Category Archives: Sociobiology

Where the Past Haunts the Present

roman-gladiator

At REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, Charles Gramlich argues that heroic fantasy, far from being merely “juvenile” entertainment, is literature that deserves our respect and attention. It continues to fascinate and entertain because it illuminates human nature:

Heroic fantasy is, and always has been, a literature of myth making and myth exploration. As such, it may well be the most important type of literature ever attempted. The tales in this genre are not about telling things the way they are, or even how they were. They’re about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest mysteries and truths of human existence. …

But whether we speak of 200,000 year old sapiens or 50,000 year old ones, the fact remains that our mind is their mind, with a lot of culture and a little bit of rational science as icing on the cake. Both the roots and the trunks of our myths, and our realities, arise from the ways that early Homo sapiens tried to understand their mysterious and dangerous world.

Gramlich is right. Despite our veneer of civilization, we have scarcely changed since the Ice Age. Life remains a battle for survival, as well as a battle to uphold one’s code of honor. That’s why we can’t help but be fascinated by tales of a hero who bravely faces seemingly overwhelming odds and must dig down deep to tap hidden strength. The genre Robert E. Howard perfected has continued in new and surprising forms, such as Westerns and detective fiction.

Indeed, some of our greatest literature strips away our illusions about ourselves and confronts us with our true nature, which has not changed since mankind’s dawning. Some such works, even those set in the present day, uncover ancient ways we imagine we’ve outgrown. In African Genesis, screenwriter Robert Ardrey reflected on one such piece that may surprise you:

West Side Story is a supreme work of art for many reasons not the least of which is truthfulness. The authors treat the romantic fallacy is if it did not exist. On a stage laid bare, and in young hearts laid naked, we watch our animal legacy unfold its awful power. There is the timeless struggle over territory, as lunatic in the New York streets as it is logical in our animal heritage. There is the gang, our ancestral troupe. There is the rigid system of dominance among males within the gang, indistinguishable from that among baboons. There is the ceaseless individual defence of status… And there is the hunting primate contribution, a dedication to the switchblade knife as unswerving as to the antelope bone. p. 337

From the tension between the individual and his tribe arise self-realization and belonging, as well as individual competition and group cooperation. E. O. Wilson’s insights in Sociobiology tell us that loyalty and altruism are evolutionary adaptations that not only preserve the group, but give our lives meaning and purpose. The “mysterious and dangerous world” Gramlich talks about in his post has birthed a number of successful species, and we are among that number. That’s the hopeful message heroic fantasy makes real for us. In Robert Ardrey’s famous observation, we humans are “bad-weather animals, designed for storm and change.” We are fighters. We are survivors.

Beauty and the Ideal Man

MidsummerDream

Far from making him appear “sissy,” an appreciation of beauty is essential to channeling a man’s natural inclinations into supporting vital social goals and making him a better man, says Jared Silvey:

This stronger inclination to fighting is not, in itself, automatically directed to either good or evil. It has the potential to go either way. It can be directed to good, as in the case of fighting to defend one’s country against unjust aggression, or to evil, as in the cases of murder, rape, and other acts of unjust violence.

Beauty here enters the picture by helping to direct this male inclination to aggression and fighting to a worthy end. This is because real beauty is always found wherever there is truth and goodness, and it strengthens the attraction these other two values exert on the human person. It moves a man to defend whatever is good and true. The beautiful maiden is a potent spell which carries the knight into the field of battle. It can be said that there is no one the enemy should fear more than a man who enters into battle with his lady in his heart. Beauty makes men fighters because it first makes them lovers.

Silvey observes that even the caveman found time to make cave paintings, whereas “today’s tech-savvy, fast-food fed, materialistic West places more emphasis on money, things, efficiency, and instant gratification.” Modern consumerism transforms everything into a commodity, even sex. To salvage the humanity within us, we need to slow down, stop envying what we’re told we’re supposed to have, and rediscover the joy of simple, direct living.

Jon Barrett, the hero of my novella Aztec Midnight, feels a mystical connection to the beauty of ancient weapons when he enters the vault at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Cuernavaca:

I stepped into a long, darkened room full of rows of tables. The only illumination came from ultraviolet lamps. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relic-friendly lighting. I slowly recognized piles of Aztec, Mayan, Toltec, and Spanish colonial artifacts on each table. As I gazed at the long rows of deadly and finely crafted weapons from four heroic cultures, my heart beat just a bit faster than normal. It felt like Christmas morning.

I think Jon Barrett would agree with Dostoevsky’s observation that “Beauty will save the world.” Appreciating beauty, like striving for a sound mind in a healthy body, is a vital part of being a whole man.

A Sociobiologist Looks at Veterans Day

I’m fascinated by tales of devotion to others, or risking all for a cause or a loved one, which inspires much of my fiction. Dr. Edward O. Wilson has made a career out of studying that mysterious, burning force that drives heroes and martyrs of all shapes and sizes — and species.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a bug man. That’s what he calls himself. But he’s not an exterminator. He’s a scientist who studies bugs. Dr. Wilson is a Harvard professor who founded the study of sociobiology, which focuses on the biological basis of behavior. Wilson wanted to explain altruism, that is, the sacrifice of oneself for others. Why do soldier ants fight and die for their colony? Why do parents risk their lives for their children? Why do warriors risk their lives for their tribe? Wilson’s research has influenced not only the fields of biology and ecology, but also psychology, sociology, and political theory.

In Naturalist, Wilson’s autobiography, he confesses that his scientific study of altruism is spurred by deep emotional reactions to unexpected displays of valor:

I have a special regard for altruism and devotion to duty, believing them virtues that exist independent of approval and validation. I am stirred by accounts of soldiers, policemen, and firemen who have died in the line of duty. I can be brought to tears with embarrassing quickness by the solemn ceremonies honoring those heroes. The sight of Iwo Jima and Vietnam Memorials pierces me for the witness they bear of men who gave so much, and who expected so little in life, and the strength ordinary people possess that held civilization together in dangerous times. (p. 25)

I will confess to the same. My eyes stubbornly go misty when I watch Saving Private Ryan. Same with 300. Heck, even Bruce Willis puts me to tears every time I see the scene in Armageddon when he realizes he must sacrifice himself to save the human race.

Anyway, here’s to the real heroes. God bless, fellas.