A common subtrope of Hollywood Evolution
that commonly shows up along with Evolutionary Levels
, evolution is depicted as, or believed by a character to be, being directed toward a goal, most commonly ascension
or superpowered or humanoid
, rather than shaped toward whatever random mutations are best adapted to the environment. Generally, things being described as "more evolved" is a very good indicator this trope is present. The technical term is "orthogenesis".
In most cases, humanoids and/or some other form of sapient creature is considered to be the goal if superpowers or Energy Beings
aren't part of The Verse
the trope is occurring in. In many cases, the creature is described as being in specific stages or levels
A common view of the Evilutionary Biologist
, particularly when they claim that something is holding back evolution from marching forward. When this is done by Power Copying
it's probably LEGO Genetics
. Lamarck Was Right
is something that might also show up.
In actual evolutionary theory, this is technically true but misinterpreted
; change simply happens because those organisms that happen to be well suited to the momentary circumstances of their life have more offspring — so the population will simply follow ever-shifting circumstances. Change isn't oriented toward any goal except reproduction and survival. Also, those organisms which have changed more than other lineages are properly called more derived
, not more evolved. In fact, even before publishing his theory of evolution, Darwin himself criticized this trope, writing in his notebooks that "It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another..."
See Ultimate Life Form
for the usual end point.
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Anime and Manga
- Marvel Comics:
- X-Men: Many characters (particularly the villains) believe that mutants are the next stage of humanity or its successor. In fact, it appears mutants, humans, The Inhumans, and other species were experiments towards some vague goal set up by the Celestials.
- Galactus is, sometimes, said to target worlds at the "apex of their evolution" to devour. For evolution to have an "apex", it has to have a goal.
- High Evolutionary, a man who has made a career of accelerating the evolution of various species — which, naturally, all happen to be anthropomorphic afterwards.
- At one point, a ragtag group of Avengers goes in to bust up the High Evolutionary to stop him from being... evil or something. The climax involves the villain and an Avenger both hyper-evolving into major godhood and right out of this realm. The kicker was the Avenger was Hercules, who already was a Physical God.
- In his first appearance, he hyper-evolved a wolf. This evolution came complete with knowledge of martial arts from the future.
- This is trumped by him fighting Hulk so Hulk would kill him, when he changed the "evolutionary levels" of the Earth, converting the ground beneath Hulk into tar (like tarpits, you know, because tarpits are like stone age, man?), then lava, then gas.
- In "What If The Avengers Lost The Evolutionary War?" (What If? v2 #1), all mutant and otherwise empowered superpeople have their powers enhanced in all kinds of ways (Cyclops can now control his blasts and doesn't need a visor; Spider-Man grows four extra arms) while ordinary humans (including non-evolved heroes and villains such as Iron Man and Doctor Doom) become bigbrained superintelligent psychics.
- The "Superman of the future" (100,000 years in the future) in Action Comics #256, as seen on Superdickery◊.
Films — Live-Action
- The Adventures Of The Rat Family by Jules Verne: There's an explicit hierarchy of life-forms (with rats somewhere around the middle, above invertebrates and fish but below birds and most other mammals), and the aim of every living thing is to evolve into the highest form of life, which is Man.
- The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells: Averted where the future evolutions of mankind are an innocent race, apparently less intelligent than modern humans (the Eloi) and what amounts to Mole People (the Morlocks). This was influenced by Wells' early socialist ideas. The Eloi and the Morlocks represent the cultured, wealthy bourgeoisie people of leisure and the lower-class proletariat manual labourers respectively. Taken to extremes over thousands of years, the Eloi are witless sheep with no spark of creativity or ambition (or even the ability to defend themselves), and the Morlocks are mechanically-apt but brutal cannibalistic savages. A little bit Strawman Political, to be sure. However, in The War of the Worlds the narrator believes the Martians represent a "more highly evolved" form of intelligent life, reduced to a brain and hands, without "animal" functions like a digestive system. (They feed by sucking other animals' - including humans' - blood directly into their own bloodstream.)
- Slan by A.E. van Vogt: The titular Slan are mutants that are faster and stronger than ordinary humans, and have enhanced healing ability and psychic powers.
- Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke: The entire story is fundamentally about most of humanity evolving beyond their corporeal forms into a mass consciousness and merging with a universal psychic gestalt. The story also features the Overlords, alien creatures that are an evolutionary cul-de-sac of sorts, who can shepherd other species on the road to psychic oneness, but cannot achieve it themselves, and were in fact seriously considering species-wide suicide out of sheer boredom before the galactic gestalt contacted them and proposed the alternative.
- The Space Odyssey Series: The series discusses the "evolution" of the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who brought The Monolith to Earth. Read literally, it's an example of this trope, but is actually a case of a species reaching a point technologically where they can perform Brain Uploading into machine bodies and then finally turn themselves into Energy Beings — self-directed evolution rather than natural.
- The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick: Set Twenty Minutes into the Future, the novel features "evolutionary therapy" becoming popular among the rich. It makes your cranium large and bubble-like, and increases your intelligence, although in rare cases it can backfire and de-evolve you into a monkey-like state. The best part? It works by stimulating the gland that controls evolution. However, he also subverts it in "Strange Eden", wherein a man falls in love with godlike alien woman who warns him to stay away, as merely being in her presence too long will shoot him to the highest levels of human evolution. He is not dissuaded by this, sticks around and becomes the very highly evolved large cat.
- In The Three Stigmata, however, evolution is at least someone affected by environment. The evolved people also develop hard ridges on their heads to combat the intense heat of the Earth (which will kill any normal person who isn't literally carrying an air conditioner on his back). Later on, one character runs across people from the future, who look more like The Greys because the Earth is undergoing an Ice Age.
- One of Kurt Vonnegut's short stories tells of astronauts that start to evolve into huge-headed telepathic freaks after being exposed to otherworldly radiation. They're saved from this predicament by their test animals, who have been exposed longer and evolved past them and into energy beings. This trope was nicely averted in his book Galapagos. The evolved humans resemble seals, and natural selection lowers their intelligence to that of animals. It's a bit misanthropic, though.
- The War Against the Chtorr: It's stated that since Chtorran lifeforms have a billion-year evolutionary head start they have a massive advantage over Earth lifeforms.
- Parodied in Tomorrow Town by Kim Newman: one of the claims made by the futurists who have set up shop in Tomorrow Town is that they have evolved beyond their 1970s contemporaries, or 'yesterday men' as they are called. Like most things to do with their "futopia", they're quite, quite mistaken.
- Played with in the fiction portion of The Science of Discworld, in which the native life forms of Roundworld keep evolving civilizations which the wizards hail as the pinnacle of creation, only to be wiped out to a crab/lizard/bear/whatever by cometary impacts and other catastrophes. So even if intelligence were something evolution was actively working towards, extinction couldn't care less. The wizards belief that life should be striving towards intelligence and civilisation is highlighted for contrast in the non-story parts of the book, to explain that evolution doesn't work that way, but simply keeps doing what works as long as it makes the next generation, unless something better happens to appear, and doesn't outpace its food, or fall to some local or global disaster.
- In The Last Continent, plants on Mono Island have the ability to instantly make themselves evolve into new forms with a definite goal. This goal is not to be intelligent, but to be useful enough to the visiting wizards that they'll take the plants along when they leave.
- Averted in David Brin's Uplift verse. Most clans believe that a species can't even develop sentience without genetic engineering (the exceptions being the mythical Precursors and maybe humanity).
- In Edmond Hamilton's 1931 short story The Man Who Evolved a scientist sets out to discover where the evolution will stop. He does so by inventing an "evolution chamber" and trying it on himself (which makes this also an example of Evolution Power-Up). Subverted when he turns into protoplasm because evolution apparently goes in circles — still scientifically wrong, but at least it's a twist on the usual take on this trope.
- In Andrew M Greely's Angel Fire the protagonist has won the Nobel Prize for discovering goal-oriented evolution in fruit flies.
- Star Trek
- Star Trek: The Original Series: The episode "The Omega Glory" also used the 'path evolution is supposed to take' idea in order to show a planet who evolved the American flag and Constitution in parallel to Earth. Spock explains:
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: A humanoid named "John Doe" encountered by the crew was part of a minority of his species that were "evolving" (actually, undergoing metamorphosis, but they called it "evolution") into Energy Beings.
