I’ve been thinking about origin stories. I love them, and so do a lot of folks. Consider the heroes of literature, from King Arthur to Harry Potter. Their iconic introductions, the way these protagonists became special, are a big part of why their stories ever grew popular in the first place. Religious heroes, too, are imbued with special beginnings. The nativity of Jesus is one of the most beloved stories in the world, and figures like the Buddha and Confucius have been assigned similarly magical infancies. As an evolutionary biologist, I deal with origins a lot. The history of life on Earth is just one big origin story. The word “Origin” is right there in the title of Darwin’s famous book, after all. Now, you might say, “Science is science, and fiction is fiction, and they have nothing to do with each other.” But that’s not really true. As the novel Ishmael cleverly illustrates, even the most factually correct description of the past is still mythical, because we ignore most facts and emphasize others. We construct narrative. Telling stories is a fundamental part of how humans make sense of the world. We can’t help it.
Nowhere are origin stories more celebrated than in the comic book genre. Superheroes and supervillains always have unique and detailed inceptions. There are three main types, summarized presciently by Shakespeare: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Every character fits in there somewhere. Superman and Professor X have always had their powers. Batman and Iron Man became champions through sheer will and talent. Spider-Man and Green Lantern were ordinary citizens who were turned extraordinary by chance. Really there are six origin stories, since you could end up a good guy or a bad guy. Thus, Doomsday was born a fiend, Lex Luthor is a self-made tycoon, and the Joker is a victim of unfortunate circumstance. But what about us? Evolution is our origin story. Which of the six categories fits Homo sapiens?
“None of them,” says the pedant, “evolution is a meaningless materialistic process with no plot.” Technically true, I suppose, but irrelevant. We’re going to tell stories regardless, remember? As rational as we try to be, our brains assign narrative to facts. In Western culture, our traditional creation myth has been Genesis. A fall from grace, turning us from good to bad, and it was all our fault. We’re the Lex Luthor of species. That lens has influenced morals, laws, and the mental health of countless millions over the millennia. What if, instead, an innocent Eve had been bitten by a radioactive snake and gained serpentine abilities? Fitting, perhaps—we hairless, predatory, observant apes may have more in common with vipers than our prosimian ancestors did. But the point is, we would think of ourselves differently if that had been the story. We would act differently. The myth would shape how we behave toward each other, and toward the natural world around us.
Of course, enlightened people don’t read the Bible literally. But we still build fables out of history. One common account of human evolution is the “born great” interpretation: like a Kryptonian among earthlings, there is something qualitatively different about our species. Something super. Whether you call it a soul, consciousness, or just higher reasoning, this view implicitly assumes that the emergence of humans represented the creation of a fundamentally new entity. That explanation was embraced by Descartes and other early leaders of the scientific revolution. It was the belief carried by European conquerors as they colonized the globe, dispelling entire ecosystems without remorse, and frequently lumping non-European humans in with the lower species. It feels pretty good to be Supermen among lesser beings. But remember, it’s just a story. And it’s not the only one.
The industrial revolution, with its Darwinian perspective, promoted the “achieve greatness” version: natural selection is a brutal battle, and through grit and pluck our ancestors outcompeted those less fit and came to dominate the planet. Hegemony is richly deserved. Might makes right. The belief that life is a struggle has been exploited to justify both oppressive laissez-faire capitalism and communist atrocities. It also drove the environmental degradation of the 19th and 20th centuries. If species are either winners or losers, then we’d better pave the wetlands, poison the vermin, and spray the DDT. It turned out those weren’t such great ideas after all. So don’t pat yourself on the back for being the Bruce Wayne of the animal kingdom just yet.
Both of these stories, the Superman version and the Batman version, can be consistent with the objective facts of evolution. But they impose subjective values that can fan our egos. Again, the usefulness of a story depends on how it makes us act. Here in 2017, we still haven’t all figured out how to live ethically and sustainably. Maybe we should reflect upon the origin stories we tell. Maybe our self-image sculpts our decisions. Maybe our franchise needs a reboot.
First of all, are we good guys or bad guys? I say we’re good. We’ve spent far too much time rending our garments over the supposed brokenness of humankind. That story doesn’t help us do what we need to do. But we can’t call ourselves infallible, either. Hubris has been even worse for us than shame. We have to be heroes, but humble ones.
As I see it, we had greatness thrust upon us. The Spider-Man interpretation. Yes, we have abilities other species don’t have. But our ancestors were just a species like any other. By luck alone, not fortitude or divinity, they happened down an evolutionary path that led to us. It’s simply not true that natural selection was exceptionally efficient in our lineage. Quite the opposite, in fact: natural selection is most efficient in species with very large populations like insects or bacteria. Our own history was more haphazard. We can only reach for the stars today because of random accidents in our past. Let’s not forget where we came from.
So show a little humility before you pluck that flower or squash that bug. There, but for the grace of evolution, go all of us. We owe it to the rest of the biosphere to be careful stewards. Dust off your hero costume. As Spider-Man knows, with great power comes great responsibility.