X-Men: Apocalypse opened this summer, the latest installment in a famous comic turned film franchise. Although I have not seen the film, anyone familiar with the titular villain knows that the premise follows his character’s legacy: A nearly invincible and all-powerful mutant wishes to destroy the world of humans (and weak mutants) and create a world meant only for the strongest.
In the Marvel universe, many superheroes and super villains are the result of natural mutation. As humans have evolved over millions of years, a very recent leap forward has created an entirely new species of being, distinct from Homo sapien in that various powers manifest that make this new kind of people more fit for survival.
This is how the story goes. Humans have evolved. This is what is supposed to happen. Now there are stronger humans who carry an entirely separate genetic code adapted to a new environment. They are biologically superior (actually called Homo superior). In the Marvel universe, there is no code by which they are obligated to not exercise their superiority. None.
Have you ever noticed that, for the most part, all these genetic mutations cause combat-centered abilities? They are mostly aggressive and violent—later beams, sharp claws, crushing weight, invasive psychic power. If we’re going to evolve for survival, the X-Men universe says, we are naturally going to have to fight each other in order to survive. Professor X may dream of a world where a superior and inferior species exist in a single ecosystem at the same time, but is he right? Can it happen? And should it? And if the answer to both of these is yes, then why?
En Sabah Nur, who comes to name himself as Apocalypse, was born thousands of years ago in Egypt. Abandoned as a baby for looking deformed, he is found by a band of warriors who interpret his appearance as a sign of his power. He does not know at first what genetics are or that he is a new species, only that he is a more powerful, more intelligent being than all those around him. He was born to be. He even outlives the Pharaoh while trapped in a tomb due to his physiology. His body was more adapted to a desert climate of scarcity and harsh weather.
Over time, Nur comes to believe so much in survival of the fittest that he adapts as his purpose the maintenance of such a principle. If he and his followers are strong, they should cull from the world those unfit to survive. It is what nature always does anyway. The strong take over and the weak die out. Marvel editor Bob Harras explains the character’s creation:
“And he came with a clear-cut agenda: ‘survival of the fittest.’ He didn’t care if you were a mutant—if you were weak, you would be destroyed. He was merciless, but his philosophy was easy to grasp and it fit in with the harder edge of evolution which is part and parcel of the mutant story. Isn’t that what humans fear about mutants? That they are the next step? Now, we had given mutants something new to fear: a character who would judge them on their genetic worthiness. […] To his own mind he wasn’t evil […] he believed he was doing the right thing. He was ensuring evolution.”
Ironically, his name doesn’t actually mean “ending” so much as it means “uncovering.” We often take the word apocalypse to mean the end of times, when it actually refers to the revealing of things meant for the end or pertinent to the end. This semantic clarity reminds me that Apocalypse himself is a revealing of Social Darwinism. To Apocalypse, humans are “less than worms,” and he finds them wanting. Mutants are far superior, more worthy to live.
Although Nur’s story is played out differently in multiple versions (as is the case often in comics), his philosophy is almost always the same. “Peace does nothing to[…]increase mutants’ strength,” he says. Peace does nothing “to force them to evolve into the strong.” Apocalypse has no motive for promoting peace between humans and mutants, or even between mutants, but rather the opposite. War and violence are supposed to exist between not only animal species, but human species, in order for the strong to survive. At one point the character says, “Mutant must fight mutant, if the weak are to be winnowed from the strong. And when only the strong are left, Apocalypse will make his move.”
As time moves forward, natural selection and survival of the fittest are principles to be embraced so that the strong will survive, as they are meant to. There is no evil or wrong in the strong doing what they must to survive over the wicked, who should not. This is the philosophy of one of Marvel’s greatest villains. Then why is it not the philosophy of countless homo sapiens who believe in evolution, survival of the fittest, and natural selection?
From a naturalistic perspective, Homo superior is the latest result of human evolution, and “survival of the fittest” mandates that Homo sapiens are no longer fit. And if there is no supernatural (that is, beyond nature) prerogative to act otherwise, no living being has any right to call another living being wrong for willing to further the process of natural selection. No matter how advanced we are, we are still part of nature, and our advanced state “earns” us the right to replace the weak.
So if the X-Men universe were real, Apocalypse wouldn’t be wrong. No matter how much we’d hate him or want to stop him, he would only be logical, and we couldn’t call him immoral. If there is no singular moral anchor, but only the will of human beings to declare their own morality, and if we are nothing but products of biological evolution, then, if anything, the moral thing to do would be to make way for the strongest beings. A Homo superior killing a Homo sapien is no more wrong than a lion killing an antelope. They are two different species trying to survive.
Even a militant evolutionary biologist and atheist like Richard Dawkins admits that “a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live.” Nobody wants that completely except for the crazy few Hitlers and serial killers. He wants us to subvert our selfish instincts, even though they’re apparently designed (without a designer) to be so without any moral prerogative not to. A world like the one peaceful Professor Xaview contends for is better, we know, but we can’t explain why when we look at the biology of nature, ecosystems, and genetics.
Professor Xavier’s ethical system is one we would all want, but does it have any right to be called right in the Marvel universe? What standard does Xavier appeal to? We believe that in such a fictional universe all humans, mutants or not, should be treated equally. But unless we can appeal to some reasoning beyond nature itself, we would be in the wrong. Darwinism would reveal (as in apocalyptically) that any warm-fuzzy feelings of getting along would only be signs of weakness, an altruism that hinder progress in the name of survival of the most dominant. We would not be able to claim Professor X as a good guy, just one with a different agenda than Magneto, Apocalypse, or Senator Kelly.
At this point, we know we are coming to a discussion that theists wish use as grounds for a discussion of God. But when we look at the character Apocalypse, we realize we are dealing with a being who calls himself a god, and might as well be, according to the broadest definition. He is worshipped, he is all-powerful, he is immortal, and he has a will. But just like the pagan gods of his Egypt and man other nations past, he is a flawed, human god. The truth us, naturalism is its own God, and character like Apocalypse are “revealing” of such a philosophy’s god. If all you believe in is the moral principles behind natural selection and survival of the fittest, and you want something to worship, En Sabah Nur is the god for you. After all, he became the fittest on earth by evolving into a god. In like manner, we have taken the astute scientific observations of a single man (Charles Darwin), mistook them for a new kind of theology, and made them into a god.
Some gods are too weak to survive scrutiny. When it comes to Darwinism, it is very difficult not to let a perceived is naturally lead to an intended ought.