Zombies May Eat Our Brains, but let's hope our Selfish Genes misfire
[static] Hello? Is anyone out there? Is anyone still -- alive? [static]
While some of you began watching The Walking Dead back in 2010 when it premiered on AMC, I dismissed it: “Zombies aren't my thing.” I will take vampires over zombies any day. Witches, sure. Yes, Night of the Living Dead is a classic. And I laughed at Sean of the Dead. But that’s the extent of my zombie watching.
For about fifteen years, my kids killed zombies in the basement – in video games. I tried to participate, wanting to take an interest in my sons’ interests, like any good mother would, but I simply cannot work a joystick. I’d get stuck in a corner over and over, unable to find the path out. Zombies ate my brain every damn time. Every time. I lost interest. Quickly. Besides, I had laundry.
When The Walking Dead launched its 11th season in 2022, my kids were grown, out of the house, and I had less laundry. Friends were talking excitedly, anticipating the return of their favorite series. One 85-year-old, retired librarian I know was gushing – words not blood -- about the release of new episodes. One day, having exhausted Scandinavian-noir on Netflix, waiting for the return of Severance and Kindred on Hulu, and Succession on HBO, I clicked. “I’ll just check out what all the fuss is about.” Season One; Episode One. And -- I was bit. I turned – from one who thought zombies were dumb to one who, after surviving a pandemic, found them all too plausible.
For the last three weeks I’ve had Walking Dead fever. Three episodes at a time. Four. Five. Staying up into the wee hours watching Rick (played by Andrew Lincoln) and Daryl (played by Norman Reedus) slay zombies. I wasn’t a fan of Laurie (Rick’s body wasn’t even cold yet, girl!), but I cried none-the-less when she died. I cheered on Michonne’s entrance (played by Danai Gurira). A strong, beautiful bad ass with a sword. Fabulous. I cringed watching Carl (played by Chandler Riggs) grow up in this world – what it was doing to him. Andrea was annoying, but Daryl, oh, my. A man of few words, and then there are those eyes, and those arms when he pulls back the bow . . . (Is this a hot flash or did it get really hot in here?)
Team Rick or Team Shane?
When I wasn’t watching, I was asking myself and others, Team Rick (with his dreamy eyes) or Team Shane? Would I sacrifice my “soul” to save my ass in the here and now? Would I embrace Darwinism or altruism?
A certain psychologist I know said there’s a theory that there’s a “selfish gene.” William D. Hamilton suggested that genes “underly altruism.” Richard Dawkins said it is an “immortal gene.” The body is a “survival machine” for the coded information it contains. Dawkins says the genes that exist today are here today because they helped generations before survive long enough to pass on their DNA. A mother/father jumps in front of a car to save her baby; she’s not being altruistic but preserving her legacy. Humans are programmed to survive, so helping your offspring survive is an extension of that drive.
This makes sense. It's not romantic. But it makes sense biologically. (Of course, there’s the expected emotion involved in protecting our young. We’d rather die than see them die. That is real -- too.)
Altruism before Darwinism?
Smarter people than me have pointed to the bird in the flock who lets loose a warning call at the sight of the hawk circling overhead. In doing so, the “whistle blower” becomes the target but allows the other birds a chance to escape. The little chirper may not share DNA with all the birds in the flock, but they benefit from what scientists call “collateral kin”-ship. It explains Rick’s behavior, too. Those who travel with Rick may not be part of his clan, but they are members of his tribe. Humans generally relish being part of a tribe. People who “get you,” “speak your language,” and “have your back.” And that means, you have their back. That’s the spoken or unspoken agreement.
We often hear people say, after they’ve committed a heroic act: “They would have done it for me.“ Now, whether or not the person they saved would or wouldn’t protect or save them, the person who says this BELIEVES they would have. That’s all that matters.
The Selfish Gene Misfires?
As I wrapped up the end of the 4th season, experiencing heart palpitations and chewing my cuticlesj down till they bled, I exhaled at last. The characters I cared about made it out of another hell devised by humans. I began season 5, not fully recovered from what I’d seen in 4, but at the end of the first episode there is a shot of the group – my adopjted tribe for the last 3 weeks – walking in a field, the sun shining on them – and they are safe. And that’s how I want to remember them. I care about these characters. I don't want to see anything bad happen to them anymore. I can't lose another one to zombies or madmen. I can't watch. of the first episode there is a shot of the group – my adopted tribe for the last 3 weeks – walking in a field, the sun shining on them – and they are safe. And that’s how I want to remember them. I care about these characters. I don't want to see anything bad happen to them anymore. I can't lose another one to zombies or madmen. I can't watch.
Now that feels right.
When I wasn’t watching the characters on Walking Dead wrestle zombies, I was wrestling with this moral question: Would I sacrifice myself for my tribe? For, my clan, yes. No doubt. But for my tribe? I like to think I’d be a Rick, but deep down I am afraid I’d be a Shane. Perhaps my Selfish Gene would not “misfire,” as Dawkins puts it. Would my primordial genes simply scream, “You don’t have to outrun the zombies, just the person behind you!”
I Escaped the Zombies and Lived to Tell about It
After a five-hour marathon, when I finally turned off the TV and went to bed, I had nightmares. Nightmares that people I love were in trouble and I was trying to save them. I’d wake up before I did. Even in a dream state I did not want to deal with the possibilities of failing. I carried that unease with me all day.
As I wrapped up the end of the 4th season, experiencing heart palpitations and chewing my cuticles till they bled, I exhaled at last. The characters I cared about made it out of another hell devised by humans. I began season 5, not fully recovered from what I’d seen in 4, but at the end of the first episode there is a shot of the group – my adopted tribe for the last 3 weeks – walking in a field, the sun shining on them – and they are safe. And that’s how I want to remember them. I care about these characters. I don't want to see anything bad happen to them anymore. I can't lose another one to zombies or madmen. I can't watch.
Yes, I heard that Negan is quite the character, but after watching Tyreese (Chad Coleman) run with baby Judith in his arms – her chubby baby legs dangling -- after living through “The Grove, and “Terminus,” I’ve had enough. I hope Rick and Daryl continue to beat back the bad guys and the zombies. I hope Judith and Carl grow up to see a cure. I hope my own selfish gene is alive and misfiring. Because that's the kind of human I aspire to be.
I'd kill a Walker for you, my friend. You'd do the same for me. Right?
This is Kat --- King [static] signing --
Over – [static]
Writing prompt: Team Rick? Team Shane? Or is there a middle road?