Misrepresentations of evolution in popular media

This post is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s something that I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for some time. The theory of evolution (or the fact of evolution, as Richard Dawkins refers to it) is still not as accepted as it should be, and remains “controversial” in some circles. According to a Pew Research Center study, as many as 34% of Americans do not believe that humans and other species evolved from earlier shared ancestors, and instead believe that humans have always existed in their current form, since the moment of creation.

Evolution is not a particularly difficult theory to grasp, but unfortunately its teaching is often encumbered by certain obstacles. The greatest such obstacle is religious dogma, which I don’t need to expand upon here. But there’s another obstacle that is nearly as harmful as religion towards a proper understanding of evolution:  popular media. There is a great number of movies, TV shows, and video games that have “evolution” as their central theme, but do a very poor job of representing the reality of evolution, and in fact perpetuate falsehoods about evolution that might take even more effort to unlearn.

Here’s a selected list of popular media where evolution plays a role, but is presented in a frustratingly incorrect way. These are, of course, my personal gripes. Yours may be different, and if they are, I’d like to know about them. Enjoy!

X-Men

One the grossest misrepresentations of evolution occurs in the X-Men universe. Evolution is integral to the entire premise of the series: it is claimed that the X-Men have special abilities because of mutations in their genome.

The X-Men themselves believe that their mutations make them superior to ordinary humans. The ordinary humans, in turn, treat the mutants as outcasts and freaks because of, essentially, fear and jealousy.  The point to be drawn here is that no single mutation per se makes an individual superior to any other. The only metric of “superiority” in evolution is reproductive success.  If the X-Men series was about a mutant who could impregnate all the women in the world with a snap of his fingers, now that would be an advantageous mutation.

The sheer variety and randomness of “powers” possessed by the mutants begins to border on ridiculous. We have one mutant who can shoot energy out of his eyes, another who can control the weather, another whose skin turns into bulletproof metal, and another who can change the channel on the TV by blinking his eyes. Pray tell, what kind of mutation would enable a person to emit infrared light at the precise frequency and the right modulation to change the channel on a TV?

The powers of the X-Men are completely at odds with fundamental physical laws, including conservation of energy. But even if we dismiss the fact that there’s virtually no physical basis for any of the X-Men’s powers, there’s even less scientific basis for the idea that a genetic mutation is what causes them.

Pokémon

Alright, this is a bit of a stretch. But come on, Pokémon appeals to a substantial number of young children, and they, more than anyone, should be spared from misconceptions about evolution.

In the Pokémon world, a certain species of Pokémon can “evolve” into a different species by the mere act of gaining a sufficient amount of experience from battling other Pokémon. This perpetuates the falsehood that evolution is an instant “quantum leap” from one species to another, or that one species can instantly transform into a different, more advanced species.

Of course Pokémon are not real animals. Perhaps they are supposed to be “magical,” which might give them the ability to transform into different species. But whatever you call this transformation, don’t call it evolution.

Star Trek

As much as I like Star Trek, I’m afraid it’s one of the bigger offenders when it comes to properly depicting evolution, genetics, and DNA.

Firstly, in the Star Trek universe, it’s commonplace to see unions between two different species that produce offspring, for example a half-human half-Vulcan, or a half-Bajoran half-Cardassian, etc.  The thing is, if two individuals are able to produce a child together, then they are by definition the same species.  Just within the confines of the Earth, two individuals from different species cannot produce offspring, even if the species are very close in evolutionary time, e.g. humans and chimpanzees. So then, how could two species from different planets possibly be compatible?

Star Trek treats aliens from different planets as if they were different races of the same pseudo-species of “humanoids,” but this is very different from the idea of them being distinct species, with their own evolutionary lineage.

To its credit, Star Trek: The Next Generation attempts to explain the profusion of humanoid species on different planets in the episode The Chase, in which it’s discovered that life on habitable planets was inseminated billions of years ago by an “original” humanoid species that wanted to spread its likeness throughout the galaxy. This is a perfectly valid premise, but even if life was inseminated this way, the probability that the lineages on different planets would evolve into beings that look virtually identical billions of years later, and are able to interbreed, is essentially zero.

In sum

If you’re a Hollywood screen writer, or a video game designer, or a comic book author, or any other content creator, and are hoping to incorporate evolution into the premise of your production, consider presenting it as free as possible from misconceptions that might be absorbed by your audience. (Or hire me as a technical consultant!)

