The idea that humans are, in truth, psychotic apes who would brutally smash each other were it not for the thin trappings of culture has long been a sci-fi staple, and with reason.
What would happen if, say, culture was suddenly stripped from a group of kids? To William Golding the answer was simple; the ape would swiftly emerge – a battle in which the strongest would win by force. His Lord Of The Flies (1954) drew due criticism for its portrayal of feral teenagers. Surely the control we have over the beast within isn’t that poor?
Robert A Heinlein disputed the point. His counterblast to Golding, Tunnel In the Sky (1955), portrayed a group of kids cut adrift on a wild alien world by the failure of a ‘star gate’. And yes, Heinlein thought of the Star Gate first… Ahem. Anyway, instead of fighting each other like animals they worked like Trojans to keep their culture and society going. It was a classic Heinlein ‘coming of age/frontier celebration’ tale, with the usual Heinleinian twists at the end.
For obvious reasons there’s no way of collecting science data on this question, but the issue has exercised sociologists because the answer tells us a great deal about our true nature.
Looking around – certainly in New Zealand – I wonder sometimes whether the answers can be found within our own society. I hear, surprisingly often, of ‘feral’ kids who have no respect for anything, whose first recourse is to threats and violence, and who don’t seem to be able to be rehabilitated.
Last year I heard a story about a kid going on a damage spree in a greater Wellington suburb – vandalising cars, breaking into schools, defecating on desks, and smashing public and private property over a wide area.
Why? Apparently he’d got angry over something earlier in the day. The rampage that followed was literally ape behaviour – this is what chimps do, including the defecation – and I couldn’t help thinking that the trappings of civilisation and society were running very, very thin. And when I see that behaviour emerging generally in other ways, often only slightly disguised behind intellectualised justifications, it worries me that this might be true in general, one way or another, for all humans. I hope not, but it’s a worry.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016