X-Men and Darwinian Ethics

Cast of X-Men: First Class

Cast of X-Men: First Class

I read an interesting article the other day.

The author, Cameron Wybrow, discusses the world of the mutant heroes known as the X-Men — from the comic books (which I read for many years) and, more recently, several movies — and their enemies. The X-Men are led by Charles Xavier, a well-to-do geneticist who founds a school to help train young mutants to use their powers safely and ethically. Xavier (aka Professor X) is himself a powerful telepath. The X-Men’s primary antagonist is Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto), who can manipulate metal via his command over electromagnetism and who surrounds himself with other mutants who share his desire to dominate, perhaps enslave or even eradicate, the rest of humanity. Indeed, under Lehnsherr’s teaching and guidance, they believe that they have the inherent right to do so, because their mutant powers indicate that they represent the next step in human evolution. Just as Homo sapiens (aka “normal”, modern humans) wiped out the older, less “fit” hominid species (e.g., Homo neanderthalensis), so does Homo superior (aka “mutants”; i.e., those with superhuman abilities) have the right to conquer Homo sapiens. In a sense, it is a genetic mandate.

Xavier, for his part, strongly disagrees with his (former) friend, Lehnsherr, insisting that there is no such imperative — moral or biological. Humans and mutants can and must learn to live together for the benefit of all. Lehnsherr thinks that Xavier is incredibly naive, especially in light of humans’ natural fear and distrust of anyone/thing bigger or more powerful than they are. (Of course, the same can be said for mutants, but that’s inconsequential to Lehnsherr.)

So goes the rationale….

In the article, Wybrow examines “evolutionary ethics” and the reasoning for the respective positions. Or, more precisely, as Wybrow puts it, “to meditate upon the significance of the argument offered by Magneto and rejected by Professor X.”

According to Darwinian evolution, new species/genera/etc. emerge from Nature “selecting” for beneficial mutations. That is, when a mutation gives an organism/population an advantage in survival and, thus, improves the odds of it passing its genes along to another generation, that mutation gets passed along, too. Cumulations of such mutations — which are extremely rare, btw, in the real world — eventually produce a new species. These new species compete with their predecessors for resources and eventually the older species die off. (Yeah, I know there’s a bit more to it, but that’s sufficient for the point.) Anyway, the important thing is that the new-and-improved models don’t care that they are displacing the older models. Nor should they, in a Darwinian paradigm. It’s just the way things are.

xavier-vs-magneto“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.”

Yup. If one assumes a godless, evolutionary paradigm, there is no reason for Lehnsherr & Co. not to subjugate the human race. For one thing, without God there is no grounding for an objective moral code that says such a thing would be “wrong” or “evil”, even if it involved a lot of misery and brutality inflicted on normal humans. Secondly, the desire or “duty” for mutants to take their “rightful place” as masters of the planet would be entirely consistent with the genetic imperative. Survival of the fittest, you know.

So, why help the weak? Doesn’t that get in the way of Nature’s plan? What logical justification can there be for “thwart[ing] evolution”?

Xavier, in order to justify his misgivings and argue for peaceful co-existence rather than mutant domination, must borrow (however unconsciously) from a non-Darwinian, theistically-based system. Much like many real-world evolutionists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Larry Arnhart), he seems to smuggle in “a quaint form of secularized Christianity” which holds “that human beings have some sort of nature that binds them to behave decently and morally….” Like Wybrow, I agree with Xavier about the reality of ethical/moral obligations. But, if the Darwinian premise is correct, Lehnsherr is actually the more philosophically consistent of the two.

“Thus, in a strange way, the entertaining fantasy of the X-Men sheds light on a contemporary question: How can there 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?”

The article makes a couple other points, but I’d like to end by addressing something that Wybrow doesn’t.

It is widely known that Adolf Hitler was particularly fond of Darwin’s theory, since it gave him a way to “scientifically” back up his philosophy of superior races and “might makes right.” (In fact, it has been said that the two books Hitler insisted every Nazi soldier read were Goethe’s Faust and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, so that they understood his/the Nazi worldview.) Atheistic naturalism allowed Hitler to (a)morally justify all sorts of horrors (including genocide) perpetrated upon anyone he deemed inherently inferior or unfit.

angry Magneto with sparking eyeIsn’t it ironic, then, that the character of Erik Lehnsherr, a Jew who survived a Nazi camp as a child, would then adopt a very similar philosophy of racial supremecism as Hitler? One would think Lehnsherr would have an intense aversion to the evil he witnessed growing up and the rationale behind it. But, grounded in a Darwinian paradigm, Lehnsherr instead follows much the same path. His growing contempt for “normal” humanity and the need to protect his fellow mutants from humans’ fearful reactions to mutant displays of power merely give Magneto an excuse to bully “lesser” beings into submission. He’s just adapting to survive, after all….


NOTE: The original creators of Magneto and the X-Men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, are (or were, in Kirby’s case) sons of Jewish immigrants. I wonder if they intended or recognized the irony in Magneto’s origin & character. I know his hatred of Nazis has been demonstrated both in comics and film (including a proposed Nazi-hunting script for a Magneto movie). If any X-Men fans know of a particular comic issue or storyline where the parallel between Magneto’s philosophy and the Nazis’ was examined, please let me know.


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