Higher-level illusions

Most of us have seen optical illusions, and witnessed firsthand how a simple but specially crafted illustration can completely trick our brain, whether it’s an illusion involving depth perception, motion perception, color perception, etc.  One of my favorites is this illusion involving checkered squares with alternating shades of gray (Is square A darker than square B?):

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When I first saw the above illusion, I found it unfathomable that squares A and B are actually the same color, and yet it’s true. The illusion is so powerful, I had to open the image in Photoshop and literally look at the pixel color values of the squares to convince myself that they are the same.

But actually, we don’t even need to resort to any specially contrived images to fool our visual circuits, since our eyes themselves have a built-in defect — a consequence of the eye’s evolutionary history — a blind spot that gets patched over in real time by the software of our consciousness.  This allows us to go on with our lives being completely oblivious of this defect (unless we consciously look for it), but it basically means that we experience this genuine illusion during every waking moment.

These kinds of illusions powerfully illustrate how a simple misfire of our sensory perceptions can send our understanding of the world completely astray, and how our consciousness has adapted to compensate for the laughable fallibility of our senses.

My question is the following:  If it’s this easy to fool our visual processing circuits, what kinds of illusions might be at work at higher levels of our consciousness?  What other blind spots are auto-filled by the software of our brain, making us oblivious to their true nature?

The key to uncovering and understanding illusions, I think, is cognitive effort.  It takes cognitive effort to realize that the illustration at the top of this article is, in fact, an illusion.  It takes cognitive effort to expose and become aware of the blind spot in your own eyes. What other illusions might we uncover if we keep building up the muscles of cognitive effort?

Perhaps we might discover that the Earth, instead of being a flat plane with a dome covering it, is actually a spheroidal mass that orbits the Sun, contrary to all of our intuition.

Perhaps we’ll discover that the Sun is actually one of billions of other suns, and is by no means unique among them, and that our galaxy is one of billions of other galaxies, with similarly little uniqueness about it.

We might also discover that the folk tales and mythologies of our ancestors are not literally true, but are merely expressions of the fears, aspirations, ideals, and desires that we all share, especially the desire to find meaning and purpose in a world that doesn’t grant us purpose on its own.

And perhaps we’ll discover that free will itself, far from being a gift bestowed on us by a creator or even a self-evident property that emerges from our consciousness, is actually the grandest illusion of all:  that all of our thoughts and actions are consequences of deterministic physical laws.

But all of these realizations need not lead us towards fatalism or nihilism, for these too are illusions.  If the universe doesn’t grant us a purpose ex nihilo, it shouldn’t stop us from being able to create our own purpose.  And if it really is true that the laws of physics underlie all of our choices, it doesn’t make our choices any less meaningful or consequential, and it doesn’t mean that we should stop striving to make better choices that improve the lives of current and future generations.

And of course, none of this takes into account the illusions of higher and higher order that we’re bound to uncover in the future, and all the consequences of those discoveries that we can’t even fathom in the present.  The one thing we must not stop doing is exerting our cognitive effort to keep discovering and untangling illusions, wherever we might find them. The immortal words of Stephen Jay Gould come to mind:

We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes — one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.

But do they believe it themselves?

I’ve been wanting to articulate some more thoughts about a question that’s been on my mind for a while:  do practitioners of alternative medicine really believe what they practice themselves?  I am in fact growing more and more convinced that, not only do they not believe in what they sell, but that it’s also better for their business that they don’t believe it!

In a perfect world, here’s all that needs to be said about this:  Who but a con artist could claim that he can heal people over the phone (or over the internet), or that a dose of water with a single molecule of duck liver can cure diseases, or that the positions of distant celestial bodies have an impact on our daily lives, etc., and then have the nerve to charge money for any of the above?

Unfortunately this is not a perfect world, and there are people who establish entire careers around selling these ideas to anyone who’s willing to buy them.

To begin, it’s worth noting that the modus operandi of alternative medicine focuses mostly on sales and marketing, and glosses over such minutiae as scientific substantiation, unbiased testing, or peer review.

It’s interesting to browse the marketing materials for a particular alternative medicine product, and notice a pattern that repeats itself in all “modalities” of alternative medicine:  The marketing materials begin with grandiose claims of the effectiveness of the product and the universality of its effectiveness, continues with a few (if any) hand-waving theoretical “explanations” of how the product is actually supposed to work, and ends with a brief disclaimer that the product isn’t actually intended to treat any disease, and hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA.

