Archive for the ‘X-Men’ Category

Science Fiction Round 27: Evolution Does Not Work That Way

There is something that we’ve touched on in several previous posts, but I’d like to talk about in a bit more detail: how biological evolution as a process and evolutionary biology as a model of it are misrepresented in media in general and in science fiction in particular.  Again, almost all of what I’ve written here is not original.  And as you’ll see, the particular misunderstandings I’m discussing here are based on two problems: many people not understanding evolutionary biology, and the human tendency to assume intent and direction even in entirely random processes.

Evolution Works Only On Populations

Evolution.  You keep using that word.  It does not mean what you think it means.

Evolution. You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

No, individual organisms do not evolve.  Nor are acquired characteristics passed from creatures to their offspring.  And nor does evolution allow violations of the laws of physics.  Got it?

Evolution Has No Goals

It should be obvious, but evolution is not a conscious entity.  Evolution is simply the set of processes that drive changes in the frequency of inherited characteristics in populations over time.  This means that evolution has no goals and no design.  Crucially, humans in particular and intelligence in general are not intended outcomes of a system in which evolution can occur.  I’m thinking of Star Trek and the new Battlestar Galactica in particular here, but the same mistake is made in a lot of science fiction.

Likewise, while symbiotic and cooperative behavior can certainly evolve, nothing like the entire-biosphere-is-one-organism of Avatar or various other misunderstandings of the Gaia hypothesis can actually happen without comprehensive engineering – a system like that only works when imposed top-down on the whole biosphere, and since evolution has no goals all that can occur are bottom-up emergent properties.

Evolution Has No Direction

Since there is no goal to evolutionary processes, it isn’t the orderly progression from pond scum to bilateria to basal amniote to mammalia to simian to ape to human to glowing space being seen in 2001 and Babylon 5 and on far too many t-shirts.  Species aren’t “more evolved” or “less evolved” than one another.  All things currently alive on Earth (and a few things that are alive off of Earth) come from different lineages that have survived for the same amount of time (3.8 billion years, give or take).  Over 99.9% of species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct – or rather the distribution of traits in any living descendants they had has changed to the point that interbreeding and producing fertile offspring with their ancestors would be impossible.  Either way, the current set of living organisms isn’t anything inherently special in evolutionary terms; we’re simply the current state of a constantly-changing and boundly-chaotic system.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( ).  We all are buried in the "Animalia" line.  Note how similar we and all other animals are genetically and how different the microbes can be.

Massively simplified phylogenetic tree, from the Interactive Tree of Life website ( ). We all are buried in the “Animalia” line. Note how similar we and all other animals are and how different the microbes can be.  Genetically speaking, you and me and a slime mold have more in common than the slime mold does with blue-green algae.

And even the messiness of the phylogenetic tree above and the full version that it is drawn from only begins to capture the chaotic complexities of evolutionary processes.  For example, it takes no account of populations with incomplete divergence, where the definition of “species” gets fuzzy because creatures can still have offspring with one another – be those critters flowers or gulls forming ring species populations; bears that were thought to be several different species before genetic sequencing came in; or the various different clades of H. sapiens – the main H. sapiens sapiens plus neanderthalensis, Denisova, and possibly others that we all are descended from.

But the data this chart is based on illustrate something very important.  The chart is based on the genomes of the organisms concerned; charting the statistical similarity between the sequences of their component genes.  Those genes have changed in many different ways after the ancestral population of each pair of lineages split.  Sometimes, genetic information is copied.  Sometimes, it is added to.  And sometimes it is deleted.  Fundamentally, many of those alterations are random: a cosmic ray hit scatters a base pair; a DNA polymerase makes an error that is not corrected by a proofreader; and so on.  That makes them impossible to predict.  While you can put limits on the possible traits that could appear and spread in a population, there is no way to predict exactly what a population’s descendants will evolve into in the future (and if we were able to run history twice from the same starting point, we’d get two very different outcomes).  Nor can you say exactly what a population’s ancestors were like.  At best, you could do a statistical best-guess reconstruction.   There is no latent amphibian in your genome.

