Bryan Caplan  

How Would We Really Treat Mutants?

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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. 

Of course, popular acceptance wouldn't extend to mutants who openly embraced or acted upon an ideology of mutant supremacy.  But as long as mutants spoke like loyal citizens of their nations of origin, we'd treat them better, not worse, than normal.  We'd fawn on mutants even if they were arrogant jerks.  See the folks on the covers of our supermarket tabloids.

My main doubt: How many bad apples in the mutant community would it take to turn public opinion against their kind?  Suppose 5% of mutants tried to kill off our leaders and assume dictatorial control.  If they failed, perhaps we'd try to intern the remaining 95%, leading to mutant polarization, leading to human polarization, with only one side left alive in the end.

On reflection, though, even this scenario doesn't hold water.  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."  The leading slogan, instead, would be, "Our mutants have to beat their mutants."  X-men is a timeless parable of prejudice and  group identity, but its hypothetical predictions aren't credible.

COMMENTS (32 to date)
John Fast writes:

I am politely skeptical of your skepticism of anti-mutant hysteria as depicted in Marvel Comics.
After all . . .

What percent of illegal immigrants commit crimes (other than illegal immigration)?

Now, how do most Americans feel about illegal immigrants?

What percent of Arab-Americans commit acts of terrorism?

How do most Americans feel about Arab-Americans?

What percent of gun owners commit crimes?

How do most Americans feel about gun owners?

As far as "our mutants have to beat their mutants," remember that the USG suffered from a lack of people who could translate Arabic and other languages that were essential for the War on Terrorism, due to ridiculous government policies which caused a shortage of such personnel.

Ted Levy writes:

"X-men is a timeless parable of prejudice and group identity, but its hypothetical predictions aren't credible."

Yes, exactly...THAT's the non-credible aspect of the X-men series...:-)

Steve Sailer writes:

I don't think it's really about mutants.

ryan p writes:

Can I say I'm always shocked no one ever references the "I, Robot" episodes of Sealab 2021 in these threads?

preserve writes:

Unless the mutants were able to be controlled by the ruling party (for profit enterprises), they would be terminated.

I believe this is common in biology and game theory.

Brandon Berg writes:

No doubt the mutant gap would be a major issue in one or more presidential campaigns.

BenSix writes:

Professor X would end up writing essays for the New Yorker; Wolverine would be reduced to doing shampoo commercials and Mystique would get spit out of the bottom of the porn industry.

RPLong writes:

I don't really understand Caplan's position on this.

(a), (b), and (c) are all policies that have been historically levied against people of different races and cultures.

(a) and (c) are in common practice against people with certain kinds of mental illness.

(a), (b), and (c) are in common practice against anyone whom the government can call "potential terrorists."

(b) has been used against African-Americans and Native Americans for two hundred years or more and is still happening.

Maybe Caplan didn't realize that X-Men is a metaphor?

Steve Z writes:

I'd fear mutants. Lets look at the facts:

First, there are a number of apocalytpic scenarios that directly involve mutants. That includes Cable's timeline, the Age of Apocalypse, the crappy future shown at the end of the arc where they introduce Xorn, etc.

Second, there is the problem of mutants like Magneto. Even if we recruit the X-Men against him, at peak power levels, he's capable of altering the magnetic polarity of the Earth (or something), thus killing us all.

Third, even non-genocidal mutants can be very dangerous. For example, if Iceman or Gambit mature into their Omega-level status too quickly, they could kill all of humanity with an accident.

Now, I know this mutie lover Caplan is eager to sing kum-ba-ya with his mutie pal "Doctor" Xavier -- (guess what: he is not a medical doctor!) -- but I for one am terrified of these freaks.

egd writes:

I had always assumed that the fear and hatred of mutants wasn't based on the fear of killing off our leaders, but rather on the more likely high likelihood of more personal crime.

If a thief can walk through walls, what value are bank vaults?

If someone can kill with a glance or touch, murder becomes more difficult to prosecute.

This would lead to at least a registry of mutants with potentially dangerous powers. And might ultimately lead to camps and involuntary detention for all mutants.

IVV writes:

I've been persecuted in school because I was smart, bookish, and have alopecia. I've been bullied by students and have had teachers that had no idea how to help me--one was reluctant to let me start algebra in grade school because I wasn't fast enough on my multiplication tables for her liking, for example. I shudder to imagine what being able to fire plasma blasts would have done.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I don't think species interact well unless in some sort of hierarchy (eg, aphids and ants), otherwise they are vicious competitors (hyena vs. lions) or predator-prey. The whole Star Wars bar scene of different species hanging out socially does not have a correlate in nature. So, they would either rule us, we would have them in zoos, or one of us would have to go.

Mark Plus writes:

We already have people with apparent super-powers among us called "entrepreneurs," the most advanced of whom can make more money in a few years than most Americans can earn in several lifetimes. The U.S. government has an official policy of tracking and regulating the activities of such individuals because of the economic advantages they enjoy over ordinary mortals. We've already stepped onto the slippery slope to the outright persecution of such super-beings.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Bryan, you are under-socializing again.

Durkheim's "moral solidarity" fits the description here, because solidarity carries with it -- inherently so -- a moral judgment against the out-group. This is what many of those commenting are pointing out -- the moral component of social solidarity.

Now, unfortunately, our institutions are making all the big decisions for us in this regard (i.e., Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, and Holocaust).

Ken B writes:
X-men is a timeless parable of prejudice and group identity
But Shakespeare sucks.
drobviousso writes:
Michael Judge writes:

The SyFy series Alphas an interesting TV show take on the mutants-live-among-us theme. It revolves around the moral issues presented in this post.

