Tabish Khair interrogates the theme of mutation in popular culture, including X-men and how they are wrongly put under the banner of transhumanposthumanism ...
Imagine a villain taking all humanity captive, and slowly, in full view of the others, forcing individuals to jump to death, one after another heh-heh-heh, off a steep cliff. How many human beings do you estimate would need to be pushed off this cliff before one human – given evolutionary pressures of the sort we are used to in popscience and even more popular art – sprouts feather or web (or both) and flap-flap-flaps away to superman safety or transhumanism?
Posthumanism is used as a synonym for transhumanism, as it affirms the possibility and desirability of going beyond human limitations in purely evolutionary terms. X-men belongs to this powerful myth of posthumanism as transhumanism. Interestingly, though, the posthumans imagined in such scenarios are basically ‘prehuman’ – they share features of animals or of mythical gods.
This is at the core of films like X-men, the popular film series based on the Marvel Comics superhero band of the same name. Mutations have turned humans into something other than ‘merely human’ – into what the hoi polloi used to call supermen or gods, and the more pretentious term ‘transhuman.’ From ‘transhuman’ grows the term, preferred by academics, ‘posthumanism’: some major academics posit it against transhumanism which is seen, correctly in my view, as a development of classical liberalism and mechanistic scientism, with its roots in flawed cultural theories, such as Social Darwinism. However, more commonly (even in academia), posthumanism is used as a synonym for transhumanism, as it affirms the possibility and desirability of going beyond human limitations in purely evolutionary terms. X-men belongs to this powerful myth of posthumanism as transhumanism. Interestingly, though, the posthumans imagined in such scenarios are basically ‘prehuman’ – they share features of animals or of mythical gods. Take X-men, for instance: Wolverine is a man-wolf with steel claws (implanted in tandem with his ‘mutation’), and Storm shares the powers of the many weather deities of yore. Other X-men characters, like Rogue and Beast, are also patterned on the same division, while Cyclops, Iceman et al combine animal-god features. The fact that the posthumans of X-men return to ‘prehumans’– animal-beings or ancient and mythical god-beings – seems to have been largely overlooked by theorists of transhuman/posthumanism. We will need to return to this.
But why blame X-men? After all, this predates the film series. It starts, in popular culture, around the middle of the 20th century, when notions of mutation finally seep into public consciousness.
Darwin’s theory had posited no mechanism of evolution. How does the organism ‘adjust’ to external factors, how are these factors communicated to the micro-organismic and molecular levels, and vice versa? The questions were many.
Mutation is both problem and possibility in the evolutionary sense. With its mechanism basically being worked out in the 1920s and 30s, it made sense of Darwin and nonsense of Darwinism. In other words, it made sense of those overlooked, overworked scientists actually grappling with matters like cells, and genes, and proteins, and it made nonsense of what the reading public largely thought of Darwinism.
What did the reading public make of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Two things, basically: survival of the fittest and natural selection. Now, let’s not get into scholastic debates about the extent, if any, to which Darwin talks of ‘survival of the fittest’ or what he really meant by ‘natural selection.’ As any serious and unprejudiced scientist working in the area ought to have known by 1920, if not earlier, Darwin’s theory had posited no mechanism of evolution. How does the organism ‘adjust’ to external factors, how are these factors communicated to the micro-organismic and molecular levels, and vice versa? The questions were many.
There was some evidence that not all pressures led to evolutionary adaptations, or by now kittens and mice would have been able to breathe under water. There was also some evidence that not all evolutionary changes are ‘superior’ or ‘beneficial’ ones, and that hereditary factors are not particularly aware of class superiority – for instance, some ‘blue blooded’ aristocratic European families were known to suffer from inherited diseases, and everyone knew it had to do with the colour of their endogamous blood. As André Pichot has shown, the 19th century bourgeoisie doctored Darwinian evolutionary theories in order to justify its own privileges and give a false biological basis to its political ideology of a deserving meritocracy – we are rich because we are best adapted to the environment. But the scientific evidence on the ground was fairly thin. Social Darwinism was the final result of this attempt – and it worked by a confusion of categories. The category of the biological was confused with the very different categories of the ‘racial,’ ‘social’, ‘cultural’, ‘moral’ and ‘economic.’ Inferences about one of these categories – the biological – were extended to completely different categories. This confusion of categories found its most extreme example in that ideology of ‘purity’, Nazism.
The thinnest of the facts on the ground, before genetic mutation was understood, owed to Darwin’s failure to identify the actual mechanism of ‘evolution.’ But with the discovery of genes and mutation, bingo, we suddenly had a mechanism for ‘natural selection.’ Certain sections of the bourgeoisie – not to mention white colonisers – were overjoyed, but alas they had jumped the gun. Because mutation – as well established as anything can be in scientific thinking now – did not really prove natural selection. At best, to put it facetiously, it proved natural rejection.