Evolution Is More Than Natural Selection

This one is really annoying, because it tends to show up among people who nominally have learned something of evolutionary biology.  Basically, it is the tendency to assume that every observed trait of every population must be the direct product of natural selection.

Certainly natural selection is important, even over relatively short timescales.  The spread of lactase-persistence genes in the human population over the last several thousand years is a classic example.  Even in populations where lactase production does not usually continue into adulthood, a few random people with mutations that keep it active are born.  In cultures where animals that can be used to produce dairy products have been domesticated, being able to eat those products gives a big advantage in terms of calorie and protein intake.  And so the lactase-persistence mutations that happened to be around when and where humans started keeping herds have spread throughout the population (although even now, most people worldwide don’t have lactase-persistence and many people who do continue to produce lactase in adulthood don’t produce it at the same level as in childhood).

But there are many common traits that haven’t become so due to natural selection.  Genetic drift means that an allelle or trait that is neutral or even somewhat negative in terms of whatever metric of fitness is being used can still spread throughout the population, simply by random fluctuations and sampling.  This is particularly relevant during population bottlenecks and when small populations split off from larger ones.  Among many other examples, the latter is why American Sign Language exists: there was a high incidence of hereditary deafness among the population of Martha’s Vineyard, primarily among the descendants of a few deaf immigrants in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.

Massively simplified model illustrating the phenomenon of genetic drift.  Colors indicate different alleles, all of which have exactly the same fitness: each model organism has an equal chance of passing its allele to the next generation.  Initially, all organisms in the population have the same allele.  Occasional random mutations occur, one of which eventually dominates the population by random chance.  I ran the model forward 21 generations, at which point the new allele was universally fixed, but there is nothing special about that point.  In another 20 generations or so, it would most likely be replaced by something else.

Genetic hitchhiking means that alleles associated with a gene that is being selected for can increase in frequency even when they themselves provide no benefit.  And “associated” can simply mean “nearby on the same chromosome” – for example, sections of human chromosome 5 may have been selected for, but hitchhiking caused a nearby part of the chromosome carrying an allele that gives a genetic predisposition to Crohn’s disease to spread at the same time.

And exaptation means that an allele originally serving one purpose may be selected for or against for some other reason – some dinosaurs with unusual scales for better thermoregulation and showing off to one another found that they were useful when jumping, and we got flying birds.

This all means that we and most other lifeforms on Earth are carrying around a lot of baggage that no longer serves or never served any useful purpose – be that an unused appendix or endogenous retroviruses – because there is not any sufficient cost to their presence and/or sufficient benefit to their removal.  Bottom line: many things about humans and other life on Earth, and about any alien life that we might encounter, will be the legacy of random events and we should not construct just-so stories just because we are uncomfortable with being the outcomes of a chaotic system.

Evolution Is Not Fate

Related to much of above:

It’s particularly grating and harmful when “evolution made it so” or “it’s natural” is used to in an attempt to justify cultural innovations or in an attempt to defend harmful behavior by individual people and characters.  I could use Star Trek references again here, but there are far too many other examples in fiction – fantasy as well as scifi.

Here’s one: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game setting fails all over the place because he creates characters that are defined almost entirely in terms of psychology by their supposed evolutionary history (although Card personally ambiguously endorses intelligent design).  The Hive-Queens are unable to recognize that individual humans are intelligent even after observing our behavior covertly for an extended period of time before invading – they only get the hint after they’ve gotten into a massive fight with humans.  That makes no sense.  Evolution is not fate, and anyone capable enough to be traveling over interstellar distances and establishing colonies on dozens of planets with their own local biospheres will be able to parse “not all intelligences are exactly like me”.  Card also extends his own personal bigotry to his characters, and this as a device to endorse his own particular and dangerously wrong ideas of sexual ethics, falsely claiming as “biological imperatives” things that are entirely the inventions of certain groups of humans.