Ken B writes:

I quibble with embrace. This was mostly done secretly. Von Braun was too famous to hide but Operation Paperclip was kept secret. There was widespread criticism of the policy, and little boasting. Embrace is completely the wrong verb.

Andrew writes:

"weak" mutants would be coddled and embraced for political/humanity reasons -- "strong" mutants would be exterminated (when possible) for the same reasons.

Strong mutants are simply the next stage of evolution. Homo Sapians won't take their extinction lightly.

Dan Carroll writes:

It's a bit of a stretch to compare illegal immigrants, Muslims, and African & Native Americans to superheroes. Illegal immigrants and Muslims are foreigners, African American prejudice is rooted in low status perceptions and domination, while Native Americans were subjects of conquest. Continuing institutional discrimination is probably a function of garden variety rent-seeking behavior by middle class and upper middle class (i.e., walling themselves off in well-funded school districts, securing higher education subsidies at the expense of non-college tract students).

Superheroes, on the other hand, would probably have high status (like scientists, athletes, and actors). The fact that a small percentage of wayward evil superheroes might exist could serve to increase the status of the good guys as protectors. A PR campaign by the superhero society could reinforce that image, and given that they have the power to do what they want, the government is not likely to wage a negative PR campaign. Indeed, superheroes might be expensive as society lavishes benefits on them in order to keep them on our side.

The best skepticism of this prediction I think would be rooted in the tendancy of power to corrupt. If individuals have practically unlimited power, then even good guys would be tempted to use it for personal gain.

Thus, it would depend on the number of superheroes. If they are very few and very powerful, then the predicted outcome is unstable, as there would no checks on their power. If they are very numerous, then we could devolve into a stricter class society based on special power, but otherwise they would not pose any special threat. The ideal scenario is a few, but not a very few - enough for checks and balances, but not so much to alter the social fabric of society.

The fact that superhero stories are so popular and are generally designed to evoke sympathy with the superhero is evidence supporting this theory.

Chris H writes:

Dr Caplan, I think you're missing one important reason why you're right. That is, most people have either seen, read, or heard of things like the X-Men. And almost universally the more pro-tolerance people are the good guys.

Now the people putting out these stories typically want to make a profit, something they are less likely to do if they put out stories with good guys most people think are in the wrong. Therefore, the morals of the "good guys" in successful franchises are likely to align with the broader public they are trying to reach. As such, we would expect that the kind of prejudice and discrimination we see would not be nearly as harsh as the comics depict. The national leaders wouldn't want to piss off their electorate, especially against a group of people that could quite possibly win in the event of an attempt to exterminate them.

David Friedman writes:

I suggest that a better test case than sports stars or movie stars might be people such as Einstein or Feynman, who were widely perceived as being as much beyond ordinary people in their mental abilities as the fictional mutants are in their physical abilities. My impression is that the reaction to such people has usually been admiration not fear.

gwern writes:

Friedman: mixed in with envy, discrimination (ask smart kids in high school), and general anti-intellectualism.

> 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."

I dunno. What percentage of Muslims was involved in 9/11?

Ken B writes:

Mozart was famous before he hit puberty. Paganini is still pretty well known. Capablanca is a national hero in Cuba yet.

Ken B writes:


What percentage of Muslims was involved in 9/11?

Flying planes, or dancing in the street? Polls at the time showed upwards of 15% support.

Chris H writes:

gwern writes:

I dunno. What percentage of Muslims was involved in 9/11

I'm not sure this is a necessarily relevant comparison. It's possible to fight Muslims without using other Muslims. On the other hand, the only group that can actually stop a Magneto are other mutants. If the leaders in the US turn against all Muslims then they might hamper, but not cripple their ability to fight terrorists. If the US government turned against all mutants the result would be no effective defenses against the mutants. When the stakes get that high reserve rationality is more likely to kick in.

J writes:

Steve Sailer is right. It is not about mutants. I thought that Bryan was more perceptive.

Rand writes:

I think you're right. They probably would be considered celebrities. Of course, that would be after the first few of them were extensively examined by the government.

jason braswell writes:

My gut says it totally depends on the power level. Wolverine would surely be a star. Dark Phoenix would inspire fear.

Martin-2 writes:


It is not about mutants. I thought Bryan was more perceptive.
This article is in fact about what X-Men represents in real life. Otherwise it wouldn't make sense to talk about whether people in X-Men act realistically.

I don't get the idea that X-Men is simply a metaphor for racism, as if the superpowers are just for kicks and the only important part is that the mutants look different.

jseliger writes:

Suppose 5% of mutants tried to kill off our leaders and assume dictatorial control. If they failed, perhaps we'd try to intern the remaining 95%, leading to mutant polarization, leading to human polarization, with only one side left alive in the end.

One problem is simple: as depicted in the comics, many mutants cannot be effectively fought by non-mutants. That's especially true of mutants with various mind-control abilities. Only mutants can effectively fight some other mutants.

Trying to antagonize or fight all mutants would be like children trying to fight adults.

Evan writes:


Steve Sailer is right. It is not about mutants. I thought that Bryan was more perceptive.

There are (at least) two ways to analyze a work of fiction. One is to analyze the authorial intent and see what sort of metaphors and themes the work contains. The other is to take the basic premise of the work as a given and then analyze how good a job the work does at portraying the way human beings would act when placed in the situation the premise describes. Bryan is performing a Type 2 analysis. You and Steve are performing a Type 1.

For a Type 2 analysis metaphor and authorial intent are irrelevant. All that matters is the realism of people's behavior. The premise itself can be as unrealistic as you want, but the way people react to it should be critiqued based on how closely it matches your models of human psychology.

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