules of evolution.