The Hunger Games and Philosophy provides an excellent springboard from which to dive into some key themes in this incredibly popular trilogy. Abigail Mann’s contribution, “Competition and Kindness: The Darwinian World of the Hunger Games,” offers some insight into how this series looks when viewed through the lens of Darwinian theory. I will do my best to adequately represent her argument, as well as provide a response of my own.*
According to Ms. Mann, The Hunger Games themselves seem to epitomize Darwin’s concept of how the evolutionary process works: competition, adaptation, survivability, and a little bit of luck. The Games manage to involve three of evolution’s famous Four F’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and, uh reproducing. It’s pretty basic, really. Survival of the fittest as entertainment.
In the evolutionary process, selection brings the strong to the top blindly and haphazardly rather than purposefully. No situation is right, wrong, good or bad. Life just happens. Nature in essence “selects” that which is most fit in a given set of complex circumstances either through blind luck and/or superior adaptability. The only thing this process accomplishes ruthlessly is survival through reproduction. Some would say it is the ‘goal’ of evolution, but that’s a hard claim to make in a system with no goals.
If survival lacks vision or foresight, it’s important that the odds swing our way. When we meet the contestants in the Hunger Games, most of them are favored with a social or physical strength which increases their odds of surviving. Their fitness quotient, however, will vary depending on the type of environment – once again depending on chance. So we see many candidates who are favored with certain skills, but whose fitness may not be enhanced in the chosen environment of the Games. However, we also see sacrificial acts of kindness and generosity, some of which seem to actually rob the contestants of their survival advantage – and at times their life. How does evolution account for apparently selfless acts?
Darwin realized that his theory had a hard time explaining sympathy, compassion, empathy, and our sense of morality. Altruism is especially puzzling, since it enables the fitness of others at the expense of our own chance of survival. When Thresh spares Katniss, for example, it hurts his odds and increases hers.
Darwin attempted to explain this conundrum by broadening the scope of evolution. Natural selection would favor the survivability of individuals in a tribe over people who are alone. This cooperative instinct, especially in regard to one’s family, would at times cause people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the survival of the tribe since the group as a whole has a better chance of reproducing. Thus, Katniss volunteers for Prim. Though Katniss might not live to pass on her genes, Prim probably will. It’s a tidy explanation. But if this is actually what’s going on, it seems like Katniss’s genes get a pretty dismal consolation prize. (“And the first-runner up is… dead!”)
Another dilemma with this theory is that an instinctive, primal evolutionary response that we might label as ‘altruistic’ hardly qualifies as a profound moral decision. Darwin himself admitted that in his theory moral actions are not done from “some exalted motive.” It’s still just instinct causing people to react in such a way so that the evolutionary urge to create offspring is fulfilled in whatever way possible. Our genes are not merely selfish; they remain remarkably focused on the fourth F. It’s hardly the stuff of epics.
“Katniss… had foresworn having children out of fear that they might have to compete in the Hunger Games someday, but her genes still ‘want’ to make lots of copies which helps to explain her sexual attraction to both Peeta and Gale.”
Katniss’s emotional investment apparently boils down to, “I can’t help it – I want to make copies of myself with both of you!”
Evolutionary theory seems to reduce our greatest stories to primal genetic urges. If this is true, it would simply be a disheartening fact of life we need to accept whether we like it or not. Conscience, morality, emotions, relationships – these would all be survival tools that have fooled us into thinking we are morally significant people in a meaningful world of free choice. In reality, we subconsciously, inevitably, do everything in the service of finding the most effective way to make copies of ourselves.
Of course, the Hunger Games trilogy contains numerous examples of apparently selfless acts. It’s one aspect that makes the series so compelling. It’s hard to root for people who don’t care about anyone else; it’s easy to cheer for those who understand that giving their life for a friend is an expression of the greatest kind of love.
Darwin tried to give his theory greater explanatory power by adding weight to the decision-making process. He claimed that people moved beyond the moral capacity of other animals by being “capable of comparing…past or future actions and motives, and approving or disproving them.” So rationality has the ability to move humanity above the limitations of evolution’s stranglehold. Darwin’s conclusion, though, lacks an arbiter in the dispute over what actions ought to be approved or disproves. He claimed that our strongest impulses occasionally cause us to do something noble, but usually we do something that selfishly benefits us at the expense of others. That dissatisfies us – and that’s our conscience. Darwin did not claim that there is an innate right and wrong to particular choices or actions; we feel shame or guilt because we fail to live up to our understanding of the evolutionary impulse.
I believe one reason stories like The Hunger Games capture our imagination is because we don’t read them through the lenses of philosophical materialism. Consciously or subconsciously, we don’t interact with other people as if we truly believe that all we are and all we do can be reduced to biology, competition, selection, and genetic tyranny. I doubt that any reader of the Hunger Games thinks that the relationship between Katniss, Peeta and Gale can be explained that way either, because we don’t experience their own relationships in that way. Deep inside, we don’t believe that purposeless genetic urges are sufficient to explain our greatest, hopes, fears, dreams, and loves.
Many prominent scientists, philosophers and theologians have argued that there are reasons to be “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” (to use the Discovery Institute’s language). I agree. My argument here, however, is more modest. I am simply noting that our experience does not match the all-encompassing materialistic claims of Darwinism. We have good reason to believe there is something about who we are that transcends our meat, chemicals, environment and genetic history.
If Darwin’s theory is sufficient to explain how we got here and who we are in our entirety, the Hunger Games is just a story about a blind, pitiless, indifferent universe full of selfish gene carriers doing what it takes to survive. Nothing right or wrong happens in the story. Natural selection works (because it always will by definition). Some people are the wrecking ball; some are the wrecked. Katniss saves innocent people, Gale kills them. They both do it for self and tribe.
But if – as Christianity claims – there is something about us that transcends the ways in which history, biology, and society form us, well, that’s a different story altogether. And that, I think, is why the Hunger Games resonates with people. Survival is not enough. We all sense that we were made to live for so much more.
*Hopefully, my presentation of Darwin’s theory accurately reflects the way in which Ms. Mann presents it. My analysis is meant to focus on this essay, not evolutionary theory in all its forms.
(This article was originally posted at http://empiresandmangers.blogspot.com/2013/10/darwin-and-hunger-games-hunger-games.html)
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