- In the episode "Pen Pals", Riker actually invokes the concept of a "cosmic plan" as supporting the Prime Directive in justifying a decision to not save a pre-warp alien civilization about to be destroyed by a massive natural disaster. The apparent logic being that some species are "meant" to become advanced, space-faring civilizations, while others are likewise fated to become extinct, and that it is "hubris" to interfere in this process. Pulaski and LaForge argue vehemently against this position.
- A later Next Generation episode, "The Chase", reveals that all life in the Alpha Quadrant had descended from microbes seeded by a race of precursors billions of years ago. Somehow, because the microbes came from the precursors' homeworld, they were able to develop into multiple humanoid species on hundreds of different planets. At the same time. Who can interbreed with each other. It makes more sense than any other explanation no matter how much Fridge Logic is applied. It was implied that the DNA they seeded the universe with was somehow programmed to evolve toward humanoid lifeforms that were genetically compatible. However that works.
- Star Trek: Voyager: The infamous episode "Threshold" plays with this trope. Tom Paris undergoes "accelerated evolution" after traveling at trans-warp speeds, and eventually reaches humanity's evolutionary goal — he turns into a giant newt (he got better). The episode's writers later revealed that their idea was to show that the final "goal" of human evolution could turn out to be something seemingly primitive, rather than the "advanced", hyper-intelligent forms of life that this trope usually results in. They also admit it didn't turn out the way they had hoped.
- Star Trek: Enterprise: The episode "Dear Doctor" showcased the "path evolution is supposed to take" misconception. This was Captain Archer's justification for refusing to cure a plague he had a cure for (he believed the civilization suffering from it was "supposed" to die out to make way for another species) leading some like SF Debris to accuse him of genocide.
- Doctor Who:
- In the first Dalek story, the Thals had mutated into something hideous, then back again into good-looking space elves in leather trousers because that was, supposedly, the most perfect form.
- In "Genesis of the Daleks", Davros worked out what the Kaled race was going to evolve into as a result of the centuries-long ABC war they'd been having with the Thals (apparently it was a green blob that would require a motorised dustbin if it was going to get around).
- "The Lazarus Experiment" has the bad guy of the week use a molecule-rearranging room to de-age himself... with the side-effect that he would occasionally turn into a hulking beast that had to suck the life essence out of other people. The Doctor explains it by saying the genetic rearrangement had accidentally activated genes from evolutionary paths humans passed by and never used. Of course, given the Doctor's way of explaining things, this is likely just the best he can do to explain a much more convoluted concept.
- The Doctor has claimed that the Time Lords, being one of the oldest civilizations in the universe, seeded life across the universe and did something that caused it to have a propensity to develop into superficially Time Lord-oid forms, explaining the large number of Human Aliens in the Whoniverse. Torchwood eventually had an object that penetrated nearly all the way through the Earth known as "The Blessing" which was somehow connected to the essence of what it is to be human. Ancient Time Lord technology intended to shape life forms into the Time Lord form?
- "The Image of the Fendahl" had a skull from the Core of the Fendahl, an altered humanoid the served as part of a malevolent life-draining entity. The skull had, over millions of years, subtly altered a life form on the planet it landed on until that life form was suitable for creating a new Fendhal and had a subgroup manipulated into actually creating it. The human who learned he and his species existed only to spawn the rebirthed Fendahl was not happy.
- Stargate SG-1: All sentient species apparently evolve "towards" ascension. Just before evolutionary ascension, people will have all kinds of Psychic Powers, such as mind-reading, telepathy, healing powers and some kind of super-intelligence.
- Space: 1999: The show features one of the oddest theories of evolution: everyone is evolving, and will eventually become perfect (apparently ignoring that pesky old mortality). Even worse, there is a mirror universe where evolution works backwards, and people gradually turn into piles of primordial soup, and traveling to this dimension will cause you to start evolving backwards as well.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000:
- In keeping with its nature, the show thoroughly mocked the "evolution is improvement" idea with several episodes featuring the super brain-powered Observers. A race so evolved that we "are as amoeba" to them, they have evolved beyond bodies (which still have to carry their brains around in their hands) and communicate only with their minds (by using the mouths on the bodies they've evolved beyond).
