Batman v Superman v Darwin

arms_race_2Don’t worry about spoilers, I didn’t watch the movie, then I can’t reveal anything about it. The heroes in the title just exemplify few ideas boiling in my mind: arms race, coevolution, and the kind.

Batman or Superman, who would win a battle between them? I have no doubts of betting on the Krypton contestant. With his semi-god powers, he would certainly kick the billionaire, but still feebly human, Mr. Wayne’s ass.

Down to the most basic level, Batman’s disadvantage facing Superman comes from their evolutionary history. Their species evolved in literally different planets, and when the heroes met, the odds that they would be competitive were very slim.

To be competitive, contestants must coevolve. This means, each of them should gradually acquire their abilities and powers as a response to the gradual acquisition of abilities and powers by their opponent. This is the arms race logic.

Thus, if life on Earth and on Kripton evolved parallelly, without any mutual influence, just an enormous, improbable coincidence could render contestants more or less at the same level. The most probable scenario would be to have one of them holding some strong advantage over the other.

(In fact, I think the reason Superman didn’t get rid of Lex Luthor already in their first encounter was just to not get bored: he knew Luthor was quite a lot of fun and a constant source of scoops for the Daily Planet; then, he allowed occasional hits by the villain. That’s different with the antagonism between Batman and the Joker, where none of them held a serious competitive advantage. Because they coevolved, developing their abilities as an answer to the challenges imposed by the other, they could win battles, but never the war.)

Evolutionary arms race is a powerful concept to read the world, much beyond biology (and comic books). It happens every time there’s a relationship between agents who don’t share exactly the same interests.

Examples are everywhere, in every level. Just look around: antibiotics v bacteria; baobabs v elephantsfetuses v mothers; wives v husbands; kids v teachers; hackers v IT guards; drug dealers v police officers; environmentalists v oil companies; scientists v funding agencies; Liverpool v Manchester; Apple v Microsoft; UK v France. Everything, everyone is in way or another trapped within a Red-Queen equilibrium, running to remain in the same place.

On the other hand, in a hyper-connected world like ours, with information flowing all the time, parallel evolution (like that of Batman v Superman) is rare. We have to look half millennium back to find a major historical example: the clash of civilizations when Europeans knocked at American’s doors in the XVI century. Incas, Aztecs and Mayas were on a decent path, developing agriculture, technology and political institutions. Still, they were not up to the level of competing with few hundred Spaniards, with their guns, germs and (guess) steel.

However, Europeans could not impose themselves so easily over Chinese, Arabs or Indians: in Eurasia, there was always a flow of information and technology — a coevolution, we could say — more or less keeping them at competitive level.

Fear of parallel evolution has been the reason some scientists — most famously, Stephen Hawkings — have advised against sending greeting cards out of space, announcing our cosmic address. If an alien species learning about us is able to pay us a visit, bum! No matter how pacific their intentions are, if they can afford such a trip, they most probably would be so much more advanced than us, that a simple contact with them would dissolve our civilization. Pretty much like any of the few remaining isolated tribes in the Amazon forest are immediately destroyed by diabetes and Christianity as soon as they have their first contact with us.

The Borgs have been always right: resistance is futile.

Nevertheless, from an optimistic point of view, we could also think that the real risks are minimal. First, it may take thousands of years till our messages reach anyone who could read them. Then, supposing they decide to come (and have the means to do so), there it goes other millenia. Well, when the aliens finally get here, considering the few thousand nuclear bombs hanging over our heads left from USA v USSR arms race, they will most probably just find a dirty empty house.

Yes, this is the optimistic point of view.


  • The animated gif at the top shows a hilarious arms race in the “King-Size Canary” by Tex Avery, 1947.

Categories: Culture

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1 reply

  1. Oi Cesar… Me pareceu muito boa essa animação num excelente artigo sobre esses antigos “super heróis” americanos, que por anos e anos fazem parte da vida de muitas crianças e adolescentes em todo Mundo… Valeu mesmo…

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