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Heroes and Villains

The following is a repost from the old Southern Fried Science WordPress blog. The original can be found here.

I finally got the chance to watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog last week. After watching and enjoying, I started thinking about something. We have our heroes, the stalwart defenders of whatever, mostly absolute in their righteousness; often torn by by their duties, their beliefs, their past; sometimes high and noble, sometimes darker and more base; but almost always connected in some primal way to our own sense of self. We love our hero’s because we see some of who we could be in them.

But then there are the villains. Sometimes twisted by a painful life, torn by lost loves, driven by revenge, and corrupted by power. Often they are deeper, more complex than the heroes; capable of great evil, but sometimes redemption. We hate them, fear them, sometimes empathize with their plight. They are what we could become, if we allow ourselves to fall from grace. Most of them have PhD’s.

I’ve spent the last few days struggling to name more than 10 superheroes who are recognized as Dr’s. I couldn’t. Why is this? Why do heroes so rarely hold advanced degrees? And why are villains so often among the highly educated?

wolverine_croppedSome heroes are primal, like Wolverine. Fierce and powerful, they are the part of us that wants to beat the crap out of bad guys and right injustice with our fists. They are nature red in tooth and claw, and often the most popular of the heroes. superman_croppedThere are superhumans. Heroes who have incredible powers and chose to use them for good. They have refused to let the power corrupt them, and that is their greatest feat. Superman is lame, except for the fact that he could so easily conquer the world, yet he does not. His human goodness overcomes his superhumanity. But for the most part, these heroes are not known for their intellects.

There are superheroes that are geniuses. Batman, Spiderman, Ironman. With the exception of Spiderman, their power comes from their intellect. Tony Stark (Ironman) holds several advanced degrees. Batman, in his original vision, is the world’s greatest detective. Peter Parker (Spiderman) is supposed to be brilliant at physics. But the power of their minds often plays second cello to their physical prowess.

So now, if you grew up on comic books like I am, you are screaming in your mind “what about Professor X!” Charles Xavier, the only superhero I could come up with who’s academic credentials are part of his persona. But Charles Xavier is fundamentally known for his mind. By confining him to a wheelchair, his creators humanized him to the readers. Where are the powerful psychics who can kick butt and fly? Evil Incorporated.

drdoom_croppedVillains? Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Sivana, Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. No, Mr. Freeze (Dr. Victor Fries), and of course, whenever any parody of the superhero/spy genre is produced, the archvillain is always Dr. Something – Dr. Evil, Dr. Horrible. Dr. Mad Scientist, PhD is such a staple of the superhero zeitgeist, that we never even think about it.

The message is clear. Power corrupts, and knowledge is the most powerful force in the world. How could someone so educated not become twisted and evil by their own knowledge. Scientist are cold, heartless, capable of doing horrible things because they don’t care about the morality of the world, only how best it can be manipulated.

Maybe this is all just fun. These are fairytales, stories to teach lessons, or just to entertain. They’re nothing serious. The way we portray heroes and villains isn’t imprinting people with a fundamental distrust of scientist. Or is it?

“If you ask the average ten year old in America what a scientist looks like, they almost always describe an older man with crazy white hair and a lab coat. If you ask a group of adolescents how many have looked through a microscope, few raise their hands. If you discuss the implications of genetic research with a group of high school students, they’re likely to cut your next class. The reason why these students have such profound stereotypes of scientists and are less than enthusiastic about science’s impact on society is simple—the lack of exposure they receive during their pre-college education. According to a preliminary study conducted at Leicester University in England, students are often repeatedly confronted with stereotypes of science and scientists via television, cartoon, and comic book characters as well as uninformed adults or peers. (Schaefer and Farber, 2004)”

Maybe we owe our future a better class of hero.

~Southern Fried Scientist

UPDATE: There’s a very good discussion on this topic happening at Command F


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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