Thursday, September 23, 2010

Predator and Prey

(This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2004, which I stumbled upon this evening and thought worthy of a reprint. Feel free to rip it up and offer your own commentary. I think it is still 100% valid.)

I came up with the most compelling idea for a Disney-style film the other day. (Ok, perhaps not the most compelling idea, but certainly a fair shot at one)

Over the years I've heard a number of biologists (ecologists, environmentalists, what have you) comment on (as in expound endlessly upon) something called the "Bambi Syndrome." Simply put, the "Bambi Syndrome" is brought about by cutesy, utopian images of nature, where only unexpected, amorphous entities (usually accompanied by menacing percussion or something equally non-musical) can embody "evil"; it is a view that, in all its splendor and glory, "nature" is "good," while "man" is "bad." The parallel between this viewpoint and several (all?) nature-based Disney films is apparent (although it should be said that Disney is far from being the only perpetrator of "Bambiism").

So then, you ask, if nature isn't "good", then what is it? Evil and good are purely human constructions. Truth be told, nothing that exists is innately "good" or "evil". These concepts exist only in the eye of the beholder: to the prey, the successful predator is evil; to the predator, the successful prey is evil.

It could then be considered a great disservice to continue teaching these false ideals to our children, no? This has been my opinion, and I have tried to take an approach with my own son of presenting these facts of nature in as unbiased a way as possible--whence springs the compelling idea.

Take a typical Disney movie; its clear definition of "good" and "evil" and its even clearer illustration of which roles fall into which category. This movie would begin the same. Also typically, it would be based in nature, perhaps at a very low stratus of the animal kingdom. Predator and prey would be represented by species A (the "good" prey) and B (the "evil" predator). A typical scene ensues, a contest between good and evil, predator and prey. The predator's evil nature is clearly illustrated here, but atypically, the predator wins.

Just as people in the audience are questioning their faith in Hollywood, we move up one stratum. The evil predator, returning home with the spoils of war, becomes a gentle, caring mother. She was not simply an "evil" aggressor, bent on death and destruction, but a doting, protective mother, expending her own effort, at risk of her life, to care for her childen. In this way, stratum after stratum, "evil" becomes "good", and the elaborate network that makes up our natural system becomes more recognizable for the purity, neutrality, simplicity of its form.

Finally, as you would expect in such a movie, we would arrive at the most prolific of the Great Apes: man. Illustrating that all kingdoms on earth are becoming man's prey, with as much tree-hugging, granola-chomping tripe as possible to make sure we, the lords of creation, masters of destiny, killers of all, Shiva to nature's Brahma , are shown--incontrovertably--as the only pure "evil" on earth, the movie careens ever faster toward some measure of certainty: "Ahh, now I understand the film's message."

But man is just another spoke in the wheel. We can easily flip the coin, showing mothers feeding, defending children, innocents preyed upon by murderers, hunters taking prey not for food, but for the feeding of other hungers. We do what we do not out of pure evil, but because it is our capacity to do so to further our own species, further our goals, perpetuate. But we also have a capacity no other species possesses: the ability to create our own destinies. The only true evil we encounter in a world where we nearly reign supreme is ourselves. We daily pit our most animal desires--acqusition of resources and destruction of usurpers--against our knowledge that such desires run rampant will complicate our path through history, perhaps even terminating it. Can such a machine be affected by the changing opinions of a few small components? That is the question we leave for the viewers.

The challenge in such a film would almost certainly be not overplaying the hand. No evil must ever appear to be of any different motivation than its antithesis; and man must, in the end, appear as the most schizophrenic creature on Earth. Our "evil" predatory instincts must be tempered by the "good" effects of our fear of intimate and ultimate mortality for us to continue indefinitely. In this, man has another trait not found among the animals: Our system balances on our own decisions alone. With the capacity we will soon possess to control nature completely, without fear of predators, we can only undo ourselves. The balance comes from within.

Where will the viewer lie?

I'd hope every kid was as confused as possible by then; and eventually a bit more suspicious of being told what is "good" or "evil".