04 January 2007

Zombies and Us

Shopping for my dad this winter on Amazon, I was presented with two books providing advice on how to survive a zombie attack. My radio this morning brought me a ballad recounting a zombie attack in an American suburb. I actually rather enjoyed both encounters with this non-existent threat.

The human race spent 90,000 years as hunters and gatherers (and our predecessor species spent many more hundreds of thousands of years doing the same -- the technologies we read about in comic book stereotypes of the stone age like stone tools, spears and fire were invented even before the human race arose).

We've had another 10,000 years or so (about 400 generations) of life in small agricultural villages, cities and outposts to evolve out of the roughest edges of our hunter and gatherer lifestyle. For example, people who had such intense wanderlust that they couldn't stick around for the next season's crops mostly died, except for a few gypsies who have paid dearly for their indulgence of that tendency. Likewise, people who failed to adapt biologically and socially to the demands of exposure to the diseases that come from close and frequent exposure to farm animals and living in settled quarters died off.

But, the last dozen or so generations, coupled with improved healthcare, have left the hard wiring in place. Instincts acquired for in millions of years of mammalian evolution (most of the traits poetically associated with being truly human, our raw emotional capacities, we share with almost all mammals), and then in years of violent primative societies wear war was a fact of life and war meant fighting face to face within walking distance of your home, are still there.

We haven't outgrown them. Action movies appeal to our hard wired mammalian fight and flight instinctual systems. Horror movies too bypass our rational thinking process to go right for our hard wired fear triggers. And, T&A appeals in romances are also appeals to our instincts -- instincts still working well enough that only about 2% of us die virgins. Before we had movies and TV, civilization turned to gladiators performing live in stadiums and orgies in pagan temples to funnel those instincts safely.

The trouble is, that we've used the brain power that has set us apart from other mammals to conquer the planet. We've created a world for ourselves where our natural instincts don't work anymore. We're built to fight wars with legions of slow moving, walking assailants, using hand held weapons and shields, wars againt zombie-like foes. But, our engineers have made war a far more cerebral affair. Now, the winner is, as often as not, determined by technological preparations made in cold blood long before the battle, not primarily through extraordinary heart. We still honor heros with medals, but heros are no longer the primary means by which wars are won.

If we want our conquest to end up in something other than a dramatic decline and fall, we are going to have to grow up as a society, evolve socially that is, and find a way to societally develop instincts that individually don't come naturally to us. We have to master war and learn to plan ahead to stop us from outrunning our resources or devistating the world we live in. This is the biggest challenge facing us in the 21st century as a society. Unless we can keep our intellect focused on facing the problems created by our mature society, and our instincts diverted by fantasy wars with zombies, we really are in trouble.


Anonymous said...

This was worth skimming just to find out that only 2% of us die virgins. Where in heck do you find a statistic like that? : )

Anonymous said...

ohwilleke wrote:

Unless we can keep our intellect focused on facing the problems created by our mature society, and our instincts diverted by fantasy wars with zombies, we really are in trouble.

I see this a little differently. Maturity of biology, society, culture, all suggest an idealized endpoint or culmination toward which progress flows. There is no such thing, just arbitrary points on a timeline. The problem is that our culture has outpaced our biology. We're no longer biologically equipped to face the demons our culture has created within and around us. Worse, in our affluence, decadence, and stupidity, we are indeed becoming mindless zombies, but not necessary the flesh-eating unkillable sort. The call to action (or was yours a call to arms?) needs to focus on the correct dangers, many or even most of which lie within.

fish said...

Ha! this is very funny... in talking about different sorts of sources, i asked my large journalism class if anyone was an "expert" in something - one kid said he was an expert in zombies. i'm till not sure if he was serious...