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".


  1. Charlie — This reminds me of two things.

    (1) The folk song "The Fox" is exactly the sort of narrative you describe:

    (2) You must see Mononoke Hime if you haven't already. It has the most complex, nuanced, and richly imaginative treatment of the moral dimension of the natural world I know of.

  2. will: Awesome connection to PBF. I had forgotten about it and wasted an hour just reading comics.

    Paul: Thanks for the link to The Fox. It's definitely along the same lines.

    Oddly enough, I've never seen Mononoke Hime yet. I don't usually like seeing anime with English dubbing the first time, so I've never gotten around to it. But I have it on my Netflix queue...someday it will arrive :)

  3. I think broadening one's view can be valuable, but I also believe the natural tendency to believe and good and evil is also based on something even deeper in reality. But science can't put a finger on it. I agree that it's just a reference frame from a measurement perspective. Still, it's something we all feel even without complete agreement on the details, and that feeling (I believe) is not just a relative desire of some complex entity looking for survival.

  4. Truth be told, nothing that exists is innately "good" or "evil".
    I disagree, every human action has some degree of good or evil "innately".

    I think these fables and stories are not scientific documentaries about nature. Their use of stylized characters is to symbolize abstract ideas like beauty, justice, purity, evil, compassion, or human situations (abandoment, heroism, deception). Animals don't speak and their actions are always according to their nature, so they cannot, indeed be good or bad (in a moral sense).
    Sorry for poor English.

  5. It is impossible for an animal to be good or evil. The concepts are religious and Judeau / Christian in nature. Evil in Christianity is defined as anything against God or his will. Caring more for "self" is enough to be "evil". Practicing idol worship or witchcraft is certainly evil. Biblical Christianity (forget denominations and focus on whats actually written in the Bible) states that we are all dead in sin and in order to be saved, we must profess belief in Christ and submit ourselves to His will. God sacrificed his only begotten Son to pay for the sins of the entire world. Hence the term "Lamb of God". The Jews would sacrifice a perfect lamb to atone for their sins.

    The main theme of Good vs. Evil or White hat vs. Black hat or Predator vs Prey is simply a common story line that everyone can relate to. There's almost always a good guy vs. the bad guy. One theme that frequently appears is self-sacrifice. "Kill me instead of ..."

    Yes perspective has a lot to do with it. But there is only one perspective that matters when talking about Good vs Evil and that's the viewpoint of God or Christ. In order to know God's viewpoint one needs to read God's word (the Bible).

    To say there is no good or evil implies there is no God and leaves you as "self" and that's evil.

    Truly evil humans are lacking in compassion, pity, grace, love, etc. They care only for self and would kill another human, even a child, without a second thought. This is a clear definition of a psychopath. It is this that can be considered most evil. Men like Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, etc. were psychopaths. What makes it truly evil is the faked outward appearance that hides their true evil.

    Is a lion evil when it takes down it's prey? Even if that prey is a human? No, the lion does not have morals and cannot tell the difference between good and evil. It is humans who gained that skill when Eve and then Adam bit the forbidden fruit! Hence damning the entire human race to hell. God had to send his only begotten Son to be born into human flesh, to suffer and die, to then be resurrected three days later to pay for that sin. In order to be saved, you have to believe this and trust Christ. The act of salvation has been performed you just have to chose life or damnation.

  6. a few years ago we were watching a Japanese animation movie with our 4 year old son. Nagasaki was getting bombed and the mother and children were crying and running from their flaming house. Our son stood up and asked "are those the bad guys?" and he pointed right at the B29 with a blue and white star

  7. Yes good and evil depend entirely on your perspective. Catching the worm is good for the bird, evil for the worm. But every story has a perspective and therefore every story has depictions of good and evil. All day, every day, we deal with good versus evil. Isn't that what life is, basically?