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In praise of turning people into dinosaurs
You may have seen the dinosaur man meme:
Sauron (yes, his name is actually Sauron, yes for real like the lord of the rings villain) wants to turn people into dinosaurs. Spiderman thinks that he should be using technology like that for the greater good rather than to fulfil his whims.
Now, I must first note that Sauron is a bad person. Good people don’t name themselves after lord of the rings villains because they’re the evillest name they can think of.They also get consent before turning people into dinosaurs. Also Sauron is a dinosaur supremacist. I’m not really sure where to fit that in on a good/bad axis, but generally I’m not in favour of supremacy for your particular category.
But… Spiderman is wrong.
Among the reasons why Spiderman is wrong is that they do in fact subsequently use the dino ray to curecancer:
Progress comes from trying to do things that haven’t been done before. We invented much of the modern world because Bell Labs wanted to do more with telephones. People haven’t been turned into dinosaurs before, so if turning people into dinosaurs is the specific thing that you feel called to do, and nobody has done it before, probably you’re going to figure out how to do things nobody else has figured out how to do, and probably some of those things are going to be useful.
But also… Peter Parker (Spiderman) is a hypocrite, and I feel like this is worth emphasising.
Here’s something worth considering: Spiderman’s webs are synthetic. They’re not part of his power set, they’re a thing he invented for his spider cosplay, because they fit the theme of his power set.
They’re also just absurdly good from a materials science point of view. They would revolutionise a huge amount of the construction industry for starters if he made them widely available. He doesn’t do that. He uses them to swing around the New York skyline.
Spiderman’s tagline is “With great power comes great responsibility”, and that is very much where he is coming from in this debate with Sauron: He thinks that Sauron has the power and should take the responsibility. But Peter does not practice what he preaches. If he did, he’d have open sourced (or at least productised) his webbing.
In fact, I was interested to notice that in “Spiderman and the X-Men” (the series this is from), Peter is now running Parker Industries. It’s nice to see him finally taking some responsibility for - oh wait never mind he was mind controlled into creating it. And while they do seem to have produced a number of socially good technologies, I note that they never released webbing for public use.
All of this is because Peter is a hypocrite. He is in fact the worst at taking responsibility.
Want to know how his Parker Industries employees feel about him being away?
Peter “takes responsibility” because he feels like he has to, but he is in fact really bad at it because it goes against all his natural instincts.
It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t actually have great power. Peter’s Parker’s Powers are pathetic. He’s got super gymnastics, strength, he can climb walls, and he’s got a danger sense. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say no to any of these, but it’s not exactly something that’s going to change the world.
Canonically, the reason he uses these powers to fight crime is that his uncle Ben (who is eventually retconned as the origin of “with great power comes great responsibility”) got murdered by someone who Peter had previously not bothered to stop from mugging someone else. Peter concluded that it was all his fault, and that he must use his powers for good, by becoming a rogue vigilante.
He then proceeds to clearly have a great deal of fun doing it, instead of doing the responsible thing of starting a company for his revolutionary new webbing product.
It’s almost like a great deal of why he objects to Sauron’s behaviour is that it seems so familiar. “But I don’t want to revolutionise the construction industry, I want to punch bad guys while making wisecracks”.
In the meantime, Sauron has cured cancer, because he at least takes pursuing his interests seriously rather than wrapping everything in a layer of wisecracking disaffected cynicism to hide his disappointment in himself.
To be clear: I am not angry at Peter for putting on spandex and fighting crime. That seems fine,if he’s having fun. I am angry at Peter for pretending that by doing so he’s being responsible.
Partly I’m angry at him for this because it allows him to pretend this moral principle is sound, and it’s not.
“With great power comes great responsibility”. OK. Sounds good, but why should it?
I’m all for people taking responsibility. If anything I take too much of it. But why should being given power suddenly create in you an obligation to use it for good? Certainly it creates in you an obligation to be careful for how you use it - with great power comes great responsibility to not harm others with it, and if the power is given to you by others then you take on a responsibility to them to use it well, but it’s not at all clear to me that a power you just randomly happen to have creates any sort of obligation in you.
This is particularly true with the actual powers that people get randomly gifted, because the powers I’m actually interested in aren’t spidey-sense, they’re more like the sort of “power” that lets you invent magic webbing or a dino ray (or be a star athlete, or a top lawyer, etc. But raw intelligence tends to be my personal interest, independently of whether it’s the most important thing).
People who grow up smart get a lot of messaging about how they have a lot of potential, how they’re going to change the world, etc. and they mostly then go on to completely fail to do that and spend life feeling guilty about it.
But why should we feel guilty about that?
Here’s the thing about intelligence: It’s actually quite hard to use for good without a lot of external support. Intelligence is very much a powerful tool, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got the right skills, contacts, money, institutions, etc. to do anything with it. Most often what you’ve got is the experience of growing up neurodivergent, and then once you’re grown up you can aspire to be tolerated as long as you’re useful.
A principle I’m coming around to is this: No obligations without reciprocity. If you don’t owe anything to me, I don’t owe anything to you.
I can, and usually will, altruistically help people where I can. But this is supererogatory - it is good that I do this, but it is not required.
If you want people with potential not to “waste their talents”, you can’t treat it as their personal individual obligation to figure out how to apply them. You need some sort of collective institutional attempt to help them and support them in doing so. And this is extremely missing. Note: I’ve probably thought of the counterexample you’re about to give, and that ain’t it, sorry.
In the absence of that… I don’t know, I think I’ve done pretty well at making a difference, but I think I’ve long discharged any obligation that I’m not convinced I had in the first place, and it’s time for me to say fuck that and go turn some people into dinosaurs.
OK, detect, but give them a break, it’s a school science project that they did in a day.
This is an aside and the real answer is “comic book logic” but it’s frankly bizarre to the point of unbelievable that cancer is still a problem in the Marvel universe. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a super-scientist, and probably even the cat you’re swinging has a decent chance of being one.
Marvel stories are a complete acid trip to read in summary.
At least, original canon. No idea where we’re at right now with infinitely many reboots between now and then.
I can’t help but note that this is a terrible story to learn moral lessons from. Uncle Ben didn’t die because Peter failed to stop a mugging. Uncle Ben died because the authors specifically decided to fuck with Peter. Don’t learn your moral lessons from contrived thought experiments written by sadistic authors.
I mean it seems like a violation of people’s civil rights and in many ways far worse than the behaviour of actual police, but these are comics and this sort of behaviour is normal there.
I do still think it is obligatory to perform some amount of supererogatory acts though.