Nor are such actively-harmful misunderstandings of evolution restricted to fiction.  Evolutionary psychology does contain some valid and important insights – such as where some cognitive biases come from – but it is also invoked in misguided attempts to excuse both harmful individual behavior and elements of current culture that are both recent in time and restricted in space.  One particularly absurd example, although it’s very far from the most harmful:  The claim that the current US-centered gendering of the color pink as feminine is due to Paleolithic foraging habits and therefore justified.  In fact, that’s only an invention of the last 60 years or so – and in the US, it was preceded by a few decades where pink (along with red) was seen as masculine.

I hope the problem here is abundantly clear.  “Evolution says so!” is being wrongly used to hold aspects of culture / behaviors above question.  First, evolution doesn’t say anythingno goals and no direction, remember?  And, second, evolution is not fate.  We not irrevocably bound to any particular culture or set of behaviors out of the incredibly wide range that we can choose from.  If we can change things to make the world a better place, we should do so – regardless of how the frequencies of different alleles changed among our ancestors.   It is dishonest and harmful to claim otherwise.

Fantasy Round 19: Control Point

2013/06/26 2 comments

Since I’m a terrible procrastinator, I just finished reading the book Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole.  (The recommendation was from this site, which has a cool story in its own right.)

It’s an interesting story, fairly well-written, and I think it considers some interesting moral conundrums.  It’s a bit like the X-Men, and loaded with military references.  That said, it also has some serious flaws.  As ever, here there be spoilers.

This is the book cover.  The guy in front is our protagonist, Oscar Britton.  The other two guys I'm not so sure about... I think they're actually a couple of the villains...

This is the book cover. The guy in front is our protagonist, Oscar Britton. The other two guys I’m not so sure about… I think they’re actually a couple of the villains…

The Magic Is Awesome

It’s just like our world, except it’s the future, and there’s been a magical Reawakening.  People have been popping up with magical talents for the last several years, at least — the precise details are vague.  The magical powers come in several flavors, and each “Latent” person gets one of them.  The most common are the typical cardinal element powers — Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, and Aeromancy.  They do pretty much what you think, although Hydromancy can be used to freeze pretty much anything, and Aeromancy allows flight, weather control, and lightning.

There are several other skills as well — Physiomancy, classical healing, and also anti-healing; Necromancy, which does what you would expect; and Negromancy, or Black Magic, which is magic of rot and decay.  There’s also Elemental Conjuration, where you can make separately intelligent elementals out of pretty much anything.

Our protagonist, Oscar Britton, a US Army pilot, comes up with a talent which is so rare that there’s only one other person in the US with it: Portamancy.

Yes, it is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.  On Earth, he can make portals to any location in the Source (a parallel world with stronger magic), or to anywhere on Earth, if he starts in the Source.  It works pretty much like the portals in Portal, except he doesn’t need a portal gun or a surface to put the portals on, and he can also suck things through a portal if he puts some effort into it.

From a military perspective, Britton and his cohorts take pretty good advantage of his powers — instant insertion and backup, porting behind enemies, portal cuts… lots and lots of portal cuts, actually.  Lots of things and people get sliced and diced.  Whew.

However, as we discussed in the post for Portal, there are a lot of possibilities here for instant transport that really aren’t taken advantage of.  Britton only needs a good picture to go to a location, and he can keep air/water/other fluids from going through the portal if he doesn’t want them to.

Instant transport to the ISS… the Moon… Mars… Titan… anywhere with good enough pictures.  That would be awesome.  Unfortunately, in this story, the US and numerous other counties have exhibited a rather serious problem…

Failure to Learn from History

Apparently, this is a problem in the US at the time of the story, as well as many other places.  (Then again, it sounds like China is doing better.)

It’s the classic “New powers, dangerous and scary, must ban” thing.  New Latents (the term for people with powers) typically manifest due to emotional turmoil, with their powers out of control.  Making them more anxious (i.e., by sending the supernatural SWAT after them) just makes it worse.  At some point, somebody (deliberately or as a nasty Manifestation, it’s unclear to me) destroys the Washington Monument.  From that point on, all persons who manifest are required to report themselves and join a special Supernatural branch of the Army.  Black magic, necromancy, and portamancy are all banned by US law.  (And by the “Modified Geneva Convention”?  What?)

