Zombies, Altruism and the End of the World

By far my favourite new TV series this year is The Walking Dead, a post-apolyptic zombie tale based on a series of comics by the same name.

I’ve always enjoyed the heart-pounding excitement of horror and end-of-the-world stories.Gore or violence don’t makes these things worth watching but how the characters react to what is happening and how they come together to fight it (or occasionally lose all social cohesion and don’t do anything at all.)

What If?

There’s something to be said for wondering if a bump in the night is an indication of something other than just a strange sound, for being prepared for the worst even as one fully expects nothing at all or only good things to be waiting around the corner.

When we go out to eat my Dad has always preferred to be seated at a corner booth where he can sit and observe everyone who walks past us. To the best of my knowledge he’s never been harmed in any way while eating out. 😉 He simply prefers to know his surroundings and to never be caught unaware.

There’s also something to be said for facing the ugly truth within each of us. Scary movies and tv shows can and often do portray painfully sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist views. This is not a good place for those who want to believe that we live in a world in which these things no longer taint how people perceive one another. Things are improving, yes, but prejudice and discrimination aren’t going away any time soon.

If the economic, social and national ties that bind us together were unwoven and people had to fend for themselves (or die trying) the world that the survivors re-created would still be birthed out of all of our old assumptions. In this I cannot disagree with the creators of The Walking Dead and similar shows.

The Walking Dead, like most post-apocalyptic tales,  assumes that this new world would be quickly overtaken by sociopaths.

This is Where We Disagree

I understand why someone would assume that a post-apocolyptic world would heavily favour our most selfish tendencies. In a world full of limited resources it would make a certain kind of sense to battle over them in the short term. An individual who goes to bed with a full stomach every night, after all, is going to have that much easier of a time remaining healthy and strong.

Altruism is a better strategy for long-term survival, though. Eventually even the strongest person is going to need help with something: setting a broken limb, having a baby (and at least occasional assistance in looking after him or her for at least the next dozen years), solving a problem, building a home, fixing a broken tool. No one remains young, healthy and independent forever.

It is in these moments that relationships win out. Someone with a history of altruism is much more likely to find the advice and practical help that they needed. Would some selfish or sociopathic people survive? Of course. There will always be those among us who eschew social mores and try to get something for nothing.

I don’t agree, though, that they would define who we are as a species any more than they define us now. Every day I see people looking out for one another in gestures as small as opening a door or offering a subway seat to someone who needs it more to as monumental as a stranger risking his own life to save another. There is so much good in this world, in each of us. (If you don’t believe me, click here.)

Even with our prejudices and deep imperfections people are good. There would undoubtably be conflicts in an emergency situation like the one portrayed in The Walking Dead but I do not, I cannot believe that our future would defined by the grim.

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11 Responses to Zombies, Altruism and the End of the World

  1. Hear, hear! I actually can’t believe it’s taken this long for popular culture to birth a television show about zombies of as high a quality as Walking Dead. And… my dad always did the same thing in restaurants, for the same reason. He never wants his back turned on anyone. Survival instinct, I guess!

    • Have you read the graphic novels that this show is based on, Sarah? I’ve read the first several volumes of them. They had great writing. There was a lot of graphic violence as the series went on, though.

  2. That’s too funny.
    My dad had always insisted with sitting with his back to the wall at restaurents.

    Truth be know, I do too. I’m just careful not to make a big deal out of it so people take note and write ’bout it! 😉

    I wonder if it’s a guy thing?

    • I’ve known more men than women who prefer this but they all did seem to share certain personality traits and quirks. For example, they all tend to anticipate the worst outcome even if they believe that it won’t happen.

  3. Seph – I don’t know if it’s a guy thing, because I do it, too – but for an entirely different reason. I like to people-watch, so I like to face toward the people! But I used to sit in the back of the class for a similar reason – if there’s no one behind you, no one can sneak-attack you with a spitball.

  4. The Walking Dead

    I thoroughly enjoy watching and attempting to see the shadows and echoes of our society’s, our culture’s concerns, fears, and beliefs in our fictions – because they are truth.

    If we look at the small band of survivors as the whole of society or civilization we can see two conflicting leaders.
    Shane (the cop’s partner), whose underlying agenda seems to be survival (not living), and potentially and more accurately, self-survival, embodying little more than an animalistic nature.

    But it is within the leadership of Rick Grimes (main character) that we see the dichotomy set up.
    A willingness (nay, a need) to help a potentially threatening and dangerous stranger (Merle Dixon). He is told by numerous people that Merle doesn’t deserve it, to which he answers, it isn’t for Merle, it’s for me.

    He doesn’t necessarily embody the survival of the group, but survival of the very sense of morality itself. He juxtaposes to Shane’s animalistic nature.

    What I find so interesting about The Walking Dead is that it really is not a story about zombies, or survival or post-apocalypse world. Neither is it a reflection or commentary of consumerism like the entire George Romero’s zombie-genre has been.

    This story could be told as a Western with cowboy’s as the main characters; the zombies being replaced by the obstacles and threat of Indians and wild animals.

    Ironically, The Walking Dead, really isn’t about zombies at all. (And on a side note, I don’t believe the title is referring to the zombies, but rather to the survivors).

    It poses the question of the moral state of our society. Are we innately altruistic and good? Or are we nothing more than savage animals in need of being kept in check?

    …or maybe it’s making the statement that there needs to be some sort of balance betwix the two…

    Christianity has attempted repeatedly, in times past and present, to question the moral fiber of our society and has most often times failed – or at worst been ignored. (Often taking an accusations tone).
    How funny – how ironic – that the lifeless and walking dead – zombies – have succeeded where God’s chosen people have failed…

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