Stranger Than Fiction

The trouble with being a white, middle-class writer in the 21st century, and specifically a writer of fantasy or science fiction, is that human culture is a lot stranger than we’re inclined to think it is. We tend to make the far-flung cultures of our imagination look a lot more like middle-class European/American civilization than we ought to.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. I recently had to revise an action sequence in which the head of state of a principality rushes off on short notice (in a flying vehicle) to a foreign city. As I had originally drafted it, he hopped in the flying vehicle and headed out all alone, just as if he were a California suburbanite hopping in his Lexus and driving off to Lake Tahoe. Fortunately, it hit me that that was stupidly wrong. A head of state would never do that. He would travel with servants, subordinates, and retainers! So I had to redraft that chapter.

Since this blog is no longer about religion, there’s no need for us to dwell on the peculiar and distressing fact that modern Christians still revere a book in which the Lord commands the Jews to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18). Some Christian apologists will assure you, with apparent sincerity, that the Old Testament is full of myths, and that these blood-soaked tales are not to be taken as historically accurate. But whether or not the details are accurate, it’s clear that the Jews 2,500 years ago felt that this sort of thing was exactly what the Lord would approve of. In researching this bit, I also stumbled upon a Christian apologist web page that assures believers, apparently with a straight face, that the virgin women weren’t raped by the soldiers, because the Lord would have punished them for rape. No, the Jews were permitted to marry the women they had taken captive. Cleverly skirted in this ridiculous interpretation is the question of how the women would have felt about marrying soldiers who had just butchered all of their relatives.

But let’s not dwell on that. What’s interesting is not the naked hypocrisy and willful blindness of religious believers. What’s interesting is the context provided for this story by an article in this month’s Scientific American. As archaeologist Catherine M. Cameron makes clear, what those bronze-age Jews were doing was normal. They were raiding villages and towns, massacring the men, and stealing the women. Not to marry them, of course, but to use them as slaves and concubines. Duh.

This custom is found throughout the pre-modern world, and indeed right up to the present day. The Native Americans did it. The Southeast Asians did it. The Vikings did it. Isis is still doing it.

The article provides an interpretation of this pattern. Whatever the men of this tribe or that one may say about their motivations, it’s purely a primate instinct. Males of high status have a better chance of producing offspring. Males of  lower status tend not to reproduce with as great frequency or reliability. Because of this, evolution has programmed the male of our species to seek high status.

And how do you do that? You do it by winning battles and taking prisoners to be your slaves. A man with slaves is prosperous. He’s respected. He has workers to tend his crops, and probably several wives. Human males will take insane risks in raiding other villages or towns, and will quite often die, because the reward (the opportunity to father more children) outweighs the risk.

This same instinct — to maintain one’s status at any cost — underlies the importance of honor. If you write Medieval fantasy, doubtless you’re aware that men in such cultures, and especially the knights and noblemen, are obsessively concerned with maintaining their honor. They will fight to the death rather than be dishonored, even by a trivial insult. But you may never have thought about why honor is important. A man who maintains his honor has high status, and thus can reasonably hope to produce offspring. A man who has been dishonored will find himself shunned by honorable (higher-status) men. He will be at an economic disadvantage. He may be ostracized. More powerful men may steal his wives and concubines, because they don’t fear him.

The way evolution works, the male doesn’t even need to know that that’s why he’s defending his honor. His emotions take charge, and he draws his sword.

I’ve never been very concerned with honor, at least not consciously. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. Honor is less at stake in the modern Western world because we’re more mobile. Honor was important during the millenia when our ancestors lived among one smallish group for their entire lives. If you were dishonored, everybody would know it before sunset. In a highly mobile society, that’s no longer the case. Most of the people we meet from week to week are strangers. We have no idea whether they’re honorable, or whether they’re freshly dishonored. Today, high status depends more on wealth than on honor. But the underlying drive hasn’t changed. It’s still about maintaining high status, because high status improves men’s chances of reproductive success.

At an unconscious gut level, everybody knows that, however loudly they would prefer to deny it. But self-deception is a topic for another time.

This entry was posted in fiction, society & culture, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s