Mandatory training makes sense, to help people keep their powers under control, but… beyond the draft, it gets worse.

In addition to being stuck in the Army for life, they black-bag anybody with banned powers for their special ops group.  And their use the obviously explosive nature of Manifestation as an excuse to support their draconic measures.  The problems with Manifestation would be a lot better if the military actually (a) didn’t go in shooting people when someone Manifested and didn’t immediately turn themselves in, and (b) weren’t keeping the Dampener drug top-secret.  The Dampener helps people keep their powers under control, especially if untrained… you can see where this is going.

Plus, there’s a group of Native Americans who’ve effectively seceded and are actively fighting the government to be able to act independently and use their powers.

This is just… there are no words.

Political Fail

I’m not sure there’s a way to actually get the politics right for all of this, either.

Most glaring is one of the quotes at the beginning of a chapter.  It’s essentially stated that France is under Sharia law and magic is completely banned (aside from Suppression, which blocks someone else’s magic).  Um… what?  At the present time, France has a population of about 66 million people.  Of those, estimates on Wikipedia give somewhere around 3% as Muslim at the present time.  Even if they were all extremists (which they’re not), that’s not nearly enough to rewrite France’s laws to such a serious extent as to have extremist Muslim view dominating.  Erp.

Having religious fundamentalists of various stripes objecting to “black magic” and “demonic powers” makes perfect sense, but having the minority take over the government like that is… very odd.

The other weird bit is that they have the US Army operating domestically, which is prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act and all precedent. Modifying the law to let people get out the big guns to go after newly-Manifested high school Pyromancers seems… very off.  The US is pushing towards a police state, which is part of the point — considering the scary implications of these things on our characters.  There have been times in history (and at the present) where classes of people have been persecuted, and placed in forced/slave labor situations.  But in this case, it seems contrived.

Shh, It’s a Secret

There’s also the question of the clandestine base in the Source.  Sure, there was foreshadowing of a leak that said there was a secret army base and goblins, but how on Earth could they keep that quiet?  Especially given that, however rare Portamancy is, there will be Portamancers other than Britton and the other poor sucker working for the US military… and not necessarily in friendly countries.  Plus, there’s another parallel here — they’re essentially trying to conquer the Source, and trying to steamroll a bunch of goblin tribes in the process.

At least Britton blows the whistle on the whole mess at the end by dumping the surviving villains on the White House lawn.

There Is No Section 8

There is also one other big problem with the Supernatural Operations Corp, which has all the drafted sorcerers.

Um, morale?  Hello?  Several characters show signs of Stockholm Syndrome after being drafted.  They put a bomb in Britton’s chest to prevent him from just porting away to escape, and they keep a crazy Black Magic user trapped in hopes of bringing her around.  They have one nasty doctor use Physiomancy to torture a prisoner… to death.  They use over-the-top propaganda and psychological pressure to make the draftees cooperate, along with threats to harm their families.  (In at least one case, one unwilling Aeromancer’s wife and unborn child were murdered when he was taken.)  Genuinely evil drill sergeant included at no extra charge.  Oh, and the friendly goblins are basically used as cheap labor, from hauling bricks up to medical aid.

What kind of army is this?!  Seriously, this organization is just waiting for an opportunity to implode… and that seems to be in progress in this novel, but still.  I want to know how things got this bad.

Fantasy League Round 6: The Masquerade

We’ve talked about how many different fictional universes would be dramatically different if whatever characters or technology they have in them were to be publicly known in real life, with a particular focus on economics and sociology.  This obviously poses a problem for an author: how can you write a straight-forward detective story featuring a vampire detective when the readers will be focused on the incongruity of nobody using magic to make a million dollars?

If any of you are hiding super-natural powers, this is why you should confess. The Randi Foundation doesn’t actually keep a million USD in cash. They have something closer to 1.5 million accumulating interest in a third-party investment portfolio.

One way to do this is to establish a convention that while the world may look like the real world, that is just the outward appearance.  There is a Masquerade – an organized effort to hide the flying saucers / vampires / wizards / witches / parallel dimensions / alien space bats from the muggles.  But this has its own problems.

