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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 toward whatever is best adapted to the environment. Generally, things being described as "more evolved" is a very good indicator this trope is present.
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 of evolution.
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, 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 survival. Also, those organisms which have changed more than other lineages are properly called more derived, not more evolved.
See Ultimate Lifeform for the usual end point.
Anime and Manga
- Digimon Tamers: Advancement in the traditional evolutionary sense and digivolution are seen as the goal of the Sovereign Zhuqiaomon, his Devas and Impmon.
- GetBackers: Shido Fuyuki has the ability to take on the characteristics of about 100 different types of animals. They try to reason that, since humans are the most evolved species on Earth, they also have the DNA of all the lower animals. Shido only has the ability to tap into the dormant DNA. Riiiiight.
- Hunter X Hunter: The chimera ant queen transfers the "most worthy" DNA of whatever she eats to her progeny, resulting in every batch of eggs giving more powerful (and human-like, since humans are obviously the best food) ants than the last, culminating in the King being the supreme being.
- Elfen Lied: The Diclonius, maybe. The conspicuously nameless government agency claims they're our evolutionary superiors, genetically programmed to take over the earth in cold-hearted genocide. The protagonists quickly find out that, at least, they're not cold-hearted at all. So it's embraced by some characters.
- Akira: Akira and Tetsuo, if the movie's Hand Wave is correct.
- Stardust Memories: One theory is that evolutionary levels are contagious on a mass scale--if a world has primitive life, and it's visited by humans, that primitive life will rapidly evolve to fill all evolutionary niches required in order to produce human-like creatures. Unfortunately, it may hit an evolutionary dead end during the attempt . . .
- 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, 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?, 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; Spiderman grows four extra arms) while ordinary humans (including non-evolved heroes and villains such as Ironman 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. Note that this is also a reference to the Ultra-Humanite, the earliest comic supervillain, more recognizable as having evolved into a large brained albino gorilla after Lex Luthor accidentally stole his look.
Films -- Live-Action
- Starship Troopers: The biology teacher in the beginning thought the Bugs were more evolved than humans.
"We humans like to think we are nature's finest achievement, but I'm afraid that just isn't true."
- In the 1986 film version of The Fly, the afflicted remarks "I seem to be stricken by a disease with a purpose, wouldn't you say?"
- Mission to Mars heavily implies that the life that was seeded on Earth by the Martians was intended to go through the exact path that we saw in our history, complete with the destruction of the dinosaurs, the Ice Ages, and the ascent of humankind, complete with genes that are able to activate the technology that was sealed inside the Face.
- In Evolution, the nitrogen-based organisms appear to be doing this, as they evolve at hyper-speed to produce plantlike life, then worm-like, then vertebrate-like, then primate-like. Subverted at the end, when the final evolved form is a kaiju-sized amoeba rather than a Rubber Forehead Alien.
- 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 of course 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.
- 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.
- Childhoods 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 are apparently unable to achieve this level of evolution for some reason.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey: 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 even 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.
- 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 Galápagos. 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.
- Tomorrow Town by Kim Newman: Parodied, one of the claims made by the futurists who have set up shop in the titular town is that they have evolved beyond their 1970s contemporaries, or 'yesterday men' as they are called. Of course, 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.
- 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).
- 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 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.
"The actual theory is that all lifeforms evolved from the lower levels to the more advanced stages."
- 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.
- 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.
- Star Trek Voyager: The infamous episode "Threshold" plays with this trope. Tom Paris undergoes "accelerated evolution" after travelling 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.
- 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" had 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.
- 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?
- 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
allmost 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 basically the same as Bernadette's (microbiology):
Sheldon: Your doctorate is in neurobiology. I fail to see the distinction.
- Red Dwarf: Over the course of 3 million years the inbred and irradiated descendents of Lister's cat somehow evolved into this.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 EVO 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.
- Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: A planet (called Planet) whose lifeforms evolve almost to the point of sentience every 100 million years, but the massive clots of sentient fungus kill all life on Planet and the process begins again from the survivors. Every time, the end result of the evolutionary cycle is the same - an almost sentient planet made of psychic fungus. Your goal is to find a way to communicate with Planet and teach it how not to kill itself, saving it and granting yourself immortality by Brain Uploading at the same time.
- Super Robot Wars: 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.
- 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. As far as the experts can tell, the "purpose" of evolution is to adapt the organism to its surroundings. And since the environment is ever-changing, the parameters of this goal change every so often, not having any real end to it. As to whether this (or for that matter, existence itself) could go on forever is a question best left to cosmology, metaphysics, or religion.
- 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.
- Transhumanism recognizes the non-directed nature of evolution, and attempts to take things into our own hands.
- Selective breeding or animal husbandry. Human attempts at breeding 'better' animals is pretty much 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?