This grossly disproportionate emphasis on marketing should be a cause for suspicion.  If the product actually works, then why does it need such a loud and obnoxious sales pitch? If there was even a grain of possible effectiveness in the product, then it would become readily adopted and welcomed into mainstream medicine, and would no longer need to be called alternative.

Indeed, the one unifying quality of all the alternative healing products I’ve seen is how aggressively commercial they are.  For all their talk about transcending the material world, they sure don’t mind making a physical buck!

Tellingly, the practitioners of these methods are usually very charismatic, and skilled in showmanship and salesmanship, another indication that these qualities take priority over the actual product.

They’re never too embarrassed to hijack the latest buzzwords from quantum physics, and they don’t hesitate to register trademarks on their terminology to make it sound as official as possible.

They don’t bat an eye at the idea of charging four-figure sums to attend their seminars or obtain their certifications, of which there are usually multiple “levels”. Just like any other industry, they organize trade shows and expos — orgies of mind-numbing irony where the practitioners sell the latest brand of nonsense to each other and to passers-by.

Revealingly, many of them retain the idea of a “God”, and infuse it into their treatment. We can guess that this is for the purpose of appealing to the widest possible audience, and reassuring them that they can retain their god, while piling on just one more belief (who’s counting?), since they’re already in for a penny.

What’s also impressive is how expertly they navigate the gray area of almost pitching their treatments as official medical advice. Impressive, yet a bit disappointing:  even the most grandiose claims and the most earth-shattering treatments are followed by the usual fine print disclaimer that it’s merely a supplement to traditional medical care.  What a downer. Fortunately the fine print isn’t legally required to be as large as the promotional text, nor is it required to be at the top of the promotional text;  most visitors won’t read that far before clicking “Purchase.”

All of this leads me to suspect that there must be some level of awareness on the part of the practitioner that what they’re doing doesn’t fully square with reality, and that their primary motive is a financial one.  If the practitioner was as oblivious as his customers, then he would eventually go “too far” with his claims, and make a career-ending mistake, such as submitting his product for testing in a lab, or passing it off as official medical advice.

Many practitioners of alternative medicine complain that scientists refuse to debate them, and use this to promote a narrative that the scientific establishment is conspiring to suppress their work.  But the reality is that most scientists are smart enough to understand how futile it is to debate with such practitioners.  It’s futile because the practitioner’s misunderstanding of science is so complete that the practitioner will spout off nonsensical statements at a faster rate than the scientist can correct them.  It’s also futile because the practitioner has only one goal:  he has a product to sell, and the bigger the audience, the better.  The scientist will therefore do well to limit the practitioner’s potential audience, and the best solution is to have no debate at all.

Refuting the Fine-Tuning Argument

During a recent friendly debate with some religious acquaintances, I was asked if I could name any arguments for the existence of a god that actually seem “plausible” to me on any level.  Suffice it to say that none of the standard religious arguments are in any way convincing, given a moment’s thought. However, there is a relatively recent argument that’s been gaining popularity over the last few years, and it requires more than a trivial amount of effort to dismiss. This is the argument from fine-tuning.

In case you’re not aware of the argument, it takes the following form:

Take any physical constant that we know of (e.g. the coupling constant of the strong nuclear force, the cosmological constant governing the expansion of the universe, etc).  If that constant had been a fraction of a percent different, then life wouldn’t exist (or star formation wouldn’t be possible, or the universe would collapse back in on itself, etc).  Therefore, there must have been some intelligent agent who created the universe with the precise physical constants needed for stars and planets to form, and for life to eventually arise.

There’s no denying that it sounds like an interesting, even powerful argument. In fact, some people with whom I’ve recently spoken claim this as the most compelling argument for their continued belief in a god.

Well, let’s carefully analyze this argument, and see why it, too, ends up being less than convincing.

To begin, the universe isn’t exactly overflowing with life.  The universe is more than 99.99% empty space. Most of our solar system is completely uninhabitable, except for a small rocky planet that is on a constant knife-edge of environmental stability, and is just one asteroid away from mass extinction.  It certainly doesn’t appear like the universe was created with us “in mind.” If anything, our presence in the universe is an infinitesimal smear polluting a stupefyingly vast nothingness.  Some “design,” wouldn’t you say?

I might be willing to believe in the fine-tuning argument if we had discovered that there was no universe beyond the Earth, and that the sky was just a canopy above the Earth with the stars being points of light on the canopy.  This should sound familiar:  it’s what we believed two thousand years ago, before we learned better.