After the discovery of genes and mutation, Darwin might have remained the same, but Darwinism was changed beyond recognition. For one, mutations were random: a number of mutations take place, only some are transferred on to the next generation, and of these only some are ‘beneficial.’ Because, the fact remains that the ‘mechanism’ of mutations works at the sub-cellular levels – actually at molecular levels – and there is no feedback from the full organism to this molecular level. That is why, no matter how many kittens we drown or human beings we push off a cliff, kittens are not going to evolve into fish or human beings into birds. That is also, to use a less extreme example, why we cannot stop cancers on our own: a cell malfunctions and we, as full organisms, know that it is killing us, but we cannot will it into stopping. There is no feedback from the macro to the micro level in that sense. No messenger runs from us, as humans, to the molecules and proteins that enable or thwart a mutation, in order to tell them what is ‘best’ for us.
The fact remains that the ‘mechanism’ of mutations works at the sub-cellular levels – actually at molecular levels – and there is no feedback from the full organism to this molecular level. That is why, no matter how many kittens we drown or human beings we push off a cliff, kittens are not going to evolve into fish or human beings into birds.
Secondly, and this is related to the above factor, evolution plays Russian roulette with us: there is an argument that diversity is necessary for our survival because evolution does not manufacture the characteristic we need, or not when this characteristic is a significant and sudden development. Evolution just throws up a number of random changes, via mutation, and some of these happen to fit changes in the natural environment. Hence, the more diversity we have, the more likely life is to survive major natural catastrophes.
But that is another matter. The thing is that the theory of genetic mutation kicked popular conceptions of Darwinian evolution into outer space. There was no survival of the fittest; there was no real natural selection; there was nothing that conveyed information from the organism – sprout feathers, cell of yon plunging human! – to the ‘micro’ so that a mutation could be ordered as one would order a certain size of shirt or trouser.
Nature was, alas, no God. It did not even have a mind, and hence could ‘select’ only to the extent that Richard Dawkins might have ‘selfish genes.’ The ‘traits’ that could be passed on were in any case minor and often insubstantial ones: for instance, as Terry Eagleton loves to point out (more or less), generations of better diet and selective breeding tend to make Tory enthusiasts in England a cm or two taller than Labour voters. Slightly more complex traits – such as, presumably, the Tory dream of a class of labourers with four arms and no brain – were difficult to manufacture and transmit.
So, what does all this have to do with X-men and such ‘rewritings’ of evolutionary theories? Everything, I would say.
Remember the steel blades that sprout out of flesh, for instance. Men-mutants hopping like frogs, or swinging like spiders on webs of convenience? Mutation! Hallelujah!
Oops, a categorical mistake.
Flesh or bone cannot ‘mutate’ into steel. That would be even more unlikely than feathers sprouting on human beings forced to jump off a cliff. Darwin, to be fair to him, did not suggest any such thing. As Timothy Morton points out with reference to Darwin’s The Origin of Species, “Darwin dispenses with the assumption that vultures are bald because they are sticking their heads into filth or that vines have hooks on them because they are useful for sticking on trees. Yes, those bald heads are handy for sticking into filth. But that isn’t why they evolved.” (Morton, 29-30) That is also not how they evolved. Unfortunately the really radical parts of Darwinism – which open up humanity to its intricate relationships with everything living and non-living, with the real and the imagined – have been defused in various versions of public discourse (newspaper articles on genetics, for instance), higher education (simplified versions of ecocriticism, for instance), and of course popular science and popular art. The list is long: X-men, and other such artistic takes on mutation, are full of such mixing of categories, which make evolution a simplistic matter of causation. Moreover, by mixing categories, they are doing exactly was being done by Social Darwinism.
The common misapprehension that evolution necessarily tends towards greater complexity, and that microbes, being microscopic and without brains, are at the bottom of the evolutionary pile. So many evolutionary biologists have attacked the lay concept of evolution as a progression towards a higher plane, and to so little avail, that one begins to wonder whether there is a global conspiracy to thwart them.
One can sense the frustration in the words of scientist and brilliant science writer, Nick Lane, when he notes early in Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, “[There] is the common misapprehension that evolution necessarily tends towards greater complexity, and that microbes, being microscopic and without brains, are at the bottom of the evolutionary pile. So many evolutionary biologists have attacked the lay concept of evolution as a progression towards a higher plane, and to so little avail, that one begins to wonder whether there is a global conspiracy to thwart them.” Well, maybe not a conspiracy, but it is not mere co-incidence either. Can something so obvious be a co-incidence?
Let us look at the similarities between the popular conception of Darwinism, leading to Social Darwinism, a century ago, and the popular conception of genetics and mutation, leading as yet to nothing worse than X-men, today. For instance, both of them trace a vague and unspecified link from an abstract macro-organism (say, nature) via an organism (say, human being) to something much smaller, a human cell, a molecule or protein in that cell, etc. In other words, God is replaced by some other ‘being’ – nature in Social Darwinism, genes in popular readings of Dawkins – which seems to have a mind of its own.
