My mother complains that Marvel villains never make sense to her — their motivations seem unclear and exaggerated. And I tend to agree with her. Or I did until I saw the most recent film, Avengers: Infinity War, by far the top movie currently out. The motivations here are crystal clear, and very familiar if you know about the views on human population associated with Paul Ehrlich or, even more so, Eric Pianka. Our colleague Wesley Smith has written about those in The War on Humans, for National Review and here at Evolution News.
Warning: Some minor spoilers follow.
In the new addition to the expansive franchise of films known collectively as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we finally get to meet the archvillain who has been looming on the horizon for ten years. Thanos is a godlike alien being who has been collecting some elusive MacGuffins, the infinity stones, so he can finally achieve his goal: to wipe out half the universe.
The fact is, my mom may still find Thanos’s motivation a little far out. Killing 50 percent of the population of the galaxy? Really? That sounds like just another over-the-top premise for a flashy superhero movie. (What else can we expect from a movie called Infinity War?) But as his character takes shape, Thanos turns out to be more believable than at first glance.
When one character accuses him of being insane, Thanos calmly explains: “Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite. Its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.”
He goes into more detail with Dr. Strange (whom we’ve mentioned before):
Thanos: Titan [Thanos’s home planet] was like most planets. Too many mouths, not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.
Dr. Stephen Strange: Genocide?
Thanos: At random. Dispassionate, fair. The rich and poor alike. And they called me a madman. And what I predicted, came to pass.
The people of Titan refused Thanos’s plan to forcibly lower their population, and as a result suffered starvation and, it appears, eventual extinction. Now, he wants to prevent the same fate from befalling the rest of the galaxy by pre-emptively vaporizing half of its inhabitants. He considers death a mercy compared to suffering and scarcity.
Now where have we heard that before? Thanos, a fictional character, is not alone in holding his misanthropic ideology. He’s joined by some nonfictional biologists, and he may be setting his sights a little low at only 50 percent. As CSC Senior Fellow Jonathan Witt wrote back in 2006, “Misanthropic evolutionists want better living through mass death.”
Forrest Mims III, Chairman of Environmental Science of the Texas Academy of Science, attended a talk by American herpetologist and evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka for the aforementioned academic body back. Mims’s firsthand account of the talk is chilling:
Pianka then began laying out his concerns about how human overpopulation is ruining the Earth. He presented a doomsday scenario in which he claimed that the sharp increase in human population since the beginning of the industrial age is devastating the planet. He warned that quick steps must be taken to restore the planet before it’s too late…
Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.
He then showed solutions for reducing the world’s population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved.
Pianka then displayed a slide showing rows of human skulls, one of which had red lights flashing from its eye sockets.
AIDS is not an efficient killer, he explained, because it is too slow. His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world’s population is airborne Ebola (Ebola Reston), because it is both highly lethal and it kills in days, instead of years. However, Professor Pianka did not mention that Ebola victims die a slow and torturous death as the virus initiates a cascade of biological calamities inside the victim that eventually liquefy the internal organs.
After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, “We’ve got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that.” [Emphasis added.]
Thanos’s grand plan to gather the infinity stones and battle Earth’s greatest heroes may have been overly complicated.
There are some differences between the archvillain and Pianka. For example, Thanos’s primary goal is to make life better for the 50 percent of us who are left. Misguided, to put it mildly, but at least his motivation is (perversely) humanitarian. For Pianka, on other hand, that seems to be just icing on the cake. He tacks it on almost as an afterthought. His main beneficiary is “the Earth” that we are ruining:
“We’re no better than bacteria… Things are gonna get better after the collapse because we won’t be able to decimate the Earth so much… And, I actually think the world will be much better when there’s only 10 or 20 percent of us left.”
Even a generous reading of Pianka suggests that we should limit population ourselves — maybe he thinks we should all implement a one- or two-child policy like China’s — if we don’t want Ebola or a giant purple alien like Thanos to do it for us. But any philosophy that reduces people to “mouths” needing to be fed is dangerously anti-human.
And lest you think Pianka is just a fringe crank, Mims noted that he received a standing ovation for his talk. And he’s not the only one who has promoted these ideas. A Forbes reviewer, among others, noted that Thanos sounds like he read Thomas Malthus, or Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb.
Of course, most of us, scientists and scholars included, would be appalled at the idea of Ebola wiping out most people on the planet. That’s why Thanos is a villain, after all. Marvel is obviously banking on the fact that our sympathies rest with Captain America, who says: “We don’t trade lives.” It’s good to see that America still symbolizes a philosophy of individual worth against a utilitarian menace, regardless of what a few academics may say.
But in ways large and small, Thanos’s deadly calculus seeps into the prevailing culture. Our friend Wesley Smith tirelessly documents the “culture of death” around the world. Most recently he wrote about the death of Alfie Evans, a victim of the belief that a life of suffering is decidedly not better than having no life at all. It is the same mindset that brings us euthanasia and abortion, policies that often receive the popular support denied to extremists like Pianka.
This anti-human ideology is advanced by the “technocracy,” as Wesley puts it, something that C.S. Lewis warned about in The Abolition of Man. The “simple calculus” of resources versus suffering and an ideologue who believes he has both the will and the right to carry out a solution would be a catastrophic combination. And unlike the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t require a great suspension of disbelief to see how it could happen, though maybe on smaller scales. The question is whether we, as a society, can agree that these “solutions” are not worth the price.
Photo: Thanos, screen shot from Avengers: Infinity War trailer, via Marvel Entertainment.