You are on page 1of 9

Man has always been fascinated by the concept of heroes.

Heroes are honored in ancient cave paintings and in folklore and myth. Medieval authors wrote a great number of epics, and more recently authors like Tolkien have woven intricate tales around men who have extraordinary abilities and do great deeds. Most recently we have the concept of superheroes, used to describe a figure (usually) endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime. Consider the case of Batman; Batman is a character whose parents were shot and killed in a mugging when coming back from a movie. The young Bruce Wayne is so affected by this that he devotes his parents riches to becoming a masked vigilante. Numerous other superheroes devote their lives to seemingly suicidal missions that logically speaking, make almost no sense. Yet, a gene centric view of evolution helps provide some answers as to why these paths of action are chosen. The gene centric view of evolution, popularly dubbed as the theory of the Selfish Gene has been a breakthrough in our understanding of human behavior helping explain why organisms sometimes exhibit altruistic

behaviour even though it could be detrimental to individual fitness. In this theory, adaptations (either behavioural or physical) are the phenotypic effects through which genes achieve their propagation. Often the behaviours that the genes induce in the organism will cause it to behave in a way that will increase the chances of that gene being expressed in future generations. This also explains why people would be more likely to help those who are closely

related more than someone who is more distantly related something a plain Darwinian view would fall short of explaining. It is important to remember that differential reproduction is still what drives evolution. With this small background, let us proceed and try to understand why the behaviour we see exhibited; both by the character, and the readers may not be so unreal after all. Take for example Superman, who has faced mortal threats before. He had his home planet destroyed and has enemies with the exact resources to take him down. It would seem that putting himself in danger to save the lives of strangers offers to him no benefit - after all Superman doesnt have a share in the genetic code of the future generations, and Yet, it seems there is a way around this. Superman is for all practical purposes an earthling. He was born and raised by Ma and Pa Kent; he looks almost completely human, and even has a girlfriend (Lois Lane). While one can pause and question viability of their offspring, it is wise not to for they have conceived a child in at least one story. It is interesting to note at this point that most superheroes have significant others or something equivalent while most Supervillains dont. Spider-man has Mary Jane, Batman has had a number of girlfriends and even a kid, the green shapeshifting Martian Jonn Jonz transforms into an old man and partners with an old lady, the Thanagarian Hawk Girl sires a kid with one of the Green

Lanterns, supervillain pairings are much less common, and much less likely to result in an offspring. He now has a share in the future. His genes can now behave selfishly so to speak. He is, for all practical purposes a human being even drawn with peak human features. Now, by treating Superman as a human it is now simpler to explain the various acts of altruism that he performs at least partially by the selfish gene theory. Superman had his home planet destroyed and earth is the only home he has, and by safeguarding it, he is able to ensure the possibility of his future offspring. There is also another incentive Susan and Dunbar in their paper Who Dares, Wins makes a claim that heroism may therefore have evolved owing to a female preference for brave, risk-prone males because risk-taking acts as an honest cue for "good genes.. Additional behavior studies have shown that it seems that both men and women prefer risk takers as romantic and nonromantic partners (Bassett, J F. (2004). Superman is in a position where he can afford to take more risks than the average person, and is hence more likely to have a wider selection of mates. The threats superman faces are of the kind that would put everyones life in danger, and eventually reach superman, and knowing that his home planet was destroyed, and knowing that he is in the only company for light years must appeal to his sentiment. Superman does not have a problem of committing himself to saving the world because he has more than one

incentive to do so. He is not just rational and looking towards self-interest if he was, he would not be Superman, and would rather be content with the persona of Clark Kent because that would put him, as an individual in the least danger. He empathises with the people of the earth as his own planet was threatened and destroyed hence not protecting those around him would make him feel guilty. He would also, as mentioned earlier lose the advantage he had in the search for mates. These sentiments have evolved over time to ensure that we work well in a social setting and he is able to feel these emotions because he has a functioning frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain not under conscious control, but which deals with emotion and helps us cope with social settings. People with lesions in the frontal lobe often do badly in empathy related tests (Stone, et.al., 1998). That frontal lobes play an important part even in the DC universe if illustrated by the fact that the Supervillains in the show who had their frontal lobes messed with are no longer their psychotic old selves. At this point, it is important not to forget that we are still discussing a popular fictional character, and this is important because all the actions Superman does is not of his but his writers volition. And the reason he does what he does is because he is being treated as a human, and the author is very likely to use the very same logic that at least on a subconscious level motivates him. And part of the reason he does what he does is because we expect him to do so.

