Eroded Civilization and Variation: an Analysis of The Walking Dead and Human Nature
The Walking Dead follows the narratives of people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world after a ruinous pandemic outbreak. The Walking Dead erodes the stereotypical notion of human nature and points viewers in the direction of seeing human nature as composed of a vast range of human variations in character, behavior, and drives. Rick Grimes, a main character, stated, “you don’t know what it’s like out there. You may think you do but you don’t” (S01E05). Here, Rick shows that difference is the linking similarity between people. The pivotal characters exemplify the notion that human nature is built upon variations and differences between peoples — with no clear universal definition of human nature existing.
Lori and Carol
In season one episode two of The Walking Dead, viewers are shown that Lori becomes sexually involved with Shane (S0102). The post-apocalyptic environment has much to do with the behavior exhibited in Lori and Shane. The dire, civilization degrading nature of the zombie outbreak is traumatic. Coupled with the believed loss of her husband, it is understandable that Lori looked to familiar individuals to console her. This behavior of choosing a new male suitor quickly in response to troubling times is well within the understood evolutionary reaction of the female according to evolutionary psychologists.
As humans, we have the internal desire to survive. This extends to the survival of our genes in children. Humans and many other species provide a considerable amount of care towards their children. Males often invest in the child and ensure their survival. Lori is the mother to her son, Carl. In the wake of disaster and the loss of her husband, she is instinctively worried about the survival of her and her son. As Janet Richards states in her book, Human Nature after Darwin, that “even if long-term investment [of a male] is [a woman’s] main aim, seduction and abandonment can make genetic sense, provided it doesn’t take too much, in time and other resources, from the offspring” (Richards 2000, 75). Here, we see through an evolutionary biologist’s lens as to why Lori started a sexual relationship with Shane. Her genetic disposition impacts her emotions and decision-making faculties in response to the severe environment she finds herself and her child in. This offers an understanding in the central motivation of the sexual behavior of Lori. This is genetic determinism in action. Genetic determinism is not a cut-and-dry force of causality. It is more of an implicit impactor of a human’s psychological drives. Think of it more as a current that assists a fish swimming. It isn’t conscious, but it is “helpful” in directing.
Carol is a character, who like Lori, has psychological drives related to her being a mother. Carol is also even more characterized as a soft, submissive female — often portrayed in literature as needing a male partner. In episode three of The Walking Dead, Carol’s husband, Ed, is abusive towards her (S1E03). This abuse contributes later to her emotions and mental faculties. Carol’s submissive character is displayed in this scene when she submits to Ed (S1E03). This is sharply juxtaposed to the abrasive rebuke that Lori was giving Shane at the same time. Carol, a character that exemplifies the more stereotypically soft female, doesn’t exhibit the same behavior of seeking a male sexual partnership when her male investment is ruined. In episode four, Ed dies (S1E04). Carol doesn’t seek a replacement as Lori had done. Carol is more stereotypically feminine than Lori is. That means she should act in the same evolutionary way that Lori does, right? Not necessarily. That is the beauty of The Walking Dead. The show displays the variability that can be seen in humans. We act differently to emotions and thoughts, even though our psychological functions are pushed by mostly similar genetic dispositions.
Through the comparison in characters and behaviors of Lori and Carol, viewers are drawn closer to understand something like David Hull’s idea that, “the same sort of variability that characterizes the genes which code for blood type also characterize those genes which code for our mental development” (Hull 1986, 11). These small genetic differences may account for different mental elements of a person and their actions as a result. The Walking Dead uses the setting of a drastic civilization erosion to point to the variety of human actions that come from the same evolutionary desire to survive. This variation in action between characters exemplifies Hull’s claim that, “part of [human] essence is variability” (Hull 1986, 10). In simpler terms, Hull is saying that what makes a human a human is its level of possibility to differ from other humans in action.
