Evolution and Mass Media

In an effort to generate more content for my blog, I am posting an edited version of a paper I wrote as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. This paper briefly considers how misrepresentation in television, movies, comic books, and video games can reinforce or contribute to a general misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution. As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything presented here, please feel free to offer feedback in the comments below.

Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

– Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000)

The Theory of Evolution is one of the most well-known scientific theories, and it serves as the backbone of modern biology. It informs our understanding of where Humanity as a species originated, and can even assist in speculating about where we might be heading. Unfortunately, despite the widespread recognition of Charles Darwin‘s and Alfred Russell Wallace‘s most famous theory, it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the general populace. One reason for this misunderstanding might result from the numerous ways evolution is misrepresented by mass media, including popular television programs, movies, comic books, and video games. Mass media often perpetuates two of the most common misconceptions regarding evolution; the first involves the idea that evolution only works in a forward motion and is driven by some sort of purpose or goal, as opposed to a series of small changes that occur to a population over a period of time. In addition, television programs, films, and comic books also perpetuate the popular misconception that Homo sapiens descended directly from monkeys or apes, rather than clarifying that humans and apes simply share a common ancestor (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, this misunderstanding is cyclical; misunderstanding leads to misinterpretation leads to misunderstanding. Additionally, one must also take into account the use of artistic license and/or exaggeration for comedic effect. With this post, I briefly outline the Theory of Evolution and attempt to explain how it is thought to work. I then examine some of the ways that mass media has misrepresented or misinterpreted this idea, and consider how such misrepresentations can contribute to and/or reinforce misunderstanding of the theory by the public at large.

Fig. 1: This image from The Simpsons perpetuates a popular misconception by implying that Homer, and by proxy all of Mankind, descended from a monkey, rather than that both species shared a common ancestor. Image credit: http://img.webme.com/pic/s/sportslineprinting/homersapien.gif

According to evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyma, biological evolution can be defined as:

[…] merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions. (7)

Dr. Futuyma’s definition makes an important distinction that mass media often ignores, namely that evolution is not a process that affects an individual at a personal level, but is actually a series of changes or mutations that occur within a population over a given amount of time. Mutation is the driving force behind evolution; without it every living thing would still be the first living organism. Additionally, the mutations or changes that persist or are most common among a population are those that promote survival in a particular environment and/or situation, and therefore become heritable and are then passed on to successive generations. Thus, evolution does not follow any sort of set path or design, nor does it occur solely in a linear, forward pattern. In other words, if any of the environmental factors that affected the evolution of a particular species were altered in any way, then the ways in which that species evolved would have been altered as well. Additionally, if environmental factors favoring a particular adaptation were to change so that they no longer favored that adaptation, then that adaptation would eventually become recessive and would no longer be visible. If those conditions were to return, however, the adaptation would return as well.

Unfortunately, purveyors of mass media often choose to gloss over or outright ignore such basic facts such in favor of using artistic license to present the idea of evolution in an entertainment context. Often, the concept of evolution will be exaggerated or distorted for comedic effect in television programs such as The Simpsons or Friends, in which one of the main characters works in the field of paleontology. Other times the concept is presented in a way that makes it seem exciting or dangerous, or it is portrayed as some sort of intelligent force that has an ultimate purpose or goal, as in Pierre Boulle‘s novel (and the subsequent series of films), Planet of the Apes, or the recent film version of Ray Bradbury‘s classic short story, “A Sound of Thunder” (Fig. 2). This is often done to provide a better sense of dramatic tension or as a way of adding a hint of action and excitement to what is often considered a rather dry subject by numerous members of the general public.

Fig 2: This bizarre creature from A Sound of Thunder (2005) is meant to be a hybrid between an ape and a lizard, the product of evolution run amok, as according to the vision of the filmmakers. Image credit: http://www.joblo.com/newsimages1/babboon%20lizard%202.jpg