So it seems like the desire to believe in the fine-tuning argument is a throwback to the pre-scientific need to feel special, and to cling on to the infantile philosophy that the universe is made specially for us. But we know that every lesson that we’ve had from science over the last 500 years has been a lesson in humility. With each discovery in physics or astronomy, we find that we’re less and less special.

It’s a bit of a straw man argument, as well, and it also smells of the “god of the gaps” fallacy. It’s saying that just because physicists don’t yet understand where Constant X comes from, it must have been designed by a supreme designer.

Just because an “unexplained” constant exists in physics doesn’t mean that it’s free to be adjusted. No one brings up an argument like, “if pi (π) was 3.15 instead of 3.14…, then mathematics wouldn’t be possible.”  It’s meaningless to change the value of pi, because pi simply represents a geometric relationship between circles and diameters. In other words, the value of pi is not a degree of freedom for the universe.  The same could very well be true for many of the physical constants which we haven’t explained yet.

At the same time, it’s possible that there are many other universes apart from this one, where physical constants are in fact different, and we’ve simply won a lottery of universes by being born in this one, just like we’ve won a lottery of planets by being born on this planet, and not another similar planet in a distant star system.

The more basic point I’m approaching here is that physicists don’t yet have an explanation for a great many things. We’ve only had quantum mechanics for less than 100 years. We don’t have an explanation for the expansion of the universe. We haven’t unified all the forces yet. We’ve only unified electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force 40 years ago.  So it’s extremely premature to say that we know anything about these constants in any deeper sense than “they exist.”  And it’s absolutely presumptuous and unwarranted to say that not only do you have a deeper understanding of the physical constants than all physicists in the world, but that you have specific knowledge that a designer-god tweaked some knobs to make the constants the way they are.

We’re in no position to make any judgment about this, given the state of our current knowledge of actual physics.  And anyone who claims to have special knowledge about where the physical constants come from deserves suspicion by default.

Lastly, even if we suppose that the fine-tuning argument suggests some kind of god, the only type of god it can possibly be is a sort of Deistic god;  a god who might have “created” the universe and left it alone.  In no way does it suggest a god who intervenes in people’s lives or answers prayers, and it’s certainly not an argument for the god of the Bible.  It takes just as much work to go from a Deistic god to a prayer-answering god than it does from no god at all.

So, to summarize, we don’t know where some of our physical constants come from, or why their values are what they are.  Or rather, we don’t know yet.  But the point is that it’s okay not to know!  Not knowing is the driving force behind every facet of human inquiry.   Perhaps one day we might discover that the universe really was built by an intelligent designer. But that discovery will be made with the same scientific rigor as all discoveries before it, instead of being built upon holes in our current knowledge.

The fine-tuning argument is therefore precisely that:  an argument that depends on lack of knowledge.  I submit that this realization by itself should disqualify the argument from honest use in debates. It should also disqualify the argument from being a plausible reason for belief in a god.

Atheism as a religion

It annoys me to no end when religious people claim that atheism is “a religion” or that atheism is just as “dogmatic” as religious beliefs. This will be the subject of a much longer article at some point, but until then, let me share a quick aside on this topic.

Here’s a key difference between atheists and religious people:

Atheists don’t need any mechanism of reinforcement for their beliefs. Since we draw our beliefs from the natural world, we don’t need to appeal to imaginary beings and reassure ourselves that they exist, despite overwhelming evidence that they don’t. We don’t need to speak empty words into empty air every day, while banging our heads against the floor. We don’t need to congregate in a large room for a session of mutual emotional masturbation where a charismatic leader (who actually refers to us as a “flock”) assures us that our beliefs are infallible and questioning them is pointless or even dangerous.

We never need to switch off our rational minds, or even put them in the back seat for the purpose of indulging ourselves in believing things that our ignorant barbaric ancestors tell us to believe. Perhaps the words “ignorant” and “barbaric” are too harsh; our ancestors did the best they could. The point is, the ignorance of our ancestors is forgivable. What’s unforgivable is clinging on to that same ignorance in our modern world. Even less forgivable is considering it a virtue to perpetuate such ignorance.

We are capable of drawing feelings of spirituality from the grandeur and complexity of the natural world. Instead of using our imagination to invent more intricate ways of deluding ourselves, we use our imagination to improve the quality of life for current and future generations, since we know that this life is the only one we get, which makes it all the more precious and fragile.