Somewhere along the way I lost a step, got sloppy… dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all: I got civilized. So now we zero the clock. Gotta find that animal side again…
I am a big fan of the Riddick series—Chronicles of Riddick is one of my favorite movies, and I like the latest, Riddick. (Check Wikipedia for the renamings of the movies.) I wrote a long piece a while back about Chronicles (click here), and as in that case, this is not a critique of the current movie but thoughts on what it is about. Which is going to involve some digression, so I hope you enjoy.
You may have heard of experiments in Siberia that bred domesticated silver foxes. (See on Wikipedia) Wild foxes were bred in captivity. Those foxes that were more hostile to people were turned into fur coats, while those that were more tame were continually bred. Within less than twenty generations a substantial portion of the foxes were eager to interact with humans, craved attention, enjoyed being petted, and otherwise acted very much like dogs. Indeed, when the laboratory doing the experiments lost its government funding, it sought to pay for its activities by selling its foxes as pets. They had become domesticated perhaps the way wolves were domesticated to become dogs.
The Soviet, now Russian, scientists were seeking a greater understanding of how wolves became dogs. Today DNA analysis confirms that dogs did come from wolves. These experiments were meant to elucidate the process, but the experiments also show something else, something most are reluctant to talk about.
In his book, Outliners, Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter that addresses Asian academic exceptionalism, especially in math. Gladwell attributes this to the difference between a rice culture and a wheat culture. In a wheat culture, one plants the crop, ignores it until one harvests it, makes bread and beer, and sleeps through the winter. In a rice culture one has to first prepare the rice paddy. It must have just the right size, have a clay-lined bottom, and be sloped for just the right rate for drainage. Then water must be let in in just the right way. Be sloppy about any of these parameters and one will go hungry.
Gladwell contends that the high performance of Asians in math comes from the demands of careful rice tending.
Now comes the part people are reluctant to talk about. How is the attitude/behavior/ability of the people in the wheat culture and the people in the rice culture communicated to their descendants? Gladwell implied that, well, it is a matter of cultural habits that gets passed on like any other cultural habits, maybe like using chopsticks. But do we really buy that? Do we buy that a third generation Asian-American student who is turned down at Berkeley based on their system of quotas against Asians is good at math because the cultural habits of their rice farming great grandparents were handed down to them?
An alternative explanation? What if there was genetic selection. What if those rice farmers who were more meticulous in the preparation of their rice paddies were genetically predisposed to be meticulous freaks (we all know the type), and had more children than those who were genetically predisposed to be sloppy and who therefore could not feed as many children? And what if the genetically predisposition to be a meticulous freak gets passed down and is useful in math?
Possible? No way, we are told by evolutionary biologists and social pseudo-scientists. There’s too much genetic randomness for such a change in a small amount of time. But that is not what the experiment with the foxes shows. That experiment shows that a major change in behavior (caused, the scientists think, by changes in systems that affect hormonal and neurochemical processes) can come about in just twenty generations. Under four hundred years in human time.
And exactly what happens during the domestication of a wolf to make it a dog, or a fox to make it a tame fox? Do we have to wait for some random, spontaneous mutations for domesticity to show up? No. What happens when a wolf or fox becomes domesticated is that its genes for juvenile characteristics and behaviors—a large head, high forehead, cut face, cuddly and playful behavior—fail to turn off. It permanently retains some of the characteristics of a cub. Now look at the ways in which our culture is selecting for us to remain infantile throughout our lives, starting with discouraging independent adventurous behavior of children (helicopter parents), schooling that continues through one’s thirties (the PhD), and repression of independence in work (the organization man). Does it all start to make sense?
So perhaps selective pressure (in the case of rice cultures, selective pressure for meticulousness) can bring about major changes in behavior in a short period of time.