One of the most blatant examples of artistic license taking precedence over scientific fact in regards to the Theory of Evolution occurs in the film Evolution (2001), directed by Ivan Reitman and starring David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, and Seann William Scott. In the film, a meteor punches through Earth’s atmosphere and crash lands in the Arizona desert. It is discovered by a pair of college professors played by Duchovny and Orlando Jones. They soon learn that the meteor plays host to a slimy primordial substance, the rapid evolution of which has been triggered as a result of the fiery descent through the planet’s atmosphere. Within hours, the single-celled life forms that live in the slime have evolved into multi-cellular organisms. Days later, an entire ecosystem that vaguely resembles a prehistoric rain forest and existing within its own atmosphere has sprung up inside the cave in which the meteor landed. It is populated by numerous complex extra-terrestrial flora and fauna ranging from insects to reptiles, all of which reproduce through the process of mitosis. With the help of a beautiful but accident-prone government scientist (Moore), the professors soon learn that these creatures cannot survive outside of their own atmosphere; the organisms simply die within moments when exposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Unfortunately, the alien life forms evolve into large winged reptiles that resemble dragons, and venture outside of the cave. Many of the creatures die, but in the space of a few hours, they spawn a new generation that has adapted to the atmosphere outside of the cave. Within a week, the organisms have evolved into primate-like creatures that appear to possess a malevolent, low-level intelligence. The creatures threaten to continue evolving at the rapid pace until they have obliterated all of Earth’s native species.

Obviously, the film is intended as little more than a light comedy, and the “science” presented onscreen is not meant to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the filmmakers play so fast and loose with the very concept of evolution, and present it in such an egregiously and outrageously incorrect manner, that in the end it bears almost no relation to reality whatsoever. For instance, the most obvious error stems from the fact that the extra-terrestrial organisms appear to demonstrate a sort of spontaneous evolution, with environmental factors playing little to no role, other than the adaptation brought about by exposure to oxygen. They exist in a sort of evolutionary vacuum, and mutations occur for no discernible reason. In the film, it is explained that fire set the aliens on their evolutionary path, but there is no explanation offered as to exactly why they evolve, no speculation about the ways in which environmental factors impact their path of evolution.

Additionally, the concept of evolution is treated as little more than a plot device in director Peter Hyams‘ 2005 film adaptation of “A Sound of Thunder.” With a script by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Gregory Poirier, the film takes place in Chicago in the year 2055. Time travel has become a reality, and people from all walks of life use this technology to visit various eras of the past. The only rule states that anyone who time travels must refrain from disturbing or removing anything from those eras, thus creating a paradox. A hunter named John Wallenbeck (Armin Rhode) wishes to stalk and kill what he views as the ultimate prey; a Tyrannosaurus Rex. To this end he contacts Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley), the owner of a company that sponsors “time tours.” Hatton agrees to send Wallenbeck, along with a team of escorts including Travis Ryder (Edward Burns) and Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack) back to the age of dinosaurs, provided he only kill a specific Tyrannosaur that is about to die anyway, and that he not stray from the path that has been laid down to accommodate the group. During the trip, however, Wallenbeck does stray from the path, and accidentally steps on and kills a butterfly. When the group returns to the present, they discover that this incident has resulted in disastrous changes, as the world is now infected by rampant “time waves” that disrupt the time/space continuum, and unleash all manner of strange beasts, such as reptiles that have evolved to take on mammalian characteristics.

Unlike Evolution, which is most definitely a comedy, A Sound of Thunder is presented as a serious and dramatic science fiction thriller. The film is interesting in that it attempts to use Chaos Theory, specifically the so-called “butterfly effect,” to explain how subtle changes in the environment can affect evolutionary mutations. In fact, the film features evolution quite prominently. Indeed, the rather ominous tagline used to sell the film to audiences was “Evolve or die.” Unfortunately, the film depicts these concepts in an  erroneous and unscientific manner. It postulates that if the dinosaurs were not wiped out, thus denying mammals the opportunity to become the dominant species on the planet, then reptiles would continue to evolve and, given enough time, would inexplicably gain mammalian characteristics. Of course, this is in spite of the fact that the planet has somehow staved off the effects of the Ice Age and retained a prehistoric climate for billions of years, thus giving mammalian traits no obvious advantage over reptilian traits. For instance, the film presents all manner of ridiculous and unlikely creatures, such as the baboon lizards seen in Fig. 2, or the bat-like creatures that supposedly evolved from Pterosaurs. There is no speculation or explanation as to how these creatures came to be, or why they evolved in the manner that they did.

