Beware Gods Out There

Bryan Caplan notes that we’d actually treat X-men quite differently from the stories:

In the X-men comics, t.v. series, and movies, normal humans instinctively treat super-powered mutants with fear and disgust. The popular mutant policy options are: (a) register them as deadly weapons, (b) preemptively imprison them, or (c) kill them one and all.

Is this how real-world humans would actually react to the emergence of super-humans? I seriously doubt it. As long as the mutants accepted conventional norms of their societies, we’d treat them like celebrities or sports stars. Each country would take nationalistic pride in “their” mutants, just as each country now takes pride in their freakishly talented countrymen in the Olympics. …

If 5% of mutants tried to seize power, existing authorities would almost certainly recruit the remaining 95% to defend themselves – and hasten to add that “The best defense is a good offense.” If the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could competitively embrace former Nazi scientists after World War II, it’s hard to believe that the world’s leading governments would ever decide, “The only good mutant is a dead mutant.” (more)

As it happens, I just re-watched the first three episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, all of which were about super-powerful human-like beings, seen as monsters to be killed or isolated. In the third episode, a brush with something just outside the galaxy kick-starts rapid ESP-power growth in a few crew members, who then get big heads about it, and so must be killed:

KIRK: You must help me. Before it goes too far.
DEHNER: What he’s doing is right for him and me.
KIRK: And for humanity? You’re still human.
KIRK: At least partly, you are, or you wouldn’t be here talking to me.
DEHNER: Earth is really unimportant. Before long, we’ll be where it would have taken mankind millions of years of learning to reach.
KIRK: What will Mitchell learn in getting there? Will he know what to do with his power? Will he acquire the wisdom?
DEHNER: Please go back while you still can.
KIRK: Did you hear him joke about compassion? Above all else, a god needs compassion. Mitchell! Elizabeth.
DEHNER: What do you know about gods?
KIRK: Then let’s talk about humans, about our frailties. As powerful as he gets, he’ll have all that inside him.
DEHNER: Go back.
KIRK: You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he’ll dare. Who’s to stop him? He doesn’t need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What’s your prognosis, Doctor? (more)

After they kill him they apparently never go back to this place again, even though it had done the same thing to a previous ship. In the real world, of course, groups would eagerly be sending ships to the area in the hope of creating their own gods, or becoming gods themselves.

Do we understand why fiction and reality are so different here? I think so – resisting an illicit dominator is our most common hero story, and early TV writers seeking a mass audience for stories set “out there” naturally focused on the very human scenario of humans becoming extreme out there. So of course they tell stories of how out there makes people into powerful illicit dominators, who heros resist.

Beware: powerful illicit dominators resisted by heroes remains an all too tempting story for us to tell about our future as well.

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  • Frank Adamek

    There’s a bias here in both fiction and personal presentation, and situations in which that can lead a person particularly astray. But the presence of a bias (which we should be more surprised to NOT find in any position) does not address all arguments of warning against massive power disparities. The majority of evils committed have been done because people could get away with it. We do genuinely pursue the well-being of personally-useless others, but only when it’s cheap, when we have little to gain by ignoring or defecting. Even that level of concern is not present in most possible minds.

  • dmytryl

    Very astute observation. It is somewhat hard to see those cultural connections when you are from a different country.

    This reminds me of a rough sketch of a graph I drew for the AI risk related reasoning:

    Sometimes, the path of valid inferences is too long. In such cases, belief is determined entirely by cultural biases and rationalizations you may have been exposed to.

  • Siddharth

    In fiction: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

    In reality: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.

  • gwern

    > who then get big heads about it

    Killing crew is a bit more than ‘big heads’, and speaks ill of the new god’s intelligence, ethics, and psionic capabilities.

  • rapscallion

    Real X-men would be more hated out of jealousy than any other reason.

  • David Collins

    Honestly, it matters a lot what the superpowers actually are.  Somebody who is bulletproof to say the equivalent of an M1A2 and can fly and project beams comparable to said M1A2′s 120mm main gun honestly isn’t a huge issue, as long as the effects and their origin are perfectly visible.  We regularly gave teenagers that kind of firepower back in the day during wars.
    But someone with, say, the ability to read minds, or become invisible, or take the shape of others.  Those are the witches we’d burn.

  • Daublin

    A super-person would see such a threat coming. Most likely they’d buy off the larger population one way or another, just like celebrities do. If they felt that for some reason they couldn’t do that, then they may well fight preemptively.

    The last thing I can picture happening, though, is a super-person hanging around and just being a butt.

  • Tim Tyler

    Salem’s witches were believed to have superpowers.  Things didn’t go so well for many of them – and that was in real life.  So: it depends.