Using Misconceptions of Evolution in Fictional Works as a Teaching Tool

I’ve written before about why I use examples from fiction when teaching. I have received many private messages about this, mostly positive and inquisitive, but there is one consistent criticism I have also received: that by doing this, I am encouraging students to believe the fallacious representations of evolution typically found in fiction.

It’s true that there is almost no movie or book or series or fictional story in any medium that has treated evolution properly. The evolution featured in these works is most often Lamarckian, goal-directed, or an extreme form of mutationism.

My personal favourite mistreatment of evolution is the persistence of the scala naturae, the idea that there is a ladder with more highly-evolved beings placed above lowly unevolved beings. It’s obvious nonsense, but still pervasive, as I will demonstrate with this laundry list of examples.

  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a lowly-evolved Devonian creature, a missing link between man and fish, which in the 1956 sequel had to be forced to evolve to a higher state: human-like.
  • In Odd John, author Olaf Stapledon coined the term “Homo Superior” for John, who is a member of a superpowered species of human. Obviously this new species must be superior!
  • In Mass Effect 3, it’s said that we can create the “next step” in organic evolution.
  • Because the Chtorrans from the The War Against the Chtorr saga are around a billion year older than humans, they must be automatically superior.
  • The video game Spore and the much older E.V.O.: Search for Eden have the ladder of evolution as the sole mechanism to move the plot forward. As you advance in a level, you gain points that then spontaneously allow you to reach a higher status by growing body parts.
  • The main antagonists of the inappropriately named sci-fi comedy Evolution are aliens that start off as a slimy blue fluid and evolve at a superfast rate. This leads them to become dinosaur-like and then primate-like. Of course!
  • The Weaver species from China Miéville‘s wonderful book, Perdido Street Station, is said to have originally been a regular spider species that was magically bumped up the ladder of evolution to become a dimension-spanning talking spider.
  • That horrible Super Mario Bros. movie embodies the scala naturae perfectly, with the presence of de-evolution guns that bring victims down a notch on the ladder: in other words, human victims become chimps.

Basically, anything human-like is automatically dominant. Terry Pratchett makes fun of our propensity to place ourselves as the top level of evolution: in the Discworld universe, the God of Evolution’s most perfect project is not the human, it is the cockroach.

If humans are not at the top, then the creature above us is either a superpowered human, or some alien species vastly more powerful than us – because strength is the only measure of evolution, apparently.

The point is that yes, truly bad treatments of evolution are neverending in all media. Does this make them useless? Not at all.

The first is that these misconceptions don’t arise out of the crazy imaginations of writers. They are part of the cultural Zeitgeist, held by the public at large, and sometimes even propagated by supposedly accurate pop sci works. The scala naturae has been such a persistent idea precisely because it appeals to our inherent bias in viewing ourselves as super-special, a bias thoroughly explained and debunked by Henry Gee in his latest book, The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution.

Chances are that students will also subscribe to the notion, maybe unknowingly. An easy test is to show them two identical and correct phylogenetic trees, but one with butterflies at the top and the other with humans at the top. Most likely, they will rank the human-at-the-top tree as the only correct one, even if both show the exact same relationships.

Because of its pervasiveness, the idea of the scala naturae needs to be dismantled during any biology or evolution course. You can use a dry lecture, you can teach tree thinking, you can set problems to be solved, or you can expose the fallacy using movies and fiction. All techniques are valid.

It’s similar to using creationist examples to teach evolution. Creationism is useless and wrong, but giving creationist arguments to your students to debunk is a great way for them to exercise their thinking skills and put their knowledge to use. Don’t teach creationism or Spore-like evolution as valid, use them as essay problems: tell your students to explain why evolution as portrayed there clashes with evolution as we know it.

Irrelevant footnote: The works I featured here are not necessarily bad. In fact, if you haven’t seen Creature from the Black Laggon or read Perdida Street Station, you’re really missing out!

Leave a Reply