Why is there a Masquerade?

Why are characters with fantastic skills hiding from the world?  There have been many different in-story reasons for this, ranging from the all-too-realistic to the entirely absurd.

The reason many mutants have secret identities in the X-Men comics is all-too-realistic.  Society sets up the Masquerade, forcing the mutants to either hide their skills or be discriminated against for not being ‘normal’.  In real life, society has forced masquerades into existence for no good reason at allThis analogy is not lost on the Marvel comics staff.  But this form of masquerade only goes so far.  It only works as long as the population has some idea, however distorted and mistaken, of who they are forcing into hiding: the world has already been partially unmasqued.  In the Marvel comic universe, everyone knows that mutants exist, even if they don’t know who the mutants are.  Why would a group hide from the world so well that nobody believes or even knows to not believe that they exist?  And why would someone discovering something extraordinary not tell others about it?

Perhaps the default version is “but they wouldn’t believe me if I told them”.  That one might work for the first time Lucy Pevensie goes to Narnia, with the portal to the other world opening and closing at the whim of a not-particularly-kind deity.  But it’s absurd when the group with the supernatural skill can prove what they have.  We need another motivation for people to stay silent.

The term Masquerade as we’re using it here comes from Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, where it is used by the Howard Families, a small group of people selectively bred for longer lifespans, to refer to their hiding from the ephemerals around them.  There the motivation was to avoid attention and people trying to steal the secrets of their immortality.  In that story, the Masquerade is eventually broken and society is angry at the immortals, not believing that they were simply selected for long lifespans – although there is no good reason for that, since the Howards’ lives are well documented.  Here the Masquerade came from fear.  But if someone had been public about living longer in the past, then the Masquerade would not have been necessary.  So the fear was misplaced, and doesn’t work as a motivation.

In Harry Potter, we’re told the wizards hide because otherwise “people would want magical solutions to their problems”.  That’s not a good reason either.  People wanting magical solutions to their problems is a great opportunity to make a lot of money.  In order for the Masquerade to make sense, it has to be in the self-interest of the groups that are hiding to stay hidden.

Slayer with rockt launcher

This is why the vampires are hiding.  (Yes, the slayer is not tactically dressed.  But that doesn’t matter much when she has a rocket launcher).

In Buffy The Vampire SlayerVampire: The Masquerade and some other vampire settings, the Masquerade is justified by the various groups of vampires agreeing to hide from humans because otherwise we’d all gang up on them and kill them until they died from it.  That’s a pretty good reason, and it’s enforced in Vampire by a group of vampire enforcers taking down anyone who does try to go public and in Buffy by stakes, scythes, and rocket launchers.  A similar reason is invoked in The Dresden Files.  And in Mage: The Ascension, there are non-sympathetic Men In Black hunting down anyone who is doing unsanctioned magic.

But even these self-interested Masquerades tend not to work out, because while it may be in the interest of the group to remain unknown to the world, there is always a million-dollar incentive for each individual to be the one who goes public.  We’ll come back to this at the end, after we show that even the best-maintained Masquerade couldn’t survive anyway.

How is there a Masquerade?

How do you prevent Muggles from walking into Hogwarts?  Sure, it may be impossible to label on a map and loaded up with nothing-to-see-here, but why doesn’t it and all the other wizard enclaves show up on airplane and satellite imagery?  A Wizard Did It only works so well.  If high concentrations of unspecified “magical energy” fry electronics, then people will notice the bizarre dead spot on the train platform where their cell phones suddenly crash and start tapping on the wall.  Dragons flying around will set off air-traffic control radar, to say nothing of people’s reaction to a flying car.  Actually, Harry Potter’s masquerade has more holes than the Menger sponge.  It’s as bad as how almost everybody misses that Superman is obviously Clark Kent and Batman is almost as obviously Bruce Wayne.  Let’s try something else.

