Monthly Archives: June 2013

Evolution in Man of Steel

(Last Update: 6-24-13)

Note: This article contains Man of Steel spoilers…

The new Superman film Man of Steel (2013) depicts Kryptonians as an ancient technologically advanced race that mastered space travel and began to colonize the stars thousands of years ago (even visiting Earth at one point). Growing children in chambers replaced live birth because population control in these far-flung outposts and on the overcrowded home world was important. These outposts were eventually forsaken when the Kryptonian council elders forbid space travel and turned inward. The council’s choice to mine the planet’s core for energy eventually leads to the destruction of Krypton. Fearing for the future of his race, Jor-El, the father of Kal-El (Superman) and the planet’s top scientist, risks his life to retrieve an ancient primate-like skull covered in runes from an underwater chamber. This skull, known as the “Codex,” is a piece of biotechnology that contains the entire Kryptonian genome. Jor-El imprints the information from the skull into the cells of his son before sending him to earth, thus ensuring the future resurrection of the Kryptonian race.

In most sci-fi films, you always see how technologically advanced an ancient alien race is, never the steps that it took to get to that point. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to see the Codex skull appear in the storyline. It implies that Kryptonians, like us, evolved from some type of primate-like creature. It seems like a natural conclusion considering their overwhelming anatomical similarities with humans. The skull only appears on the screen for a short time, but I noticed it had a small brain pan and a very prognathic face. It was very similar to that of the fossil ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, which lived about 4 million years ago.

Australopithecus afarensis

I really like the concept of a fossil skull being the bases for, or repurposed as, biotechnology used to house the genome of an entire species. The Codex skull essentially contains the evolutionary history of the Kryptonian race. Likewise, all of the fossils that science has accumulated over the last 200 years serve to illustrate the evolutionary history of the human race. Most of these fossils are far too old to draw any genetic material from, but the entire Neanderthal genome was extracted and mapped in 2010 thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In addition, the chimpanzee (2005), rhesus macaque (2006), orangutan (2011), bonobo (2012), and gorilla (2012) genomes have all been successfully mapped. This compiled genetic data serves as our own “Codex” because it helps unlock the mysteries of the human genome that was mapped in 2001. If cloning technology is ever perfected in the future, this information could, in theory, be used to reestablish the human race after a great catastrophe.

I really want to know what creationists think about evolution being mentioned in the film. I’ve looked around, and I have yet to find anyone commenting on the skull. I have, however, found a brief article on the Discovery Institute website by David Klinghoffer entitled “In Man of Steel, Superman Is Pursued by Darwinian Bad Guys.” He takes note of one scene where the main villain Generl Zod, the former protector of Krypton, asks Jor-El to help him destroy the “degenerative bloodlines that led us to this state.” The “degenerative bloodlines” refer to the Kryptonian elders and “this state” refers to the imminent destruction of the planet. Jor-El retrieves the Codex in an attempt to keep Zod from deleting the genetic lineages of these elders from the skull after his planned assassination of them. Klinghoffer comments that this film has an “eerily Darwinian philosophy,” so he thinks the idea of exterminating inferior people somehow meshes with Darwin’s work. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Theory of Natural Selection. The theory is merely an explanation for the mechanics behind the fact of evolution. It states that animals who adapt to changes in their environment will survive longer than those who are not well adapted for said changes. This is often called “survival of the fittest.” Fitness in this context does not mean something is physically larger or stronger, only that their adaptation has allowed them to survive long enough to produce more children. For example, a smaller, weaker animal with more offspring would be considered “fitter” than a larger, stronger animal with less offspring. I think Klinghoffer is confusing Zod’s statement with Social Darwinism. This ideology posits that only physically strong and mentally brilliant people should survive, while mentally and physically handicapped people should not be able to propagate. The Nazis were proponents of Social Darwinism, killing some 70,000 psychiatric patients and forcefully sterilizing hundreds of thousands more during the 1930s and 40s. Darwin has no direct connection to Social Darwinism, so equating evolution with eugenics is nothing more than a straw man.

