A Theory About The Walking Dead

What would we, as a species, do if the world fell apart? What would we ‘naturally’ turn to? If society fell away, then via the method of difference, the remainder should make things fully transparent. If society fell apart in a zombie apocalypse, less and less societal relations should remain with people becoming more and more “natural” viz. innately operating.

So what will our “natural” dispositions lead to? If we were truly a blank slate, then the results in a post-apocalypse world would be whatever is left around, incorporated contingently in an ad-hoc manner. Thus, this new history would be made from present contingencies as they exist, and not necessities. But if we’re not a blank state, if there are human dispositions that persist despite social interference, then there must be some inevitable eventualities.

To parse the options, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s consider the plausibility of The Walking DeadThis can, at the very least, provide an interesting intellectual substrate for speculation on how evolution, or devolution, would proceed.

NOTE: As a casual fan, and not a reader of the comics, somebody may have already written something similar to this that I’m unaware of at the time of writing. If this is so, this merely reinforces evidence for natural convergences within human behavior.

And, SPOILER ALERT, obviously. Also, fast-forwarding through the series as I do below means you might not get a lot out of this if you haven’t seen all the seasons yet.

A) Extinction Event (Season 1)

Every species we know of can survive only so long as the environment provides sufficient resources. Intuition hints at this, and experimental models show it.

Ernst Mayr has said the life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years. We also know humans have been in their modern anatomical form for over 200,000 years. If that’s so, we’ve overstayed our welcome.

Life is hard to maintain and, like any other species, extinction always looms as a possibility. In our modern age, the response to a species wide threat would most likely be some variation of the following:

Serious endeavors are undertaken to find a solution to the problems of the catastrophe
Resources become overwhelmed if no timely solution is found
New elements are isolated, perhaps enhancing peripatric mechanisms
The old milieu is uninhabitable

With this in mind, a zombie outbreak sounds a lot like a mass extinction event, such as that of the Cretaceous event 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and 50% of marine invertebrates, leaving mammals to thrive. Except this time us mammals are not playing the role of the mammals.

If you take the zombie outbreak as the extinction event, then The Walking Dead serves as an allegory for human civilization, in broad (and admittedly Western ethnocentric) terms.

The show’s chronology goes left to right. Extinction events go right to left. If one goes to the other, and the process is recursive, as evolution is, then either way works for our purposes.

B) Hunter-Gatherer Society (Season 1)

At the start, in the Paleolithic era, human ancestors relied mainly on hunting and gathering.

Sexual division of labor for hunting and gathering

As both hunting and gathering played a vital role in survival, there was necessarily an egalitarian treatment for all individuals.

“Egalitarian social organization is the de facto system for foraging societies in all environments.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Emphasis was placed on travel and being mobile to find resources to hunt and gather.

Scavenging necessarily implies mobility to reach available resources

There were also those who did not fall into the roles of hunter or gatherer but still found a place in society. Biologists take this as the evolutionary basis for the “grandmother hypothesis” to explain how grandmothers occupy an adaptive role in society despite a lack of direct fecundity.

“The mismatch between human longevity and female fertility inevitably suggests the special value of the old woman as a mother or grandmother during a long ancestral period” – W.D. Hamilton

C) Agricultural Society (Season 2)

Nomads don’t have to stay vagrants. Eventually, they settle down on farms and begin work on agriculture.

Our genus appeared 2,000,000 years ago. We’ve been farming for less than 12,000 years.

Experts feel that the changes brought by this are hard to understate. Hence the agricultural or Neolithic revolution moniker. As an example:

“With agriculture, virtually everything changed. The nature of status and power,…

Who gets to be the boss and why? Do we follow Thucydides or retain pre-apocalypse standards?

…social and family structures,…

“We lost friends, neighbors…These people here, all we’ve got left is each other.” – Hershel Greene

…how humans interacted with the natural world,…

Start of livestock usage after leaving hunter-gatherer society

…the gods they worshipped,…

Neolithic burial rituals involved a greater level of respect for the deceased shown by housing the dead.

…the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups,…

Standing armies have to develop at some time, why not Mesopotamia?