Gypsy: Wouldn't it be more convenient to just leave the brains in your heads?
Observer: Convenient? Why, our brains are fully functional from our bodies for up to fifty yards.
- Also referenced in the final host segment of the last episode of the Comedy Central years (a 2001 parody), when the SOL crew evolves into energy. They decide to regain their bodily forms at the beginning of the first episode of the Sci-Fi Channel years.
- The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon fails biology forever because he believes "[he] is farther down the evolutionary line" than the rest of humanity, and has smaller incisors and pinky toes than everyone else. You'd think an theoretical physicist who has been shown to be interested in
all most areas of science would actually bother to learn how evolution works. Given that he explicitly does internet searches to find out anything about biology (like why his stomach might be hurting), he probably doesn't know half as much about biology or medicine as he thinks he does. Not that it would stop him believing that he's superior anyway. Explicitly shown in one episode when Sheldon states Amy's science (neurobiology) is the same as Bernadette's (microbiology):
Sheldon: Your doctorate is in neurobiology. I fail to see the distinction.
Amy: I'll make it simple for you. I study the brain, the organ responsible for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Bernadette studies yeast, the organism responsible for Michelob Lite.
- Babylon 5: In one episode a super-powerful psychic has reached "the next stage" ahead of everyone else and evolves into an energy being. At the end of the series we're shown humans a million years down the line, who have all become beings of pure thought. Word of God is that any species that achieves the right level of enlightenment will evolve into an Energy Being. He further states that humans and Minbari do eventually reach that state, while the Narn and Centauri do not.
- The premise of The Outer Limits episode "The Sixth Finger." A scientist develops a procedure for putting an individual through future stages of evolution by using radio waves to destroy his weaker cells. As seems to be common in these cases, the man in question ended-up a telekinetic, telepathic super-genius with an oversized bald head (which he claims is how all humans will look after a million years of evolution). It's implied that, if he had continued, he would eventually have become a being of Pure Energy.
- In the Magic: The Gathering card game, the Slivers seem to be an insectile species that have evolved the ability to evolve faster and share genetics through some sort of psionic link, resulting in not just momentary changes to genotype but also phenotype when two different varieties are in proximity. In addition, some flavor text references Evolutionary Levels. The Ghostflame Sliver, for example, seems to be a reference to the common misunderstanding of the punctuated equilibrium theory, as they are "on the cusp of evolution", but it's most notable in the Sliver Overlord, which declares it the end of evolution. Then again, the Slivers evolve so quickly partially by devouring other life forms and adapting their advantageous genes to their offspring, grow rapidly to adulthood, are semi-sentient, act in concert, and are almost virus-like in their ability to infest, consume, and spread rapidly, so it might just be an intimation that the Slivers will kill everything on the planet, halting evolution permanently. Justified since the Slivers were created/modified by Volrath with a goal in mind: to be the best damn killing machines imaginable.
- Forgotten Realms: "Pages from the Mages" Played With this. The spell "Evolve" changes a normal animal into an intelligent and more or less human-like form. The punchline is that glorified name aside, the spell just permanently transforms the target halfway to its caster (presumed to be a human smart enough to use a 8-level spell), using his own blood sample(!) as a component.
- In E.V.O.: Search for Eden, this is both the object of the game and one of its central mechanics. Though, to be fair, life on EVO's planet was specifically created to evolve this way, as to sire a proper mate for Gaia, who is humanoid.
- Super Robot Wars Impact: Alfimi was created to be the "apex of human evolution".
- Star Ocean The Last Hope: The Big Bad seems to think that it's possible to create a "better" evolution that will save humanity from violence and sadness. Even worse, the heroes believe that it's necessary to "make our hearts worthy" in order to evolve.
- Fire Emblem: It's theorized the Zunanma were subconsciously evolving to be more like their "gods". The gods thought this was bad but the only solutions they could think of were abandonment or annihilation and Zunanma didn't like either.
