Monday, March 13, 2006

The most famous element of this episode is Kirk’s line “We’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” It’s a bit reminiscent of the Alcoholics Anonymous approach of controlling addictions one day at a time (though “twelve-step programs” didn’t become common knowledge until the 1980s, AA has been widely active since the 1940s.) It’s also a bit reminiscent of the time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who when he realizes the Morlocks are helpless, drops his weapon and controls his frenzy of killing. “I struck them no more.”

But the essence of his statement is choice. By exercising choice, even once (“today”), it suggests that choice is possible. Becoming conscious is part of choice: conscious not only of possibility and capability, but of what drives you in your choices. Consciousness itself becomes an important drive: the will to understand your unconscious drives and expressions, and the will to make conscious decisions.

Anan’s argument is an old one, yet it comes in a contemporary guise. Anan talks about the “instinct” to kill; today we might talk about this in terms of genes, or natural selection. But it amounts to the same argument, which is both based on a false premise of human nature, and on a false and defeatist sense of human capability.

Although Kirk agrees with Anan’s premise, that we are killers “with the blood of a million savage years,” he didn’t need to, because in a meaningful way, it’s a false premise.

First of all, we’ve been becoming human for more like two million years. It is of course true that humans, like every other living species, live directly or indirectly from the death of other life. Like most creatures, we kill to live. (Even vegetarians do.)

But we ought to be careful about what we assume or extrapolate. We can look at animals, and see how they hunt and savagely kill. We can look at our history of organized slaughter of other animals and of each other in warfare. And we can devise theories about how all this must be so: it’s in our genes. Survival of the fittest. Every human---every individual and his genes--for himself.

But it’s all pretty oversimplified. Humans, like many other animal species, live by killing but also by cooperation. Individuals in social species don’t survive without each other, and humans are the primate species most dependent on each other to survive. This simple fact flummoxes a great deal of otherwise scientific theory.

There are scholars---the human ecologist Paul Shepard being the one I know best---who tell a much different story of “primitive” or primal humanity in pre-history than we’ll find in our caveman clichés. It is our image of our ancestry that is primitive, as further evidenced by existing Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and traditions. Primal peoples hunt animals, but they feel deeply related to them. They feel fear and awe and gratitude. Humans living in the same environment as animals learn from them. Their attitude about killing them is much more complex than we generally suppose.

We basically extrapolate the origins of our “instincts” and what they mean in terms of behavior from historical time: from our few thousand years of so-called civilization. We certainly have instincts, and our survival often does depend on knowing friend from foe. But how that plays out may have much more to do with our particular civilizations, religions, technologies, and particularly our power structures than with our genes or instincts.

Instincts--and genes--operate correctly when they switch on in correct contexts. But they often are summoned falsely, in inappropriate contexts. And as our lives and relationships with the world and each other get more complex, the inappropriate release of behavior motivated by "instinct" or the unconscious becomes more common, and more of a deadly problem.

But even if you accept Anan’s “we are killers,” as Kirk does, you can still come to same basic human fact of choice. So again, it does not matter if the evil comes from demons outside (as it did in Day of the Dove), or if it comes from instincts inside (as posited in this story.) The essence of human freedom is choice.

That choice can be very basic---“we aren’t going to kill today—“ and knowing that can be liberating. But that doesn’t mean it will be simple or easy, or without cost. We still must know about the real enemies from outside, whether they threaten our lives or our freedom, or they distort reality and deceive us, by pushing our unconscious buttons for their own purposes.

We need to become more conscious of what those buttons are and how they are pushed, and how our unconscious can trick us into believing we’re acting rationally when we’re not. We do that individually, and we do that together (and speaking of primitives and killers, it’s in Indigenous and tribal societies we find the deepest traditions and commitment to talking through problems until a peaceful solution is reached.) We also need to be a little smarter about the people we follow, and whose interests are served when they push our buttons.

Star Trek is basically adventure, and in some ways it is melodrama, because it often pits a hero against obstacles or villains, and usually the hero triumphs and virtue is rewarded. But Star Trek is also an internal adventure, about the human heart and the human soul, and beyond that, the heart and soul of things, of the universe. It is about the mysteries inside as well as out there. I’ve called it the science fiction of consciousness, and these two episodes represent this well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. Quite a thoughtful essay. I learned a bit more today, and that is always a good thing. Please continue. I appreciate it.