…quality of life…

“The most ancient documentary evidence for beer production comes from Mesopotamia” – Solomon Katz & Mary Voigt, on beer making circa 11,000 BC
public storehouses for farm products emerged in Mesopotamia after 5,000 BC
sewage and plumbing was developed in the Indus Valley after 3,000 BC

…and certainly, the rules governing sexuality.” – Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha

The neolithic transitioned from egalitarian gender relations to a maternal focus on pregnancy and child raising

As innovative as early settlements were, they were as error prone as any novel infrastructure is at their inception. Like so many first attempts, the earliest settlements collapsed, sometimes by outside force.

Outside forces (eg. Cyrus the Great) eventually overrun and control previously flourishing agricultural Near East societies

D) Rise of City States (Seasons 3,4)

Future settlements would take into account human-made, as well as natural, dangers. Unlike open farmland, city states that emerged function rather autonomously and provided adequate protection for their denizens.

“All things good should flow unto the boulevard” – Pericles

The idea of protection captured the minds of some such that preemptive expansion of territory appears to be the safer route.

Julius Caesar became Governor of Gual in 58 BC

This becomes the justification of empire building

Caesar and his legions crossed the rubicon in order to declare himself dictator in 49 BC

The inordinate amount of stress from these scenarios due to dramatic transitions in lifestyle can usher in new forms of cognition. You can have hallucinations…

“The characters in The Iliad do not look inward, and they take no independent initiative. They only do what is suggested by the gods. When something needs to happen, a god appears and speaks… [Julian] Jaynes suggests that the right hemisphere’s lack of language capacity is because it used to be used for something else; specifically, it was the source of admonitory messages funneled to the speech centers on the left side of the brain. These manifested themselves as hallucinations.” – Veronique Greenwood
…or subtler changes in customs, such as in religion. This leads to deeper changes in metaphysical belief, eg. soteriology, eschatology, etc.

“[Until Christianity], Homer does not imagine there is a way back [from death]; Plato does not suppose anyone in their right mind would want one. There may or not be various forms of life after death, but the one thing there isn’t is resurrection.” – NT Wright
These changes in beliefs concerning death, when boosted by political leaders, spread outward and form the new status quo.

Constantine enacted the Edict of Milan in 313 AD

Alas, with changes and communication across peoples, there is a dual growth in welfare and warfare. Sometimes the warfare and cruel aspects are below our visible threshold but deleterious nonetheless.

The Antonine Plague spread throughout the Roman Empire around 150 AD

Whether an invisible pathogen, or social discontent, visually imperceptible problems arise and eventually crystallize as serious problems. These are quelled by entertaining distractions such as gladiatorial battles.

“The People who once upon a time handed out military command…now hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” – Juvenal

But alongside continuing wars and a high frequency of invasions, there is an eventual decay and ruination of the empire.

sacking of rome-nerowatchesburn
Nero was said to fiddle while Rome burned in 64 AD. (Technically, he didn’t).

This lead to a great number of raiders that capitalized on disintegrating societies and claimed their spoils.

Eurasian nomads coexisted with empires – but not always peacefully

E) Fall of City States (Seasons 5, 6)

The empire eventually fell to “barbarians at the gates” that devoured the resources that remain.

Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD. During the aftermath of the siege, people turned to cannibalism.

Parts that resemble the old empire may remain.

Alexandria became the center of commerce  for the remaining Eastern Roman, AKA Byzantine, Empire

For instance, the elements of protection were maintained as a professional class to keep out persistent invasion attempts.

The Byzantine Army was the direct descendant of the Roman Army

Positive interactions, not just violence, occurs due to the movement of peoples. For example, the mixing of cultures can happen.

Introduction of Asian culture and sharing of resources occurred under the Yam system of the Mongols

But even with protection, violence does occur and outside forces can deal powerful blows against fortified locations.

The Ostrogoths dealt heavy blows to the Byzantine Empire and sacked Rome in 546 AD

With the looming presence of such threats, some systems will be predicated on forced labor for basic survival coupled with the overriding demands of a strong leader.

First attempts at conquering people leads to escalating conflict after inevitable breakdown of negotiations and trade. They serve as harbingers of the coming feudalism.

