A common debate in science, religion, and philosophy involves the question of whether or not humans are special among the world’s life-forms. In Western thought before Darwinian evolution, most intellectuals thought that humans had come to exist through special creation by God. But Darwin seemed to destroy humanity’s unique place among living things. Now that humans were merely another branch in the tree of life, it became hard to maintain that there is anything special about us. The traditional account of humanity having been fashioned and ensouled by a God who willed us into existence seemed to have been destroyed.
In the Marvel Legacy one-shot and in opening arc of his Avengers run, Jason Aaron has drawn upon scientific, theological, and philosophical debates about human origins and imported them into the Marvel Universe. In doing so, he has effectively retconned the story of human origins that was established by Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, and others through tales about the Celestials and the Eternals. Until now, the story has been that the Celestials, huge space gods of Jack Kirby’s imagination, visited earth millions of years ago and tinkered with the direction of terrestrial evolution. Their meddling would eventually lead to the rise of humans––and to superhumans. In the process, the Celestials also created the Eternals, a race of long-lived super-beings that they would leave to watch over the fledgeling human race.
But all of that has changed in the current volume of Avengers. Now, instead of having been specifically created by the Celestials, the Avengers discover that humanity had a much more ignoble beginning.
In Avengers #1 (2018) Doctor Strange and Black Panther make a terrifying discovery: there are millions upon millions of egg sacs for horrific locust-like creatures deep under the earth. Meanwhile, interstellar portals open near Earth and begin dropping hundreds of dead Celestials from the sky all over the globe. The dead space gods turn out to be infested with the same locust-like creatures that wait under the surface of the Earth. Soon, the horrific bugs are attacking all over the planet, and the world’s superheroes are hard-pressed to stop the onslaught.
In the midst of all this, Loki arrives with a group of dark Celestials called The Final Host, who intend to wipe out all life on Earth––life that they consider a disease, an infection upon the world. It turns out that the Celestials did not visit Earth millions of years ago to experiment on its evolutionary development and create advanced beings. Instead, a single Celestial crashed into the earth billions of years ago, falling through space because it had become infected with the interstellar locusts. As it died, it fell onto the developing Earth’s molten surface, bleeding and vomiting putrid filth into the sludge that would eventually become the Earth today and from which its biology would emerge. In other words, the filth of a dying space-god altered Earth’s chemistry to give rise to humanity and to super-beings like Avengers, mutants, Eternals, and others.
Loki reveals this “truth” to Captain America in his usual sarcastic and superior way, thinking of himself as destroying a myth or illusion that Cap and the rest of humanity has believed. He does this with all the enthusiasm of a college sophomore who has newly discovered intellectual atheism or evolutionary theory and tries to impress (or horrify) his family back home. The Avengers aren’t special, he tells Cap triumphantly: “You are a giant cosmic accident, Captain, born from death and disease.”*
A Million Monkeys
Because I’ve been fascinated by paleontology since I was a kid, I’ve never had much trouble with buying the theory of evolution in its most basic sense. Studying the fossil record, it always struck me as commonsensical that species evolve over time, that complex life forms arose from simpler life forms, and that natural selection guided (a misleading verb to use, I know) the process.
I’ve also never had much trouble reconciling the idea of evolution with the idea that humans really are special among all the life-forms on Earth. To me, the mere fact that we are capable of debating whether or not we’re special is proof that we are. And while there are lots of extremely smart animals out there, I don’t see how the intelligence of dolphins or chimpanzees can compare with a being that can produce Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, the paintings of Caravaggio, or the Saturn V rocket. I realize that some scientists and philosophers would disagree with me on this point, but it seems to me that the difference between humans and a dolphin is far greater than the differences between any of the other life forms.
I know, I know. A million monkeys banging away on a million typewriters for a million years, and one of them will eventually write Hamlet. Therefore Hamlet isn’t anything special—right? The problem with that argument is that in order to have a million monkeys banging away on a million typewriters for a million years . . . you have to have human language, technology, and inventive skills to invent the typewriter. Try giving a million monkeys a million sticks and see how long it takes to find one that will scratch a single Shakespearean sonnet into the dirt, let alone Hamlet. It ain’t happenin’.
So the idea that humans might have come to be through a slow, seemingly random process of matter interacting with matter has never disturbed me very much. That’s why Loki’s taunts in Avengers fall a little flat for me. For all of its faults, humanity both in the real world and in the Marvel Universe has achieved wonders and miracles. None of those things are negated by a humble origin.**
In Avengers #9, Namor the Submariner takes a different view of what it means to come from ignoble origins. He says that humble or unpleasant beginnings have no bearing on whether or not someone is special or important. In fact, he seems to take the view that the more ignoble the beginning, the greater the potential for greatness.
Instead of greatness coming from having been created by a deity, Namor believes that greatness comes from struggle. For him, evolution and natural selection create struggle between individual life-forms and between life and its environment. That struggle works to produce nobility, strength, and greatness. Atlantis, for example, suffered catastrophe when it sank into the sea, but that cataclysm produced something greater than what had come before (at least in Namor’s opinion):
Namor thinks that instead of undermining the importance of human life, a low beginning creates the possibility of greatness. All of evolution strives toward the creation of the superior man. There’s something of Nietzsche in this way of thinking . . . and of Darwin, too––at least Nietzsche and Darwin interpreted in a certain way.
Earlier, I said that Loki reveals the “truth” to Cap about where humanity came from, and I put “truth” in quotation marks for a reason. One of the things that interests me most about the Marvel Universe is that it has multiple contradictory accounts of its beginning (and of its end, as well). To take just two recent examples, compare Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run with Aaron’s. In Hickman’s account of the beginning, it was the Builders and the Gardeners who spurred and guided evolution. That creation myth is hard to reconcile either with the Kirby/Thomas one or with the version that we get in Aaron’s Avengers.
And the tension between these seemingly contradictory stories is exactly as it should be because it reflects the real world. Even the most ardent evolutionist ought to admit that we don’t have all the answers (and that evolution itself is not a dogma; it is subject to criticism). The same goes for the most enthusiastic creationist or believer in intelligent design. Some things exceed the human capacity to comprehend, and the diversity of ideas about human origins and about our place in the universe ought to give us pause. As I’ve said before, it is good to have a little humility about what we can know with certainty.
*Interestingly, this new version of human origins in the Marvel Universe is somewhat similar to the Norse myth about the creation of Midgard. In the Poetic Edda, the giant Ymir is born from snake venom that dripped into the mythological river Élivágar, and later on, Odin forms Midgard from the flesh and blood of his dead body.
**Linguists and students of language might notice the pun. The word humble shares the same linguistic root as human, and both are related to the Latin word for dirt: humus. The same turns out to be true in other languages, too. In Hebrew, Adam means “the man” or “the human,” and adamah is “dirt” or “earth.” Even if you reject the scientific account of human origins and accept religious stories, humans tend to come from humble origins––an idea which is built into language.