As an atheist with a lot of respect for the concept of God, I find this fascinating: the ease with which God usurps the thinking of exactly those people who feel that they are rid of him. An atheist like me is never rid of God in at least two ways: firstly because God cannot be proved or disproved, and secondly because God is conceptually a marker of the limits of human aspirations and capabilities, which can neither be ignored nor exaggerated. The militant atheist – out to prove that God does not exist – resembles the religious fundamentalist: both of them ignore the limits and possibilities of human aspirations and capabilities. Deep down both of them cannot live with the fact that, as human beings, we are ‘godlike’ and not ‘god.’ To be less than ‘godlike’ is to ignore the human capacity for something in excess of what we consider ‘animal-like,’ though arguably this might not be fair to other animals. We are not ‘animals’, but we are not ‘gods’ either: the concept of ‘God’ is a reminder of this necessary fact.
Enter the fundamentalist, who knows the mind of God, who knows exactly what God wants, and hence who knows God – who, for all practical purpose, is God. Enter his counter-part, the militant new atheist, who announces the death of the never-lived God. Having done so, however, this militant new atheist cannot live with our fragile humanity, poised as it is between animality and godliness, without being either. So, slowly, other kinds of minds take over: not the mind of God, but the mind of nature, genes etc.
Both the religious fundamentalist and the militant new atheist are unable to live with the transgressive and limited possibilities of the human; they need to replace the human with something far greater, more knowing, more meaningful. Given this craving, it hardly matters whether they believe that God talks to them, or that they do not believe in God at all.Unfortunately for such meaning-and-purpose fanatics, genetic mutation does away with the ‘mind’ of both God and Nature. There is no higher purpose behind mutation. It cannot be ordered from on top either. It happens randomly, and its benefits, if any, are haphazard. And yet, just as the concept of God enables a space for human life to thrive within hesitant and open versions of faith, the concept of mutation opens up vast vistas of life: for suddenly, every obscure mutation, any little useless ‘deviant’, every and any bit of variety can be our key to survival and growth. The only thing that really increases the chance for life to ‘evolve’ – that is, survive in forms that adapt to changing conditions – is variety. The more the options, the more likely is it that one of them would ‘fit.’ Not ‘be fit’, as in going to gym or marrying only the right ‘genes,’ for that kind of ‘fitness’ cannot be ordered from above, but be more likely to fit whatever might come up next. The more random options, the better our chances.
The litmus test is always this: pour your ‘posthuman’ through the tube of critical analysis and if it segregates into ‘animals’ or ‘gods,’ you are indulging in fantasies of power and privilege.
X-men posit genetics with purpose; they posit a nature that has a mind; it is a version of the law-giving God in a Godless age. Social Darwinism did something similar. Both suggest a purposive change, not random mutations.
It is interesting, however, that when we discuss X-men, superman and the like under the rubric of transhuman-posthumanism, we seem to be talking of the way in which ‘technology’ would meld with ‘biology.’ There are some examples of it happening, though not naturally: implants, surgery etc. enable a bit of technology (for instance, a pacemaker) to be embedded in a human being. There is, of course, no way can an artificial pacemaker grow out of a human being due to mutation. But smart talk, sometimes in the less thoughtful and more funding-minded circles of academia too, takes such medical developments and melds them with ideological fictions like X-men to talk of posthumanism et al. Not posthumanism as a critique of transhumanism, which might be valid, but posthumanism as a synonym. It is an index of the short memory of our age that we forget that, at least with Hegel and Marx, we already had a discussion of what we call posthumanism. After all, the clothes and shoes we wear are as ‘transhuman’ as the pacemaker inserted into our chests or, for much longer, the plate cementing a broken bone. The condition of humanity has always been posthuman to that extent – which is again what the concept of God, which places human beings between animals and god and refuses to allow a human to be just the one or the other, has always highlighted, despite the existence or lack of a God.
Why then, this excessive, misleading, scientifically incorrect talk of transhuman/posthumanism, of X-men who develop claws or control weather? There are various answers, but the main one, to my mind, is this: such talk appeals to a certain class, usually the one in power.
Why then, this excessive, misleading, scientifically incorrect talk of transhuman/posthumanism, of X-men who develop claws or control weather? There are various answers, but the main one, to my mind, is this: such talk appeals to a certain class, usually the one in power. It is not only ancient heroes in Greece or India who were either born of fornicating gods or rose to godhead, every powerful and privileged individual likes to imagine himself as evolving to the next level. The ancient Greeks called it hubris, which was always punished by their gods. There is a litmus test to detect such hubris today. If academics were a bit less desperate to prove their scientificity by talking of posthumanism in X-men etc, they might notice that much of what really happens in such accounts is prehumanism: super-heroes who look and have the powers of a wolf or an ape, for instance, or who copy the powers of a deity from our ancient beliefs. The litmus test is always this: pour your ‘posthuman’ through the tube of critical analysis and if it segregates into ‘animals’ or ‘gods,’ you are indulging in fantasies of power and privilege.
Because the human only comes into existence in the space between ‘animal’ and ‘god.’ This needs to be reiterated, with all due respect to the animals that exist and the gods that don’t.