- Wild ARMs 3: The Prophets describe five stages of evolution; they hope to evolve the world into its final stage. Even the characters who call out this notion as BS believe the dragons lived at their "evolutionary apex" before dying out. The former statement is justified oddly in that the Prophets were under the coercion of the ego-maniacal Demons.
- Marathon: Word of God has said that this is the inspiration for Rampancy in The Verse. The concept that all life, and all evolution, strives upward towards Godhood.
- In Starcraft the Zerg evolve towards perfection. Though in their case it's justified by the Swarm having an intelligence that specifically modifies them in that direction. Primal Zerg that are not part of the Hive Mind evolve in every which way depending on what genes they consume.
- Beast Wars: All There in the Manual states that the point of the experimentation of The Vok was to turn other life forms and systems into Energy Beings like themselves.
- The Simpsons: An overly long Couch Gag sequence features the evolution of Homer. This starts with single-celled organisms, then goes from jellyfish to fish to lizard, rodent, monkey, ape... and finally to the modern Homo sapiens before showcasing several historical eras ending in modern Homer walking into his house. This showcases the supposed evolutionary levels misconception. And subverted for Rule of Funny; he meets Moe on the way who walks in the opposite direction... and devolves.
- Futurama, the Professor accidentally creates evolving robots, who evolve much faster than organisms. Within a few days, they go from microscopic plankton-esque lifeforms to murderous trilobites to dinosaurs to cavemen to modern humans to Energy Beings.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man: In an episode titled "Natural Selection", Martha Connors states that lizard DNA is more primitive than humans, to which Curt Connors, the unfortunate victim of his own experiment, responds: "I'm regressing."
- Ben 10: Ultimate Alien: The titular Ultimate Forms. The 'fast' part is at least justified in that the entire series revolves around a piece of Imported Alien Phlebotinum that can spontaneously rewrite a person's DNA. Word of God claims that the Ultimate forms are actually the projected evolution of a species based off of a simulated planet-wide civil war lasting millions of years.
- Averted by natural selection. As far as the experts can tell, the "purpose" of evolution is to ensure that a population can survive in its current environment. The mechanism for it is natural selection, which causes individuals that are best suited to the environment to have the most surviving offspring, while those who are less suited have fewer surviving offspring, causing their individual traits to become less common and eventually disappear. Individuals never evolve, only entire populations over the span of several generations.
- Also, evolution can only cause traits that improve the chance of offspring to survive. As new traits only emerge through random mutations, evolution never creates an optimal solution, but always only the bare minimum that allows the population to survive (otherwise, they simply die out).
- One way to promote survival is by expanding the set of suitable environments for a population. This favors adaptability and thus intelligence, hence humankind. However, other forms of adaptability are just as likely to be selected for. Water Bears are a microscopic animal that can survive in pretty much any environment, including the vaccuum of space (albeit only briefly, but longer than just about any other living thing). So while traits like intelligence and sociality (A trait that ants have used to become remarkably widespread) are favored, they are hardly the goal of evolution to the exclusion of useful non-humanlike traits.
- Played straight, on the other hand, by selective breeding or animal husbandry. Human attempts at breeding 'better' animals is the same, but replace 'natural selection' with 'artificial selection'. After all, what better way to promote the survival of your own species by developing traits that one of the most successful species on the planet finds useful, and piggy-backing your own survival to theirs?
- Transhumanism recognizes the non-directed nature of evolution, and attempts to take things into our own hands. Generally, this differs from Eugenics (the morally questionable practice of using animal husbandry techniques on humans) by using technology to either supplement (via cybernetics or the like) or modify directly (gene manipulation) existing individuals.
- According to Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest, scientist and philosopher, all organic and inorganic evolution is driven by two drives, to differentiate and to unify, both of which lead to the ultimate unity with God.
- Likewise, most religious people who accept evolution believe that humanity was to some degree planned or shaped by God. That degree differs, from the nearly deistic stance of God simply setting up the dominos to fall in such a way that humanity develops naturally, to God directly guiding evolution towards humans, or for God simply awaiting a suitably intelligent species (with no particular concern for their form) to 'imbue' with a soul. These people may believe that animals were specifically planned as well, or that God simply let them evolve as they did as a 'side effect' of his grander plan.