I conducted a small survey to find out about the behaviour people expected of their hero. Of the respondents surveyed, almost all of them seem to be in agreement with one thing more than any other that while they admire their hero, they would not fancy themselves in their position. Some would,

however envy their power. This makes sense because it is pretty clear that on a moral level, everybody agrees that altruism is good and selfishness bad (Ridley, 144). While we universally admire and praise selflessness, we do not expect it to rule our lives or those of our close friends. This is another case of the prisoners dilemna the more we favour altruism, the better for us, but the more we and our kin pursue self-interest, the better for us. (Ridley, 145). In light of this, Supermans heroics dont seem all that irrational to us because it is good for us if Superman saves the world, but it isnt as comfortable a situation to be in. Superman is also supposedly morally upright, and it is worth examining if this is indeed true, and why it is so. Superheroes are all powerful, and usually dont die. Now constructing a game out of this scenario where we in the real world are immersed enough in the heros world to assume, at least for a while that it is our own. Players You, Superhero You, Superhero You, Superhero Choice Good, Evil Evil, Good Good, Good Result (You, Superhero) You die People hate you, you lose potential mates Why would superhero protect? Potentially live Superhero would become legend, genes have increased chances of

You, Superhero

Evil, Evil

being expressed in future generations Result same as Good, Good

The people in the superheros world have every reason to let the superhero be, and the superhero has every reason to indulge in heroics, as it increases his chances of finding a mate greatly. The hero has also incentive to protect the good as it is the side he belongs to - this brings us to group-selection. Of course, the above construction is somewhat simplifying the dilemna faced by the hero and not making the distinction between good and evil, but treating evil as a set of ideas opposed by those who are good. Superman has ample opportunity to kill Luthor, but he never does the only time he does so, is in an alternate universe where Luthor is about to launch a nuclear device. An easy answer as to why this is done, as some respondents in the survey said was that the authors would have to think up a new character. That may be true, but new characters are introduced all the time. In addition, this behaviour was not considered moral (in the same episode). Most codes of morality will be in agreement with the fact that killing is immoral, but very objectively it isnt as clear that it is wrong. The so called moral code isnt consistent either, but as we can soon see still makes sense. Superman, who has hesitated on numerous occasions to take a life quite easily massacres a number of parademons, a breed of alien foot soldiers, and he was also proceeding to annihilate Darkseid a foe that threatened earth. Yet none of those surveyed, or in the episode seemed to make a remark about it. In this

scenario, it would seem like we are much less scrupulous when dealing with another species with which we will not sire children with (because in comics, not only can you date cross-specially, you can also mate cross-specially). Of course, that wants to destroy earth makes it easier, because lethal force is also probably necessary (rational). Yet, going back to the case of Lex Luthor, striking him down in spite of him being about to launch a nuclear warhead is wrong. Luthor will also later help Superman in saving the Earth, even though he is a villain. This can be explained as an in-group v/s out-group problem using group selection. The rules of morality and law alike seem not to be designed to allow people to live in harmony between societies but to enable societies that would be united enough to deter their enemies (Ridley). Bowles (2008) also makes the same point when he talks about warfare in our ancestors, and comments observed that parochial altruists those likely to show more aggression to others groups and be more altruistic towards their own seemed to win more conflicts. Winning more conflicts translates directly into an increased probability of the genes surviving. The us here are the earthlings the ingroup and the them are those from Apokolips. In addition, George Williams points out the morality of group selection is to prefer genocide over murder (Ridley, p. 193). It seems Superman, and thus our collective consciousness (because of the fact that hes so popular) subscribes to this model of morality. It is also possible that he could be

popular because of this very reason; after all these behaviour patterns precede Superman by a good amount of time. Old Testament contains a story in which Joshua killed Twelve Thousand Heathen in a day on Gods orders and engraved the commandment Thou shalt not kill into stone. Yet; it is Matt Ridleys claim that he was not being hypocritical, but had an extremely good group-selectionist god. Not surprising as these patterns of behaviour seem to offer advantages to the genes that bring about these very behaviours. Superman, as we can now see; is no more of an altruist than you or me, and seems to follow the same patterns of behaviour that humans would tend to. He is being altruistic because his genes derive a benefit in the long term from the choices he makes. Not that it should stop you from enjoying the comic any less but as we can see; Superman may not be so super after all.

References: Kelly, S., & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2001). Who dares wins: Heroism versus altruism in women's mate choice. Human Nature, 12, 89-105. Bassett, J F. (2004). Men and women prefer risk takers as romantic and nonromantic partners. Current research in social psychology, Volume 9, Number 10 Bowles (2008) Conflict: Altruism's midwife. Nature 456, 326-327 (20 November 2008) Stone, et.al. (1998). Frontal Lobe Contributions to Theory of Mind. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 10:5, pp. 64065 Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue