Monday, October 28, 2013

Darwin and the Hunger Games (The Hunger Games and Philosophy)

In a previous series of posts, I used The Walking Dead and Philosophy to look at the worldview issues in AMC’s hit series. Since the release of Catching Fire is not too far away, I am using The Hunger Games and Philosophy as a springboard to dive into some key themes in the trilogy.

The first post looked at the role of entertainment in the Capital; the second one looked at the intersection of luck and choice in understanding morality. This post will build from Abigail Mann's “Competition and Kindness: The Darwinian World of the Hunger Games” to look more closely at how this series looks when viewed through the lens of Darwinian theory.*

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, all processes of selection bring the strong to the top blindly and haphazardly rather than purposefully. No situation is right or wrong or good or bad. Life just happens. As it happens, nature in essence "selects" that which is most fit in a given set of complex circumstances either through blind luck of superior adaptability. The only thing this blind 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. As Dawkins has written,
"Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all." 
If survival lacks vision or foresight, it’s important that the odds swing your 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.

But in the midst of Tennyson’s “law of tooth and claw,” we also see sacrificial acts of kindness and generosity, some of which seem to actually rob the contestants of their survival advantage, and some of which cost them 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.  Richard Dawkins claims we are “gigantic lumbering robots” created by our genes to be their “survival machines. ” If he is correct, our genes are not merely selfish; they remain remarkably focused on the fourth F, and we dance to their music. It’s hardly the stuff of epics.

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.

The way Darwin found to make blindly instinctive, genetically-necessitated gene-dancers more compelling was to add 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; the shame or guilt we feel is because we failed to live up to our understanding of the evolutionary impulse. The blurred line between noble or ignoble remains as baffling as the ability of a conscience formed in a primal fight for survival to adjudicate any question beyond survivability. Ms. Mann reaches a logical conclusion about Katniss based on this model of thinking:
“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.”
Apparently all of Katniss’s emotional investment boils down to, “I can’t help it – I want to make copies of myself with both of you giant lumbering robots! Oh! You are a survival machine!”

Evolutionary theory reduces our greatest stories to primal genetic urges. If the theory 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 are all just 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. 

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 they 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.

I think there are plenty of reasons to be “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life,” as do many prominent scientists, philosophers and theologians. My argument here is much more modest. I am simply noting that our experience does not match the claims of Darwinism. Rather than believing we have been fooled, we have good reason to believe there is something about who we are that transcends our meat and chemicals.

If Darwin's theory is sufficient to explain how we got here and who we are in our entirety, the Hunger Games is just be a story about blind, pitiless, indifferent selfish genes doing what it takes to survive.   Nothing right or wrong happened. Natural selection worked (because it always will by definition). Sometimes you are the wrecking ball; sometimes you are the wrecked. Katniss saves innocent people, Gale kills them. They both do it for self and tribe. Cue Metallica for the background track: "So what – who cares?" (Caution - adult language). 

But if we can transcend the ways in which history, biology, and society form us – well, then, that’s a different story – and a different life - altogether. And that, I think, is why the Hunger Games resonates with people. Survival is not enough. We all sense that we were meant 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 other schools of evolutionary thought.


  1. Hi Anthony,

    Here's a way of thinking about evolution which I've found more helpful than focusing on "survival of the fittest": thinking about membership in generations. Evolution by natural selection is all about the spread of traits from individuals into the entire population because those traits increase the number of people with that trait in the next generation. In other words, being the "fittest" doesn't mean that you, personally survive for a long time - it means that you have more children than average, or more grandchildren than average, or more great-grandchildren than average - and those descendants are likely to carry the trait which made them more numerous. Genes are shared between parents and children, and thus between siblings, so next to having many children of your own the best way to increase the number of people who share your genes is to increase the number of grandchildren your parents have, or the number of great-grandchildren your grandparents have, and so on. This goes the other way, as well: if you have some trait that leads to you having lots of children, but leads those children having few children of their own, then as far as natural selection goes that trait is a dud.

    When you think about natural selection that way, I think it's easier to see how the more subtle traits like altruism can be selected for: making friends and allies by putting other people ahead of yourself might make things worse for you personally, but make things better for your descendants or relatives. It's all about the grandchildren.

    I don't think I understand your other remarks, concerning the implications of natural selection regarding the meaning and value of people's moral choices. Surely you agree that people have different personalities and predispositions which influence the choices they make; I think that would be difficult to dispute. Some people are more altruistic, some are less; some are more selfish, some are less. Understanding natural selection just gives us some insight into where some of the inputs to people's personalities come from - it helps us understand why there is a typical baseline level of, say, altruism, but it doesn't go very far in explaining the variation between any two people.

    Suppose Alice is a person who was raised in a family which strongly encouraged giving to charities. We would probably expect that Alice would grow up to be a person who gave to charities as well, although we understand that she might not. If Alice did give to charities, I don't think most people would be inclined to say that her giving isn't meaningful and valuable, simply because her personal history increased the chances that she would do such a thing. Likewise with natural selection: the fact that history has made it more likely that we will have some traits rather than others does not make those traits less valuable, nor does it diminish the meaning of our choices.

  2. Steve, thanks for your articulate and civl reply (as is the norm for you). You always make me think :) So, here's my second round of thoughts.
    1) Would you agree with me that, if evolution is true, "seemingly altruistic" is more accurate than altruistic? Doing something for others because you have a vested interest maybe be nice for them, but that's why the qualifier "reciprocal" is added in front of altruism in discussions involving evolution and altruism. Reciprocal - you give something in or for a return. Altruism - selfless concern. Square peg; round hole, I think. Evolution must qualify altruism.... and that hardly seems to leave us with altruism.
    2) While I agree with you that evolution can account for why some traits/actions are valuable, I don't see how it can account for why certain traits/actions are meaningful. Evolution is neither a teleological or deontological process. There is no ultimate goal or duty. There is only one purpose: survival and propagation. Evolution does not claim to know what will happen down the genetic line, and it does not judge the means by which the line continues. All actions that serve the purpose are valuable because they are useful in survival, but this hardly makes them meaningful (at least in the sense we commonly use the word). I can give $1,000 dollars away; it's valuable. But the meaningfulness of giving it to a TV preacher vs. a neighbor who has lost her job are worlds apart. Both could be explained by the Darwinian model, but wouldn't you agree that the meaningfulness of the gift is radically different? Evolution neither cares nor offers an explanation of why that would be.
    3) Evolution can explain why altruism is pragmatically useful. It does the same with selfishness. If we attach any sense of morality (oughtness) to these things, it's because we have sensed there are duties and goals that are good. If this moral sense has objectively obligatory power, it must arise independently of the evolutionary paradigm. If, however, "morality" is simply another way of saying, "This is the evolutionary urge I prefer," then it seems very difficult to me to find in what sense choices are meaningful.
    I look forward to your thoughts....

  3. Anthony,

    Thanks! I enjoy talking to you for similar reasons.

    1. I think describing the evolutionary benefits of a trait as a "vested interest" is more confusing than helpful. Consider the uncontroversial claim that eating food in important to survival and reproduction, and the equally uncontroversial claim that eating food can be enjoyable. I don't think we'd describe a gourmet as "seemingly enjoying food" just because eating food is *also* a survival trait. People enjoy eating *and* it turns out eating food is a naturally selected trait; both things are true. Likewise with altruism: people really *are* altruistic, *and* it turns out that being altruistic is naturally selected in animals like us.

    2. I agree, I don't think evolution accounts for "why certain traits/actions are meaningful". Assignment of meaning to things or actions is something that we (have evolved the ability to) do ourselves. The *ability* evolved, *what we do with it* is something that happens on a scale much smaller and faster than natural selection. (There's a fascinating novel by Peter Watts, "Blindsight", in which he explores the possibility of an alien species evolving such that they have similar or better technological abilities to us, without having developed consciousness or anything we would call a culture. I think such a thing would be possible, but I'm glad it didn't work out that way for us.)

    3. I don't think evolution can explain why altruism is pragmatically useful, because evolution isn't pragmatic - it doesn't have any pragmas it's trying to accomplish. All that using an evolutionary lens to examine altruism does is tell us that being inclined to altruistic acts probably *tends* to increase the number of grandchildren your parents have. As for the attachment of "oughtness" to things like altruism, I'm not sure it avoids the same critique you're trying to levy against the evolutionary perspective: if being altruistic is "good", then an argument could be made that people aren't *really* being altruistic, they just have a vested interest in being seen as good people.

  4. Good clarifications, Steve. In response to...

    1) Agreed. The fact that something is valuable or necessary for evolutionary theory to work in no way suggests it won't be pleasurable. I was attempting - perhaps poorly - to make different point. That is, if altruism actually exists, it results from something independent of the evolutionary process. Since all actions in evolution are inescapably selfish (for propagation of self or tribe), the reasonable conclusion is that those kinds of acts appear selfless and altruistic, but are not in fact so.

    2) It sounds like we agree! Perhaps pigs are flying somewhere :) How or why we assign meaning is a discussion for another time. Meanwhile, your book recommendations sounds fascinating. I am a fan of sic-fi. My Kindle is calling...

    3) I think your perspective on whether or not people can be really altruistic assumes evolution's explanation. If evolution is true, and it explains the human animal in its fullness, then of course people are only good because they have a vested interest, specifically an inescapable interest in propagation and survival. If, however, evolutionary theory is not sufficient to account for or explain altruism, then one could look toward other reasons. I begin my thinking on altruism by assuming evolution is not a sufficient explanation (for reasons noted in my original article).

    So, a question :) You have noted that evolution selects, people "are" a particular way because of that, and we are "inclined" in certain directions (based on genetics, heredity, social forces, etc.) that ultimately aid in survival in some fashion. Did I summarize that correctly? If I did, I'm curious: do you think the mechanism of evolution has given rise to any "oughtness" or goodness that require us to see certain actions as normative or even obligatory?

    Well, off to buy Blindsight. I look forward to your response! (BTW, I am celebrating my anniversary this weekend, so I might not respond to anything you post until Monday.)

  5. 1. I think my clarification actually added to the confusion by using the word "enjoy". Actually, you can replace "enjoy" with whatever word you might use to describe people's feelings towards doing altruistic things: "want", "feel compelled", "prefer", whatever. People who want to eat food, or feel compelled to eat food, or prefer to eat food (rather than rocks) have more offspring than those who do not. Likewise, I strongly suspect, with altruistic acts. But people don't typically "selfishly" eat food *in order to* have more children any more than they "selfishly" do altruistic things *in order to* have more children. (Obviously, people may selfishly eat food for their own pleasure, just as they may selfishly do altruistic things in order to feel better about themselves or accrue respect, but this would be true even if evolution by natural selection were not real.)


    Your argument seems to go something like this:

    A1. Real altruistic acts are not selfish
    B1. Acts caused by evolved traits are always selfish
    C1. Therefore, real altruistic acts cannot be caused by evolved traits

    There's a significant ambiguity or equivocation in the meanings of the word "selfish" between premises A and B, illustrated in this sentence:

    "Since all actions in evolution are inescapably selfish (for propagation of self or tribe), the reasonable conclusion is that those kinds of acts appear selfless and altruistic, but are not in fact so."

    I use the word "selfish" to mean "doing something with the intent of furthering one's own interests at the expense of another's interests". You seem to be using it to mean "doing something which has the effect of benefiting the interests of one's descendants or tribe, whether or not that is the actor's intent" - at least, that's the only meaning I can see which would allow the quoted sentence to make sense. I think that meaning is so far from the everyday usage that it's not particularly helpful. More pertinently, it's very far from the meaning of the word "selfish" in premise A. Do you see what I mean?

    3. The question of whether or not people can "really" be altruistic goes way beyond the question of whether altruism is an evolved/transcendent trait - any cynic with some time can think of explanations for why any altruistic act "really" benefited the actor and was therefore "really" selfish.

    I think your summary is accurate. I'm not sure if I can answer your question, because I'm pretty sure that our understandings of "oughtness", "goodness", and "require" are divergent. I do think that most of us have an innate sense of *fairness*, which has two effects: A) we notice when distributions are inequitable, and B) we are uncomfortable with inequitable distributions. That discomfort manifests in different ways, ranging from advocating a revolutionary redistribution of wealth to building elaborate philosophical constructs which justify inequality, and one of those manifestations is what we call altruism. (The evolutionary explanation for being attuned to fairness is, I hope, obvious.)

  6. Hmmm, yes, we are experiencing a glitch with the definition of "selfish." Here's my dilemma. In order to talk about what evolutionary theory claims about how the world works, a lot of language is anthropomorphized. Genes aren't really selfish; they have no feelings. And yet it's the chosen word to describe the inescapable evolutionary compulsion to propagate. To return to the author of the aforementioned article, "[Katniss's] genes still ‘want’ to make lots of copies which helps to explain her sexual attraction to both Peeta and Gale.” Okay, her genes feel nothing, but that's the best language the author has to describe how a non-sentient biological component apparently controls Katniss in ways Katniss does not understand. If this is an accurate explanation of the power of evolution's blind impulses, both harmful and harmless self-interest (our competing definitions of selfish) seem inevitable and subliminal in every action we do.

    Is it my turn to mention the Problem of Reference? :)