Additionally, the filmmakers make the mistake of assuming that if a species is given enough time to evolve, then said species will ultimately evolve into some sort of fierce and dangerous predator in its own right, almost as if they equate survival of the fittest simply with being the strongest and deadliest. For example, in the film there are several species that have inexplicably increased in size, such as eels. Additionally, different species of plants have increased in size, and have become motile, exhibiting deadly characteristics, such as the ability to emit spores that induce a state of insanity in anyone unlikely enough to breathe them in. By presenting evolution in this way, the filmmakers have overlooked one of the most important components of the concept, which is that mutations occur as a response to environmental or competitive pressures, and that increased size or large musculature and structures oftentimes become disadvantages if there is no need for such traits. The filmmakers do not seem to realize that survival of the fittest simply refers to traits or mutations that promote survival, and these are the ones that will be passed on through hereditary means. To be fair, however, the filmmakers are obviously not preoccupied with presenting any sort of even vaguely viable scientific explanations that can serve as food for thought, but are instead simply attempting to provide two hours of exciting, action-packed, and thrilling in which the concept of evolution serves as little more than a plot point. Unfortunately, presenting evolution in such a distorted and fallacious way only contributes to the rampant misunderstanding that already surrounds the theory.

This distortion is not confined to the cinematic medium. For many years, comic books have presented evolution in an incorrect and exaggerated manner, with the most notable example occurring in The X-Men, published by Marvel Comics since September of 1963 (Fig. 3). Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack “The King” Kirby, the X-Men consist of five teenage “mutants” under the tutelage of their teacher, the powerful psychic, Charles Xavier, otherwise known as Professor X. According to the mythology established within the comic book, mutants are people born with strange, superhuman abilities, such as telekinesis or the power to fire laser beams from one’s eyes. Originally these mutations were said to have been caused by exposure to high levels of radiation, but that explanation has changed (one might say that it has evolved) in the four decades since the characters first debuted in a bid to remain somewhat consistent with more modern scientific theories on evolution and the effects of radiation poisoning. The supposed scientific classification for this species of mutants is Homo sapiens superior, an offshoot of the species Homo sapiens and supposedly the next stage in human evolution.

Fig. 3: The X-Men are a group of teenage super-heroes born with extraordinary powers, tasked with defending a world that “hate and fears” them from other mutants, like the nefarious Magneto. Image credit: http://nerdist.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/X-men.jpg

The X-Men comic books present evolution in a wholly fallacious manner, with the most egregious error being that exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation can result in anything other than severe and lasting damage to organic tissue and an interference with cell division. Indeed, as is the case with most comic books that fall within the superhero subgenre, the X-Men and the various spin-off titles serve as little more than entertaining adolescent male power fantasies, and as such they have little to no basis in scientific reality, nor do they ever truly aspire to. One of the most common mistakes made by the various writers of the X-Men books occurs in the depiction of the mutations themselves; the mutations are diverse, and usually it is generally only a single character that manifests a specific mutation, with one being able to fly while another possesses the ability to heal at a rapid rate, rather than an entire population exhibiting the same survival traits. In addition to this, a significant number of the mutations possessed by the characters appear to serve little to no purpose in the area of survival, which is one of the most important aspects of evolutionary mutation. Moreover, the mutations that manifest appear to have no relation to the surrounding environment in which the character exists. Often, they are meant to represent some sort of literary metaphor. For instance, Ugly John (Fig. 4), a supporting character introduced in the title New X-Men, written by Grant Morrison with art by Frank Quietly, was born with a mutation that causes him to have three faces. This so-called mutation serves no discernible purpose, and does not appear to give the character any sort of advantage in the area of survival.

Fig. 6: Ugly John lives up to his nickname, afflicted with a “mutation” that serves no discernible purpose. Image credit: http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/marveldatabase/images/d/d5/Ugly_John_(Earth-616)_from_New_X-Men_Vol_1_115.png/revision/latest?cb=20141102024119

The X-Men are not confined to the medium of comic books. In recent years, they have invaded other areas of mass entertainment, including video games and television in the form of an animated series, and in 2000, they finally made the leap to the big screen. X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellan as Magneto, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, was a huge success, and kicked off a wildly popular franchise. Unfortunately, like the comic books that spawned it, the film, though massively entertaining, only serves to perpetuate the misrepresentation of evolution, but this time to a much larger audience. The film opens with Professor X delivering a voice-over in which he explains that mutation is “the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” While this explanation does indeed serve as a sound but brief outline of the Theory of Evolution, it is immediately undermined by the following line, which claims that, though the process usually occurs over a long period of time, “every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.” Once again, with these few words, the reality of evolution is discarded in favor of artistic license. It is made to sound like a process driven by some sort of intelligence, and something that produces all sorts of random effects rather than as a process that is responsible for the development of hereditary traits that respond to a change in outside environmental factors and thereby promote survival.

