Humans without Vulnerability

Every good story is, at its core, a story about human nature. Who are we? What are we really like?

In order to answer these questions about ourselves, we tell stories that put human beings to test. What happens if the various aspects of human nature get pitted against each other? What happens when we test our human nature against its limits? What happens if you change or remove some vital part of human nature?

Then once we have concluded a story about human nature, we then are left with a question. what does this story say about how we should behave and organize ourselves?

I recently found myself unintentionally but simultaneously binge-watching two stories that tested human nature in a very similar way, but drew completely different conclusions. Those stories were a web serial called 17776 by Jon Bois’, and the HBO television drama Westworld.

(WARNING: some mild spoilers follow.)

Both of these stories imagine a near-future where human beings find themselves in an environment where the intrinsic physical vulnerability of human nature has been removed. In the case of 17776, there are some mysterious nano-bots which automatically fix things anytime someone gets sick or hurt. In Westworld, humans interact with robots who they are free to treat however well or badly they like with no repercussions. People can kill the robots, but the robots can’t kill humans. If a robot is killed, they are removed, fixed, and returned to service good as new.

That’s pretty much where the similarity between these two stories end. The two stories reach very different conclusions about what humans would do if they suddenly became physically invulnerable. Bois imagines that people would spend their days playing and watching increasingly elaborate games of football. Westworld, on the other hand, thinks that people would primarily indulge themselves with sex and violence.

17776 is optimistic about human nature, and the conclusion you could draw from it is that our vulnerability essentially causes us to indulge in behaviors that harm other people. Human nature is essentially good, and if you removed the external sources of our vulnerabilities, there would be no point in bothering to harm anyone else, so we wouldn’t. Westworld, more pessimistically, implies that it is our vulnerability that prevents us from harming others, because we are afraid of reciprocal harm. If you remove that fear, we will all become psychopaths and indulge in orgies of harm. We are by nature essentially wild, dangerous animals that need to be restrained.

Which model of human nature is more correct? It’s hard to know for sure. These are fictional stories. In real life, you cannot simply devise a scientific experiment where you remove vulnerability from human nature and see what happens. Every aspect of human nature, our emotions and intellect capacity and built-in heuristics are evolutionary responses to all the various sorts of vulnerabilities that all our ancestors faced since the creation of the earth. Human nature consists of a complex jumble of behaviors that are not easy to reduce down with a simple two-dimensional A/B test.

But speaking of simple, two-dimensional A/B tests, I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to draw the parallel between these two views of human nature, and the views of human nature that underlie the policies of our two American political parties.

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