Queerness as a Modern Reference
While The Walking Dead paints an accurate portrayal of human variation in action, it can be tricky to conceptualize this in the literal world we inhabit. Queer, an umbrella term used to identify a LGBTQ+ individual, is a modern usage of the word that points to a difference between people and their sexual character or behavior. This way of defining a person’s identity is linked to the understanding of human variation. Having sex with someone of the same sex is regarded as being different than the procreative sex between people of the opposite sex. Fortunately, today most people in society understand that queer people are human, and queerness is a natural phenomenon. Just as Carol does not seek a male mate at the passing of Ed, a queer person may seek someone of the same sex still in volition of genetic determinism, even if the behavior isn’t typically thought of as “evolutionarily typical” by the evolutionary psychologist. The coupling of same sex individuals is not without survival merit. While the bonding modes between the parties may be different at face value, that points to the variability of human psychology which affects us all in different ways.
Andrea and the Periodic Table
Understanding the human ability to act differently from one another may be obvious at this point, though I see how it still may seem arbitrary to claim it as the basis of human nature. Look at the character, Andrea, to observe a clearer understanding. In the altercation that occurred between Carol and Ed, Andrea was the first to physically defend Carol from Ed’s abuse (S1E03). This is an early example of Andrea protecting people of her community. Andrea’s actions tie into Steven Pinker’s identification of a human moral periodic table: “harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity” (Pinker 2008, 10). Pinker attributes these abilities as central to understanding human moral capabilities. Pinker holds to these five spheres because he believes they, “appear to have deep evolutionary roots,” such as in “the impulse to avoid harm” (Pinker 2008, 11).
Andrea subjectively interprets her understanding of community and acts upon her own interpretation of morality throughout the show. The evolutionary biologist would understand Andrea’s desire to protect as relating to her maternal instinct to protect children. Andrea takes the motivation further though. Andrea uses aggression, like a Viking warrior, to protect her group. Viewers’ very first introduction to Andrea occurs when she pulls a gun on Rick when meeting him and says, “we’re dead because of this stupid asshole” (S01E02). She threatens Rick with death because his actions threatened the “we”, or Andrea’s group. Her understanding of Rick as an outsider to the group and a threat to its survival prompted her to threaten him. Her care for her community pushed her to defend them and hate any perceived threat. This desire takes a great leap in season one episode five, when Andrea kills her infected sister to ensure nobody gets hurt. Others in the camp seem to recognize how different Andrea is for her moral strength required to push through emotions and protect. This level of protection goes beyond the stereotypical maternal desire to protect. This is Andrea’s example of variation from what is traditionally assumed by society at large or evolutionary psychologists of her to do as a woman.
The level of variation between people in response to the five-element periodic table of human capability is what constitutes human nature. Hitler’s protection of his perceived community led him to genocide; a humanitarian’s protection of a community leads them to often build schools in disenfranchised villages. This vast variation in ability is the linking block between people — their human nature, in a sense. A chimpanzee, a close primate species to homo sapiens, does have a level of community that they protect, but no chimpanzee can build complex concentration camps or concrete schools for the needy. That vast range in possible actions and behaviors is the basis of human nature.
The narrative plots of Lori, Carol, and Andrea have displayed behaviors that are helpful in our understandings in genetic determinism, sexuality, moral possibility, and human nature. Desires, drives, emotions, and thoughts affect humans on a subjective, different level. The range of variation in these psychological faculties and actions of the average human being helps establish a possible conception of human nature. This description of human nature is understood through evolution and historical phenomena. Like looking at the many pieces of a broken mirror, humans can reflect upon themselves, and the differences between them, to see a similarity in overall nature.
Darabont, Frank, Tom Luse, Michelle MacLaren, Charles H. Eglee, Jack LoGiudice, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Johan Renck, et al. 2010. The walking dead. The complete first season.
David L. Hull. 1986. “On Human Nature.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1986 (January): 3–13. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.192787&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Pinker, Steven. 2008. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008.
Richards, Janet Radcliffe. 2000. Human Nature after Darwin. Routledge.