Now let’s look at changes in human behavior brought about by the change from the culture of the Paleolithic hunters to that of the early high civilizations. The Paleolithic hunters succeeded through strength, courage, independence, and ability to work alone and in small groups. And the demands of the early high cultures? Ability to operate within large groups, accepting one’s role in the hierarchy. Subordinating one’s individuality. Read the opening passages of Frazier’s The Golden Bough. The early Mesopotamian kings accepted even their own sacrifice.
Thousand of years of agriculture have gone a long way toward our domestication, but perhaps some independence remains. Especially among Americans who, in choosing the adventure of coming to the New World, selected themselves for what remained of that independence. Thus the cultural difference between Europeans who have come to resemble the residents of a retirement community and Americans who still have some trappings of a motorcycle gang. Recall that in Europe, people are Subjects of the state (subject to its unlimited power), while in America they are Citizens (who have ceded limited powers to the state). Theoretically.
The animosity of those in America who have adopted the Subject mentality towards those who retain the Citizen mentality can be seen in numerous instances. One, which has finally abated a bit in the past few years, was the aggressive hostility toward SUVs. They were initially advertised for their rugged off-road ability. And while many of those who bought them never took them off-road, they appreciated that symbolic significance. And the objections of the anti SUV crowd? That someone should symbolically assert their independence!
Which brings us to Riddick. At the end of Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick had killed the Lord Marshal and assumed rulership of the Necromongers. Not a good role for our hero, who makes a deal with the alpha Necromonger, Vaako: take me to my home planet of Furya and I will give you the kingship. Vaako double-crosses Riddick, leaving him for dead on the desolate planet, Not-Furya. There Riddick encounters predators: flying dinosaurs, giant water scorpions, and giant hyena-like creatures. Now something interesting. Riddick tames an orphaned hyena pup which then becomes his loyal dog-like companion. So here, in accelerated movie time, Riddick domesticates his dog in parallel to his own de-domestication.
In my essay here on The Chronicles of Riddick I wrote:
<<Raymond Chandler, in “The Simple Art of Murder,” writes, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” [A perfect description of Riddick’s inner monologues.] And then a thousand movies, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, Dirty Harry, The Bourne Identity, Salt, in which the protagonist acts with integrity out of inner authenticity, brings down a corrupt world, and, for a time, sets things right.>>
So Riddick’s animal values dominate popular culture. But what about the literature of high culture? In her essay on Howard Hughes, Joan Didion quotes Lionel Trilling on what he called “the fatal separation” between “the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination.” ”I mean only,” he wrote, “that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation.… Those beliefs do great credit to those who hold them. Yet it is a comment, if not on our beliefs then on our way of holding them, that not a single first-rate writer has emerged to deal with these ideas, and the emotions that are consonant with them, in a great literary way.”
Our schools, our politicians, our intellectuals, our artists preach to us over and over the communitarian values of civilization. As do our writers. But not only do most of them not live by these values, they can’t even embody them in their work.
While Riddick is a sequel, it feels more like a prequel, giving us Riddick’s psychological back-story. What are his values, where are his loyalties, how does he behave? We can see these values in formation as he watches a dying woman. And of course, these values are right out of Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder:” Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.
And how does such a man lose his honor? Get civilized (or as Huck Finn puts it, “silized”).
It’s always the punch you don’t see coming that puts you down. So the questions ain’t what happened, the question is, what happened to me? How’d they get so close? How’d I let them blindside me like that? Someone to put a crown on my head, someone to put a noose around my neck.
“Somewhere along the way I lost a step, got sloppy… dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all: I got civilized.
So what is the movie about? So now we zero the clock. Gotta find that animal side again…
The slogan for Riddick in the first movie, Pitch Black, is “Fight evil with evil,” a notion that comes up in the current movie. Riddick has bounties on him in systems across the galaxy, and indeed he gets off Not-Furya on the ship of a bounty hunter. But we never see him do anything to which we would object. Unless one is a stickler for Necromonger law. (Sometimes I wonder.) As Huck put it, All right, then, I’ll go to hell.