This decentralization of power leaves a void which will be filled only once a leader with a sufficiently honed mastery of discipline and punishment takes the reins.

Alexandria is conquered in 61 AD and the citizens are made to pay taxes to their new rulers

F) Feudal Society (Season 7)

Capitulation to strong leaders is subsequent to recurrent invasions. In exchange for nominal protection, resources are demanded of the groups granted “protection”.

Ezekiel (Judeo-Christian prophet) and Shiva (Hindu deity) oversee their Kingdom so long as they continue to tithe the Saviors (ie. lords)

Different regions have different levels of self-rule, albeit as granted by the higher authority contingent upon continuing tithes. This allows again for paradigm shifts in thought, including areas such as philosophy and theology.

The Middle Ages saw an expanding role of religion (and accompanying figures such as Jesus)

Operating on dogmatic principles provides a level of stability but also changes life in many ways. Enforcement of these principles can lead to witch-hunts, inquisitions or other means of torture conducted under the aegis of benevolence.

“If you understand the expressions – to burn at the stake, to hold his feet to the fire, to break a butterfly on the wheel, to be racked with pain, to be drawn and quartered, to disembowel, to flay, to press, the thumbscrew, the garrote, a slow burn, and the iron maiden – you are familiar with a fraction of the ways that heretics were brutalized during the Middle Ages.” – Steven Pinker

G) Possible Future Directions

As stated above, I have not read the comics. So some of this may be destined to be wrong. That’s one of the accompanying dangers of making falsifiable claims.

If the allegory holds, however, the feudal kingdoms are likely to be entrenched for some time. The acquisition of Eugene by the Saviors and his knowledge of the armory and bullet-making process means there could be an escalation of warfare technology analogous to the way gunpowder advanced the scope of war.

But there eventually will be greater trade and exchange. So as conflicts become less frequent, the story should focus on future oriented trade situations and networks of commerce and intermingling of groups. This was hinted at with the Junkyard Gang and their basic ethos of finding the best trade terms.

Possible trading partners again in the future?

H) Conclusion

These connections don’t need to be “true” in the sense of being what the writer actually intended. And it cannot be “true” in the sense of being admissible as objective evidence. But it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be convincing enough to prime our intuitions, however fallible those are.

If Robert Kirkman et al. had this allegory planned out all along, then kudos for them. It matters not who connected the dots, or even how the dots were planned to be arranged, but how we see it now. That’s how we construct meaning. Even if we demote the thought experiment from allegory to metaphor or further, it will never reach flatus vocis. If something is conceivable, then it should be logically possible and that’s all a person needs to construct a tendentious narrative.

The narrative I’m putting forth would seem to argue for inevitable human nature variants and courses (perhaps even in interpreting those events as well). It’s an argument for stronger methodology for, but also a vindication of, social sciences that stress that certain patterns will be found unanimously across X humans doing Y actions under Z conditions.

If we make the social sciences more accurate, and some variations are still found to be statistically preferred does that mean there is an inevitable pattern that emerges despite our best efforts? Was this all “rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before the oceans rolled”? Do we have a fate regardless of our actions?

There is nothing inevitable about inevitability. And unpredictability, however ubiquitous, cannot be predictable. Certain patterns that make people believe in destiny are perhaps so large that the challenges seem, but not necessarily are, insurmountable. As a species, we have large aspirations but remain fragile creatures. We are at the mercy of the simplest things, from germs to steel, that could end the richness of life:

“The infinite which is in man is at the mercy of a little piece of iron; such is the human condition; space and time are the cause of it. It is impossible to handle this piece of iron without suddenly reducing the infinite which is in man to a point on the pointed part, a point on the handle, at the cost of a harrowing pain.” – Simone Weil

In the face of our collective fragility, one can opt out, passively persist on the nature of the current course, or resurrect that which is dead. Resurrection involves reversing that which is outside of nature. As we construct narratives, we can create one in which our new choices become normalized and “natural.”

In building a new nature, there are two questions that must be asked:

What world can you live without?

What world can live without you?

With proper introspection and dialogue, and the resurrection of appropriate ideas, maybe the new nature can provide both a livable world and a world worth living in.

Happy Paschaltide

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