Natural selection at the movies: Only the bad guys evolve

You can thank evolution for making xenomorphs so gosh darn scary.

You can thank evolution for making Xenomorphs so gosh darn scary. (Flickr: Maggie Osterberg)

It’s almost Halloween, and if you’re anything like me, you celebrate the season by watching scary movies. Although the horror movie marathon is a typical annual tradition of mine, this year I set out with a specific task: to identify as many movies as possible where the villain is somehow associated with evolution by natural selection. As it turns out, there are a lot of them.

Think classic horror films like Alien and Jaws, and also more recent movies like Chronicle, Resident Evil, and Slither. The trend also isn’t restricted to horror movies, with references to natural selection cropping up everywhere from science fiction/adventure films like Edge of Tomorrow to sports dramas like Rocky IV. Nor is it limited to movies alone- television shows like The Walking Dead can give you your fix of “survival of the fittest” references on a weekly basis. Even the definition of the word “villains” involves natural selection.

To be honest, it was pretty fun to explore all the ways the thing I study for a living (i.e., natural selection) has been used as a plot device to kill people in movies. However, I can’t help but wonder whether the association between horror movie bad guys and natural selection might undermine the general public’s understanding of how evolution actually works. Movies with storylines involving evolution often end up perpetuating common misconceptions about evolutionary biology. There are a number of articles out there that have taken on the task of calling out bad evolutionary biology in specific films (e.g., here, here, and here), but I’ll give you an example that I find particularly disturbing. In the recently released Man of Steel, one of the main antagonists (named Faora) makes the following statement (directed at Superman):

“The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has taught us anything, it is that evolution always wins.”

Pretty terrible, right? The part about evolution “winning” is highly problematic, and evidently based around the common misconception that evolution results in progress. But the first half of this quote is perhaps more troubling in that it represents a misconception that shows up time and again in pop culture depictions of evolution: that evolution results in traits that are “bad.” Natural selection is the mechanism of choice to explain the existence of traits that make movie monsters so formidable- in essence, the characteristics that make them evil. Faora calls her lack of a conscience (which most would consider an evil trait) a product of evolution, contrasting her own “evolved” state of amorality with superman’s “less evolved” state of morality.

Other examples of the evolution of bad-guy traits include the genocidal tendencies of the Morlocks in Time Machine, the incredibly efficient caste system of the bugs in Starship Troopers, and the extreme colonization capabilities of the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even in a franchises like the X-men and Resident Evil movies, where evolutionary processes are used to explain the traits of heroes and villains alike, the idea of “survival of the fittest” is really only associated with antagonists like Magneto, Sebastian Shaw, and Albert Wesker. Waterworld is the best example I could find of a film where evolution is primarily associated with the protagonist, and that guy still had to deal with being called “mute-o” throughout the entire movie.

Of course, “good” and “evil” are meaningless from the perspective of trait evolution, and natural selection can play a role in the evolution of both traits that we find morally acceptable as well as those we find morally abhorrent. A strong foundation in the basics of evolution by natural selection allows an individual to disregard the misinformation in horror films and enjoy them in all their ridiculous biological glory.

But with ongoing controversy over the teaching of evolution in public schools, and major universities allowing creationist-oriented curriculum in introductory biology courses, the state of evolution education in the U.S. is obviously not ideal. Which makes me worry: if movies (and television shows, video games, etc.) are the most frequent form of exposure the general public typically gets to evolution, and we as educators aren’t giving them the tools they need to reject the rampant inaccuracies, how can we expect people to come away with an understanding that is unbiased and accurate?

Maybe as solid evolutionary biology education becomes more widespread, we will start to see movies where evolution is part of not only the villains’ stories, but the heroes’ as well. Movies where natural selection is at the root of all sorts of traits, not just the evil ones. Until then, please enjoy this compilation of some of my favorite movie references to evolution. Sometimes, the inaccuracies are part of the fun! As long as you know they are inaccuracies, that is.

3 comments on “Natural selection at the movies: Only the bad guys evolve

  1. flo says:

    I love your compilation of movies!
    Did you note occurrences of this theme while watching movies, or have you found an automated way of finding the words ‘evolution’, ‘natural selection’ etc in movie scripts?

  2. Kayla Hardwick says:

    Thanks for watching! I did both of those things, actually. Most of the movie scripts I wanted to look at were online, so I used the python library urllib2 to automate my search for specific keywords within websites. But as far as figuring out which movie scripts to search, I basically just chose movies where I knew (or suspected) evolution was a theme. So I’m sure there are plenty of additional examples out there that weren’t included in my video!

  3. YES! The “Man of Steel” excerpt is the one I remember that made me cringe the most of all evolution references I’ve seen in film. I mean, as one of the movie’s writers, Christopher Nolan is supposed to be smart, right?? I am only cautiously optimistic about his forthcoming film, “Interstellar”…
    Cautious because of what he so blatantly got wrong, or was unable to convince his cowriters to remove from the superman flick’s script. Optimistic, because his scientific consultant for “Interstellar” is Kip Thorne, an actual scientist and the same consultant that Carl Sagan used to write the exciting bits about wormholes in his novel “Contact”. And the way that both the book and film “Contact” portray the evolution of an advanced alien civilization is EXTREMELY full of hope and moral feeling. Ohh, it gives me goosebumps — the good kind — every time I contemplate it. The advanced “Vegans” in Contact are benign, curious, imaginatively accommodating, and compassionate (remember the part where Ellie meets a simulated image of her father, which the aliens used in lieu of themselves to communicate with her because they “thought it would make it easier” on her.) If natural selection is a truly universal concept throughout the cosmos, then I agree with the author of “Contact” that advanced extraterrestrial life is such that the traits of fear, territoriality, nationalism, and ruthless expansion are traits that went extinct at some point in the history of their ancestors. Great post! I’m glad Luke Harmon shared this today on his wall.

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