Thanos Ruins Everything

I encountered the following shorn-of-all-credits bit of delight on Facebook:

… and being me, had to continue it:

Dr. Strange: You can’t be defending him! He plans to wipe out half of all life in the universe, he’d be the greatest serial killer in existence.

Adam: Not from this. Serial killing specifically means sequential, separated incidents of murder, at least three of them.

Spider-Man (dropping in): Oh man, Adam! I love this show. Go on, serial killers are only sequential, and you can profile them like on Criminal Minds?

Adam: Not exactly. In the real world, systematic profiling has been shown to be only barely better than a guess, and it doesn’t work at all with more common dangers, like spree killers.

Thanos: I am not a spree killer! I only propose what needs to be done.

Adam: You’re half right. Your plan involves exterminating a huge number of lives with a single act, that would make you a mass murderer specifically.

Thanos: Only to save many more.

Adam: I’m afraid not. Thing is, tall, dark, and grape-flavored, you’re not the first to suggest this. Thomas Malthus wrote extensively about the population explosion and starvation you’re worried about, called the Malthusian Catastrophe, and there’s two big problems with your plan.

Dr. Strange: It’s horrifying, heartless, and monstrous.

Adam: …FIVE big problems with your plan. But the two I had in mind were about the Malthusian Catastrophe itself, which has proven repeatedly to be a myth based on faulty mathematical assumptions-

Spider-Man: Yeah! Faulty ass!

(they stare at him)

Spider-Man: … umptions!

Adam: … and two, even assuming the Mathusian hypothesis is correct, you’re making the same mistake Malthus proposed, but backwards: an arithmetic solution to a geometric problem.

Thanos: Half of everything, Conover. Half of all space and time, room for growth for-

Adam: For hardly any time at all. Your own hypothesis is geometric growth; taking Earth as a reasonable example, populations grow pretty quick. Do this, and the deaths of trillions buy you one generation, maybe two. You’d be back in exactly the same place in, oh, fifty years, tops.

Of course, the internet being what it is, a curveball appeared early on:

… but then, does it? I thought genocide required an ongoing campaign of destruction (qv: entire Western world) rather than a single horrifying act. Here’s hoping this is not one of those things the war crimes tribunals ever do have to seriously draw a conclusion about.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Yet another problem with Thanos’ plan is that plenty of species are only barely hanging on, and losing half their members might doom them to extinction. Including humans at one point in our development, when there were fewer than a thousand of us.

    Somewhere in the galaxy, single-celled life was only just getting started in the ocean when Thanos destroyed the only organism with the mutation necessary to avoid getting wiped out.

  2. says

    @1 starskeptic

    Didn’t even notice that. It was one of many. Did you have an actual point, are you saying the presence of a Shermer article means that Malthus was right?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Doesn’t “genocide” necessarily require targeting of a specific group? Thanos actually made the point in a line in the movie that the Snap would be random and therefore “fair”.

  4. Who Cares says

    I wouldn’t say that what Malthus did is completely wrong. What he did was run a single model of the same type we do for for example Global Warming where we do not change a thing and get an estimate of how bad it will be in say 2100. That is what comes back to bite Malthus because he did not try to run other models where parameters change over time as we do to see what kind of impacts those changes have. And the changes that move us away from the baseline Malthusian model are numerous.

  5. consciousness razor says

    … but then, does it? I thought genocide required an ongoing campaign of destruction (qv: entire Western world) rather than a single horrifying act.

    I don’t think it would make a moral or political difference, which relates to the purpose for using a term like this. So why come up with a requirement like that, if we have no good use for it?

    Suppose a nuclear bomb had been dropped on a small enough country, so that “a single act” does it. It wouldn’t need to be a a country, of course, which is a political entity. It could just as well be a small region of whatever kind, where a particular group (ethnic/religious/etc.) happens to live, where most of them live, where the group comprises most of the region’s population, or however the people targeting this group may choose to engage in genocide (since whatever turns out to be practical or strategically useful for them is totally irrelevant here). That is the same kind of result, morally speaking, as an “ongoing campaign” (not clear how long that is supposed to be) which is aimed at mostly or entirely wiping out a population.

    And really, what I just described is not literally “a single act” anyway. In order to accurately tell this story, you need lots and lots of separate actions. We could add many more details, but here’s a very rough sketch: fund, research, design, build, test, outfit a bomber to carry it, get some pilots flying the bomber, and order the use of the bomb at the target location. All of that happens before it is ever actually dropped on anybody (by pushing a button, let’s say). Then which single act was the “genocidal” one? Well, that’s just not a serious question worth bothering about. They were all part of a coordinated set of genocidal actions.

    Similarly, Thanos snapping his fingers (a single — and very silly — gratuitous act, if there ever was one) is part of a much larger campaign. He very deliberately engaged in a long process of war and destruction and conquest, as well as (presumably) a bunch of theft/exploitation that funded all of this, in order to obtain the infinity stones which allowed him to do it. Without all of that history to set up the situation in the first place, he just would have been some asshole snapping his fingers, and that wouldn’t have had the same consequences.

  6. says

    I think that it still is not a genocide since, as per sonofrojblake #5 points out, it is not targeted at any specific group of people, but is indiscriminatory.
    Good meme either way, and good continuation. I had a laugh.