A more obvious allusion to evolution is mentioned towards the end of the film when Superman battles Zod’s female lieutenant Faora. After noticing that he is willing to put himself in harm’s way to save humans, she tells him: “The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.” Klinghoffer comments:

The only problem with her analysis is that evolution, in the presumed Darwinian sense here, “always wins” by discarding things that don’t give an “evolutionary advantage.” That would seem to include the exquisitely tuned conscience with which human beings are gifted — what advantage does that confer? — the existence of which, as we know well, poses one of many enigmas that a Darwinian view is helpless in explaining.

I actually agree with him that removing one’s conscience or sense of morality would provide no evolutionary advantage. The Kryptonian soldiers would have no allegiances and would randomly attack anyone, even members of their own unit. I, however, do not agree with the second half of his last sentence. Klinghoffer has either not read the corpus of literature on the subject, or he is purposely misrepresenting it. The evolutionary origins of morality have been explored by many scientists. In his recent book The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013), Primatologist Frans de Waal presents evidence that morality is not “top-down” (God-given), but “bottom-up,” meaning it issues forth from the naturally arising hierarchy in primate society. Chimps, for example, have a very complex social society that is determined through competition for rank. All individuals within a community from the largest male down to the smallest child all have their place in that society. There are rules for interactions between all members—i.e. greeting, eating, mating, playing, grooming, etc. De Waal states that chimps and other primates exhibit first- and second-order fairness, the ability to recognize inequality and share resources, respectively. See this video for an example:

The monkey’s ability to recognize the unfairness of the exchange is the bases for understanding the difference between right and wrong. That is why transgression of the aforementioned rules is punished by members of the community, thus enforcing conformity. Like humans, chimps have the capacity for reconciliation. Confrontations between in-group members are immediately followed by hugging, kissing, and/or grooming; and those refusing to make up are made to reconcile through a mediator, usually a female. In addition, brain anatomy and chemistry help reinforce positive group relations. For instance, research has shown that social animals like primates (including humans), cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and elephants have large areas of “spindle cells.” This type of brain neuron is associated with empathy (dysfunctions in the brain can lead to lowered empathy). This, coupled with “mirror neurons,” explains why these animals are able to adopt the emotions and behavior of fellow group members. This ensures cooperation and a more harmonious existence.

Those wishing to argue in favor of universal morality have to grapple with the fact that cultures all across the world have different ideas on what constitutes morality. For example, superstitious hunter-gatherer tribes of South Africa believe it a service to the community to kill twin babies because they are considered bad omens. This may be reprehensible to you and me, but we are simply judging this practice though the lens of our own culture. Any agreement between modern systems of morality—many of which are linked with different religious and judicial philosophies, I might add—stems from our common human origins. Most importantly, human morality is not static and unchanging. For instance, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that rebellious children must be stoned to death by the community. But when was the last time a child in the western world was executed just because they talked back to their parents? Countries around the world would certainly have far less children if this was a universal law. Thankfully it and other such laws from the bible are no longer considered acceptable. Morals evolve along with society, plain and simple.
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Update 6-19-13: Klinghoffer’s article has also been covered over at “The Sensuous Curmudgeon” blog.
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Update 6-20-13:

Anyone who has seen Man of Steel knows that Superman is an allegory for Christ. His father was a man named El (God in Hebrew) who sent him to earth, he was raised by commoners, he appears at the age of 33 working miracles, and he helps save humanity through a great deal of suffering. Visuals like Kal-El standing in front of a sunlit stain glass window featuring Jesus while discussing faith and the fate of the world really drive this point home. These Judeo-Christian elements were no surprise to me since I read the comics as a child and knew Superman’s creators were Jewish. However, I was surprised when I found out today (via this video) that the filmmakers specifically targeted Christian groups. This article explains:

“Warner Bros., the studio, employed Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm focused on the Christian market, to arrange screenings for pastors, supply churches with free film clips and even draft sermons that draw on themes in the film that can be given a Christian interpretation.”

So the film was written with Christians in mind. This means the filmmaker’s intentionally associated evolution, the bane of creationists, with the amoral and murderous bad guys, while highlighting Superman as the Christian hero and messianic savor of mankind. By doing this, the filmmakers are perpetuating a twisted image of evolution, one that prevents the general public from accepting it and keeps law makers questioning its scientific merit.
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Update 6-24-13:

Grundy over at the “Deity Shmeity” blog has written an article that shows how Faora’s comment about not having a sense of morality conflicts with displays of Kryptonian morality from the film, and the absurd idea that an amoral society is the pinnacle of evolution.