I know that the last thing I should do is look to Pokemon to be a bastion of science. But yet, every time I’m confronted with my Charmander evolving into a Charmeleon, I find myself yelling at the screen, “It’s mutating! Not evolving!”
But I guess the sound of “Pikachu is mutating” makes you think of a horrible cancer-ridden body reaching out with a little clawed hand calling out “why?” just before it uses Thunderbolt on itself just to end it all. But wait, it’s immune. So instead, it spends the next four turns giving itself a slower and slower Quick Attack until it is finally free of the painful cycle of life.
Still, that’s what Pikachu is doing. After all, evolution is the change of a genetic sequence over generations to what eventually ends in a unique species. It’s a continuum of changes. You and I, for example, are just another link in the long chain of evolution (provided we get jiggy with it and pass on our genes). Pikachu, when it turns into Raichu, is not breeding with another Pikachu over hundreds of years in its pokeball to create a plumper, oranger version of itself. No, it’s changing its DNA right there and then. Therefore, it is mutating.
Sadly, this seems to happen in Science Fiction a lot. We mistake mutation for evolution, even in recent shows like Torchwood.
Now, I’ll admit we shouldn’t also think that Torchwood is a bastion of science (like, if Owen is dead, why is he breathing?), but this is a show that came out under a decade ago, and it still thought evolving was mutating. In the episode, “Combat”, the Torchwood team discover that the Weevils are becoming immune to the Weevil Spray (it’s assumed it’s the same population they have been dealing with). Gwen, the not science-y one, suggests they are mutating. The genius character Tosh corrects her to say they are evolving! That’s right, they had the right term, and then corrected themselves with the person who is canonically supposed to be in the know. That is unless, the spray they are using actually triggers some sort of immune response and over spraying the weevils has created an immunity…
But this is all distracting from my main point of evolution versus mutation, and the politics of the language in a science fiction universe.
It turns out, we like the term “evolution” a lot better than we like the term “mutant” (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being a notable exception).
The most obvious example of the politics of mutation versus evolution is The X-Men, a group of superheroes of whom most are called mutants. I won’t quibble over the fact that they are called mutants. But, I will quibble over the fact that it’s often glossed over that mutations is apart of evolution.
It’s actually an interesting political commentary on how mutants in The X-men are addressed. To call them mutants has the weighted meaning that they are not one of us, and indeed “Mutie” is a bigoted term for them. The mutants who think they are the next rung on the ladder of evolution (*cough* Magneto *cough*) has the weight of them being superior. As such, he purposefully uses language that deals with evolution in order to say that there is a goal to their genetic difference. They are the homo superior.
Though, I should note that is not what evolution is about, no matter how much we are falsely taught that in school. Evolution is random—a series of mutations that don’t interfere with propagation. That’s right, you could have a horrid disease that kills the second you give birth, and it would stay in the gene pool because you are still able to contribute that mutation by having a child before you died. We often arbitrarily assign all traits to evolution believing that our bodies are a hodgepodge of DNA Voltaire, which is to say the best of all possible worlds. But honestly, we know that Birds of Paradise with the longest tails are more likely to mate… but they are also more likely to get eaten as their tails get too unwieldy. Where’s the evolutionary reasoning in that? There isn’t, just as there is not a whole lot of evolutionary reasoning behind Dazzler’s dazzling powers, or Wither’s ability to unwittingly kill anything organic he touches.
I don’t really have a broad-sweeping conclusion for this, just that 1. we have trouble understanding the difference between mutation and evolution, and 2. we don’t particularly like the term mutation as we tend to use it in derogatory senses. We see mutants as abnormal, but evolution as destiny, despite the fact that evolution doesn’t happen without random mutations.