Another Marvel Comics character that has ties to evolution is the High Evolutionary (Fig. 5), a minor recurring villain who first appeared in issue #134 of Thor, first published in November, 1966. According to the website MarvelDirectory.com, the High Evolutionary, a.k.a. Herbert Wyndham, was a student at Oxford University who built a machine capable of “accelerating the genetic evolution of living organisms” (“High Evolutionary”). He first tested this machine out on his pet dog, which evolved into a bipedal creature that possessed the intelligence of a chimpanzee, and then later subjected himself to the process. As a result of this accelerated genetic evolution, Wyndham gained “a highly evolved brain which has been heightened to the limit of human potential,” as well as “vast psionic powers enabling him to rearrange matter, among other feats” (“High Evolutionary”). He continued his experiments, evolving all sorts of domestic and wild animals into creatures he dubbed the New Men, animals that walked upright and possessed a number of humanoid characteristics.

Fig. 5: The High Evolutionary, a staple of Marvel Comics since the late 1960s, is the inventor of a machine that can accelerate the genetic evolution of a single organism. Image credit: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/xSV-GTLFaeA/maxresdefault.jpg

Putting aside the inherent ridiculousness of the character, writer Stan Lee makes the ever-present mistake of assuming that the effects of evolution are limited to a single organism, and that it is simply an inherent process that takes place within these single organisms, following some sort of predetermined, genetically encoded path, rather than being a mostly random process shaped primarily by environmental changes that determine which characteristics are advantageous for the survival of a particular population. Lee’s characterization presupposes that every living organism, including Homo sapiens, comes genetically hardwired with some sort of ultimate evolutionary state that can be achieved through means that exist separate from the environmental factors that would normally determine which survival characteristics become heritable and are thus passed on to subsequent generations.

Additionally, by claiming that the High Evolutionary evolves himself to some sort of ultimate state, Lee makes the common mistake that evolution only works in a linear, forward manner. He does not take into account that the evolutionary path of a population sometimes takes a step backward, as evidenced by the observable changes that occurred over time among finches on the island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos chain (Fig. 6). Beginning in 1973, Peter and Rosemary Grant observed how environmental changes affected the beaks of various populations and lineages of finches. During the times when food was abundant, the finches’ beaks were short and dull, because there was no need for specialization in attaining food. During times of prolonged drought, the finches’ beaks would undergo an evolutionary change, becoming longer and sharper in order to reach tiny seeds located in out of the way places. This change would occur because this characteristic was most advantageous to the survival of the species. Yet, when the period of drought ended, and there was no more need for this type of specialization, the finches’ beaks would eventually evolve once again, but this time to a shorter, duller state. Some might assert that this is an example of evolution working in reverse, when in actuality evolution occurs randomly and is shaped by the environment, and does not possess any sort of inherent momentum in either direction.

Fig. 6: The Finches of Daphne Major are often looked at as a prime example of the process of evolution in action. Image credit: https://i.cbc.ca/1.2632666.1399319547!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/darwin-s-finches.jpg

While the vast majority of films, television, and comic books do generally tend to sacrifice scientific accuracy in favor of artistic license in the name of entertainment, fortunately not all presentations of the Theory of Evolution in mass media are entirely incorrect. There are a handful of surprisingly accurate portrayals that can not only lead to a better basic understanding of the theory among the general populace, but manage to engage audiences while being highly entertaining. For instance, when the long-running television program The Simpsons aired the episode titled “Treehouse of Horror V” on October 30th, 1994, audiences witnessed an extremely humorous yet fairly accurate depiction of the effects of evolution through natural selection. In the second segment, a loose adaptation of Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” cleverly titled “Time & Punishment,” Homer Simpson attempts to repair his faulty toaster, and accidentally winds up creating a time machine that sends him roughly 100 million years in the past to the Cretaceous Period. While there, Homer accidentally sits on a fish that is making its way out of a lake, presumably to start the long process of evolution that will eventually result in the species Homo sapiens. When Homer returns to the present, he discovers that this one seemingly innocent act has resulted in a number of strange changes in his family and friends, such as the Simpson children, Bart and Lisa, growing to gigantic proportions, and humanity evolving long, prehensile snake-like tongues. Homer decides that the best course of action is to travel back to the past and set things right, but each time he attempts to do so, he ends up screwing things up in a different way, leading to stranger and stranger changes in the present.