  7. says

    @7 starskeptic

    Do you even know what ‘lighthearted comedy’ is? At all? The links here aren’t even important.

    I’ve never seen you before. Your first comment, the first time you chose to engage with me, was a “You failed the purity test” thing, it was calculated as an attempt to make me feel bad. You are making no substantive arguments, just being a shithead. You are a troll. Your only desire in engaging here was to ruin something, and that will not be permitted.

    Fuck off.

  8. says

    @6 Who Cares

    Hypothetical imaginary Adam’s point wasn’t that Malthus was wrong across the board – he’s actually credited with originating a number of important ideas in economic and sociological modeling that are still in use – but that the Malthusian Catastrophe was incorrect, because it was too simplistic.

    (The rest of this, the argument about how hard you have to genocide for it to be genocide and whether you can genocide TOO hard to qualify, makes perfect sense to me to see, because screwily precise reasoning from a weird or absurd premise is the very heart of nerd humor.)

  9. Devious Brownies says

    Thanos actually made the point in a line in the movie that the Snap would be random and therefore “fair”.

    Of course, had it truly been random, there would have been a 50% chance that Thanos himself would have been eliminated in a puff of smoke, leaving only the gauntlet behind for one of the survivors to pick up. Then we could have skipped the entirety of “Endgame” for just a post-credits sequence.

  10. Devious Brownies says

    That “arithmetic solution to a geometric problem” is something I find a perpetual annoyance.

    A few years back there was a radio drama series by John Dryden called “Pandemic”, which investigated the present, future and past of an outbreak of a “super-flu” that huge numbers of people around the planet.

    Episode 1, “The Present”, was all about the first cases and the failure to contain the disease leading to the pandemic and was very well done, with a few hints that there was something more to the events.

    Episode 2, “The Future”, was a post-pandemic dystopia where the massive disruption to the populations and economies of the world had led to many unsettling changes to UK society, and a lone female detective investigating an apparently minor case discovers evidence that it was actually a British eco-terrorist group that had engineered the outbreak. Something the government was happy to kill to suppress, to avoid any international repercussions.

    The final episode, “The Past”, covered a discredited former “eco-vigilante” who is sucked back into a conspiracy by his ex-girlfriend, only to discover they plan to release a terrible disease in multiple sites simultaneously to cull the human population and “save the planet”. At one point, the designer of the plague, a microbiology professor, actually uses the geometric growth of bacteria on a petri dish to justify his plan, apparently oblivious to the fact that if his bacterial example is doubling every hour, wiping out half has bought him precisely one hour.

    Moreover, surely the bacteria to recolonize the dish might to be the fastest reproducers, or the most resistant, or both. While this doesn’t apply to Thanos’ supernatural snap, Dryden’s antagonists would seem to be doing nothing but making the situation worse. The least affected, and most aggressively expansionist, populations of his post-pandemic world would likely end up with the most influence.

  11. lakitha tolbert says

    I’m not sure why people always seem to forget the part where the deaths of half the universe, caused by the snapping of Thanos’ fingers, aren’t the only deaths he would cause.

    There are also all the “residual?” deaths he didn’t directly cause, but happened in the aftermath. All those beings that require the care of others in order to survive, would also cause another steep drop off in population that would occur for several months, or even years after the snap, due to things like starvation, and medical emergencies. And this is just on Earth. Babies, the elderly, many of the disabled, and sick just can’t live without the care of others, for example. Population problems aren’t just about resources, but because humans have been very successful at extending our lifespans.

    Also, please correct me if I’m wrong, but part of the reason we live the way we do (at least in the West) is because we have enough people who know how to do stuff, in those places where their knowledge their knowledge is useful. Some places still don’t have such people which is why we’re constantly shuffling people around the planet to help people who don’t have the knowledge they need.

  12. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    I think one can still make a case for genocide. It doesn’t matter that it’s indiscriminate: one is still going to be hitting groups with conditions that will create a loss of life (remember, the half of people who die will include parents of the young who will die without them, etc.) Moreover, by sheer statistics, Thanos is going to hit some populations harder than others. Imagine if a population that is already struggling on some alien world sees 60% rather than 50% of their population die because somewhere else it was 40%. That could kill them, and Thanos would want it to happen because he wanted reduced population growth. He was deliberately acting in such a way that would kill a lot of peoples as peoples. Lakitha is right, and it is just silly to argue seriously that there would be equal impact to all groups from this. Poorer groups would not rebound as well from the loss of critical personnel as richer ones. Basically, defending Thanos this way is akin to defending the flat tax.

    Of course, Thanos does this because he’s an awful person and can’t see past his problems, so he does not end up making Malthusianism look good, but unfortunately he has also contributed to a rise of actual Malthusian interest from people who didn’t do their homework. The biggest problem is that someone like him could instead provide resources sufficient to allow species to transition to a low population-growth equilibrium. That’s likely to equally affect all alien species because (and I know PZ will be annoyed here but it’s worth thinking about) a good number are likely to have a body plan where they have a brain that is large enough to cause pain in childbirth, and in any instance it’s likely that a lot of species (even ones that are strongly dimorphic) would have the same impulse when it is an option to not procreate beyond a zero growth level.

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