In The Dresden Files, the masquerade is maintained by the “Unseelie Accords”, a set of agreements between various magical groups to not reveal their presence to the world.  The different groups all hate each others’ guts, but aren’t willing to risk total destruction by angry normals (or by vampires or faerie who are angry at being revealed).  This is an okay setup, but somehow it survives vampire bodies showing up in a Chicago morgue, a wizard fighting horror-movie monsters in a hotel convention center, and a horde of zombies being hunted through a city by a resurrected T. Rex.  That’s bad enough.  Then Jim Butcher turns it up to eleven.

Harry Dresden (listed in the Chicago yellow pages as “wizard”) and a group of his friends are fighting an army of vampires at Chichen Itza.  Near the beginning of the fight, Dresden briefly negates gravity over a large area and focuses the force into a very small area, smashing a field of vampires into the ground.  It produces a minor earthquake.  Cool story, isn’t it?  The problem for the Masquerade is that there are several different global seismic monitoring networks specifically looking for small near-surface earthquakes emanating from point sources well away from established faults – because that’s what a nuclear detonation looks like.  Everyone with a seismometer now thinks that a nuke went off in the Yucatan.

From there, the Masquerade would fail quickly.  30 minutes or less will put blurry spy-satellite imagery of Dresden’s team fighting vampires on a large number of computer monitors.  If I read the US-Mexico airspace and joint defense agreements and approximate aircraft base positions correctly, within an hour there would be high-speed jets from US Air Force bases along the Gulf over Chichen Itza doing close recon, closely followed by Mexican aircraft and probably some curious private planes and helicopters from Cancun.  And then neither the vampires nor the wizards could hide from the world, even if they all teleported away immediately.  The Masquerade may have been set up by the Wizard Who Did It, but Muggles Do It Better.

Why Isn’t The Masquerade Brought Down?

If Masquerades are so easily broken and there are such large rewards for being a whistleblower, how can a Masquerade last in a story for any length of time?  This one is actually easy to answer: if the Masquerade fails, the story changes too much and the author(s) can’t write a sequel.

There may be in-story reasons why nobody has brought down the Masquerade, especially if there is an organization dedicated to maintaining it.  If showing the world that aliens exist will summon the MIB and lead to you and everybody else in the world being immediately mind-wiped then perhaps fame and wealth isn’t as much of an incentive.  But where is the supernatural equivalent of Wikileaks or radical open-source?  And if there isn’t a penalty for going public, the Masquerade doesn’t make any sense at all.

Even if there is a penalty for going public, you just need to do so untraceably.  Gather compelling evidence of whatever The Masquerade is hiding.  Use dummy email accounts and free wifi to get copies of it printed and mailed to hundreds of different groups at once.  University science departments may be deluged with crackpot manuscripts, but most get looked at for a few minutes, so you have a chance of being taken seriously.  Once again, Wikileaks is the model.  For physical evidence, shuffle it through mail forwarding services a couple of times and not even you will know exactly where it has been before it gets where it needs to go.  A few pebbles from Narnia would be enough for the geochemists; a dragon egg makes the biologists go wild;  vampire skulls sent to an anthropologist shows that they exist.

How to prove you were in Narnia / Ferryth / any other non-Earth world: bring back a pocketful of pebbles (Chassigny meteorite fragment, originally from Mars, with a 1 cm cube for scale).

Granted, it’s not quite that simple.  It would be a huge leap from “you found a place with isotope ratios that don’t match anything in the solar system” to “you were in a land of talking animals ruled over by C.S. Lewis’ version of Jesus personified as a lion”.  And “there are humanoids with large retractable canines and strange bones that disintegrate in sunlight” isn’t the same as “we need to find the vampire leaders and convince them that they and their followers should drink pig’s blood rather than human”.  But as soon as the basic supernatural element of whatever Masquerade you are bringing down is illustrated, everyone would be willing to listen and to invest considerable effort in what you say.

So it is very hard to have a convincing Masquerade in a story.  I suppose you could specify some sort of universal law that the Masquerade cannot be broken, but that would be an arbitrary law enforced by a trickster god.  It’s probably best to simply go with authorial fiat and acknowledge the inconsistency.