While the episode does take a number of liberties with the concept of natural selection, it is still a fairly precise, if admittedly slight, demonstration of the various ways in which subtle changes to the environment can affect the outcome of natural selection, and as such can lead to seemingly random developments in the course of evolution for a particular species. It is also a wonderful showcase for the subtle brilliance possessed by the writers of The Simpsons, as they correctly posit that by killing that particular fish, Homer effectively snuffed out the specific mutation that would have ultimately led to humanity as we know it today. The death of the fish means that it would not have been able to pass on to subsequent generations the mutation that allowed it to adapt to life on land, and thus the entire course of evolution for that species, as well as all the species that would emerge as a result, has been irrevocably changed. For the sake of comedy, the situation is heightened to the point of ridiculousness, but the basic foundation illustrates a fairly sound and accurate understanding of the facts concerning evolution and natural selection.

Additionally, there are a number of other media that approach the subject of evolution in a witty and intelligent manner, such as the online weekly web comic VG Cats, created by Scott Ramsoomair. The comic is aimed primarily at hardcore video game players, but the humor is not limited solely to that particular subgroup. In a recent strip titled “Wright to Life,” Ramsoomair takes aim at the evolution-themed PC video game Spore, designed by Will Wright, creator of the smash hit video game series The Sims. In Spore, gamers embark on an “epic journey” in which they guide an entire species “from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilization and technology and eventually all the way into the deepest reaches of outer space” (Cowing “Spore: The Game”). Ramsoomair posits a fictional debate that takes place between two aliens, one of whom is apparently a staunch Creationist, while the other offers a surprisingly accurate if altogether brief summation of evolution through natural selection. The character states that evolution is “not a theory. It’s small changes over time to help creatures adapt to their surroundings or fill a niche.” While the outcome of this particular strip, in which a gamer who apparently views himself as some sort of god creates an abomination that has “butts for eyes,” is exceedingly ridiculous (not to mention hilarious), it does not change the fact that Ramsoomair obviously knows what he is talking about when it comes to evolution. Not only does he acknowledge that evolution is not simply a theory (at least as lay people understand it), but he outlines in one simple, elegant sentence exactly how evolution is currently thought to work.

The Theory of Evolution is often treated with more respect and examined in a much more extensively thorough manner in the medium of books. Indeed, there are numerous academic texts dedicated to the study of evolution, but occasionally an author will attempt to tackle the subject in a fictional manner, crafting a narrative that allows him or her to explore the ins and outs of the theory. One of the most successful attempts comes from Stephen Baxter, a science fiction author with degrees in mathematics and engineering, and a former vice president of the international H.G. Wells Society. In 2003, Orion Publishing Group released Baxter’s Evolution, an epic tale that spans 565 million years of human evolution, beginning with shrew-like mammals that lived 65 million years ago, and ending with a glimpse of what humanity’s descendents (biological and otherwise) might be like 500 million years from now. Rather than a traditional hero, evolution itself functions as the protagonist of Baxter’s novel, and the reader gains insight into the different ways it shapes and guides the various species that are both the ancestors and descendents of Homo sapiens. Baxter’s novel is a gripping read, and he manages to make the story of Humanity’s evolution exciting even for those who have no academic interest in the subject. More importantly, though, the book is thoroughly and painstakingly researched, and serves as a perfect illustration of how changes in the environment can affect the evolution of different species. In chapter five, Baxter even offers up a concise and simple description of evolution and its effects on primates, asserting that it has no inherent purpose or goal, it is instead a genetic reaction that is designed to aid survival. He writes:

There was no goal in this: no sense of improvement, of purpose. All that was happening was that each organism was struggling to preserve itself, its offspring, and its kin. But as the environment slowly changed, so through relentless selection did the species that inhabited it. It was not a process fueled by life, but by death: the elimination of the less well adapted, the endless culling of inappropriate possibilities. (120)

Baxter’s summation is a simple one, and it glosses over many of the nuances that a more detailed explanation would no doubt offer, but it has the advantage of being easily understood by casual readers who might otherwise avoid biology texts. In this way, knowledge of the theory becomes more easily disseminated to a much wider audience, and as such perhaps a small amount of the misunderstanding surrounding evolution and natural selection may eventually be eliminated.

Works Cited
Baxter, Stephen. Evolution. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2004. Print.
Cowing, Keith. “Spore: The Game.” Spore: The Game. NASA Watch, 6 Mar. 2008. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
Futuyma, Douglas J. Evolutionary Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1986. Print.
“High Evolutionary.” MarvelDirectory.com, n.d. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
Ramsoomair, Scott. “Wright to Life.” VGCats.com, 2006. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.

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