Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: A Review & Critique

Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress presents the hypothesis that humanity’s move from a forager/hunter-gatherer existence into agricultural societies–and from there modernity–was the first step in our decline as a species. The further we progressed towards modern life, and away from our forager origins, the more we stepped away from our natural state, where we were happier, healthier, and more in tune with our environment, and became the sad, sickly, fragile creatures we are today.

First things first, there are several parts of the book I found interesting, such as the distinction between life span vs. life expectancy to show that our prehistoric ancestors lived much more fruitful and full lives than many of us are keen to believe. I’m also someone who’s not opposed to the notion that the sharp increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and general listlessness seen in modern society is in no small part aggravated by (if not caused by) the luxuries we have adopted in our daily lives (social media being an obvious example of a contributor to this malaise). However, all in all, I don’t think Ryan makes a convincing case for the underlying issues he raises, and there are several holes throughout his one-sided narrative.

Ryan relies heavily on the self-reported happiness of current-day forager societies, and uses that to infer that prehistoric man must have been equally satisfied with his existence. But as anthropologists are quick to point out, foragers today are not prehistoric, and shouldn’t be though of as such, in that they live in the current world same as we do. The conditions of their environment are not necessarily equivalent to those of prehistoric man, and their demeanor and customs have undergone as long of a development and adaptation as that of societies living in industrialize cities. Meaning that short of a time machine, we can’t simply infer the case that the behavior of current-day foragers/hunter-gatherers (Ryan used the two terms as synonyms) is a reflection of prehistoric humans. At best, we can try to piece together narratives that seem plausible in light of available evidence, but in the hands of someone like Ryan these ultimately become unfalsifiable just-so stories, as he has a proclivity to dismiss any opposing views to his as stemming from people being indoctrinated into the neo-Hobbesian view of human nature that demands for modern life to be seen as a point of progress in human development. Thus, any pushback one might give can be readily set aside as just mere squabble from the brainwashed.

Ryan wants to make the case that the selfishness, tribalism, and aggressive tendencies that are seen as innate parts of human nature are actually just things conditioned in us by modernity, and that such traits are entirely absent in forager communities, which he takes to mean that man’s natural disposition is one of harmony, humility, and peace with its environment and fellow man. However, in one part of the book he also states that forager communities will early one engage in customs like banter and roasting of members who show greater talents as a means of keeping their egos in check and instill in them a sense of humility. Ryan never contends with (or seems to realize) the fact that if such behavioral conditioning is needed then it calls into question his hypothesis that humility is the natural disposition of even the foragers he wants to uphold as the hallmark for us all to strive for. It simply implies that they partake in a level of social conditioning to ensure a harmonious society, same as we do when we teach children to share and empathize with those around them, whether we do it around the camp fire or in the daycare centers.

Ryan also engages in a set of conjectures when he appeals to the peaceful bonobos as evidence that man (as a fellow member of the great ape family) is also a pacifist species when allowed to remain close to his natural (forager) state of being. What Ryan fails to address is that we are as closely related to the common chimpanzee as we are to bonobos, and the former—despite having never developed agriculture that set them down the treacherous path of modernity—is still famously tribal, aggressive, and warlike in its demeanor. And that’s not to mention other great apes, like gorillas, which are hierarchical and routinely commit infanticide, and orangutans, whose males often mate via forced copulation of females (aka rape). In light of all this, the peacefulness of the bonobos seems to be the exception in the great ape family rather than the rule.

A final point of neglect that stuck out is that, while Ryan was quick to draw a comparison between humans and our evolutionary cousin the bonobo to support his narrative, he never says a word about our evolutionary forager sibling, the Neanderthal, who was displaced (by one means or another) by our supposedly pacifist prehistoric ancestors. While I’m sure there are ways to make this caveat fit his narrative, the fact that Ryan doesn’t even bother to try gives the impression that he would rather we simply ignore it as a data point in history so he doesn’t have to think about it, and hopes we do the same.

As I said before, I’m actually quite open to the idea that modernity has come with drawbacks that society is failing to deal with (the mental health crisis of the last few decades being a prime example), and I’m even open to the notion that there are lessons we can learn from prehistoric humans about life, happiness, leisure, and purpose. But I don’t think Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death does much to add to that important topic of conversation, and in many ways stands in the way of it, as it’s a topic that appears to be too far out of the author’s wheelhouse to deal with.  

Discovering James Hogg

It should be a crime how little appreciated James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinnersis (1824) is in Gothic literature.

James Hogg’s novel is a unique take on the subject of the material and spiritual world, in that it offers the reader both perspectives through two rivaling narratives of a single event. The first, “The Editor’s Narrative,” gives a strictly materialistic view of the seemingly supernatural events and characters. Unlike the second narrative (titled “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and told from the point of view of the main character Robert Wringhim Cowan), the Editor’s suspiciously does not give much focus to Hogg’s devil-character, Gil-Martin. Instead, the few scenes in which Robert is shown conversing with the yet-unnamed character, any unnatural occurrence observed are immediately brushed off and rationalized by the secondary characters, “It is a fantasy of our disturbed imaginations, therefore let us compose ourselves till we investigate this matter farther.”[1] This serves to set a mood in this part of Hogg’s novel, where the prose recognizes the presence of something perplexing in the atmosphere, but is unable to acknowledge the extraordinary source behind it. This has the effect of suggesting to the reader that it makes no difference whether or not one chooses to believe that demonic forces are among us (and the Editor giving the first account appears not to), as our inability to perceive the supernatural has no binding effect on its ability to manipulate this world.

Although, the devil-character, Gil-Martin, is admittedly incomprehensible in his demeanor and appearance to the characters that observe him,[2] there is no indication in the narrative that he has any restrictions on his ability to freely interact with those around him; moreover it can be deduced that because he apparently transcends any physical form (this will become clearer in the second narrative), his existence is in no way shaped or bound by the material world. Thus, rather than being merely a religious concept, residing solely within the minds of convinced believers, Hogg’s devil is an agent operating entirely independent of our limited sensory and mental faculties.

The second narrative, structured as the personal memoir of Robert Wringhim Cowan as he unknowingly becomes an agent of Gil-Martin, gives a much more satisfying account of the devil, simply because Robert has no apprehensions about identifying his experiences with the spiritual realm. This is shown by his first encounter with Gil-Martin, whom he initially perceives to be his personal angel because of their uncanny resemblance[3]; this tendency of Robert to identify everything he encounters with his Christian faith serves as a major tool by which the devil comes to manipulate the young man’s actions. 

At one point, Gil-Martin himself explains the peculiarity of his changing facial features later to Robert, “If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character.”[4] The basic message Hogg is telling the reader here is that the devil has no true face of his own, meaning that at any given moment he could take the form of anyone, and essentially be everywhere. Attaining someone’s likeness also gives Gil-Martin the ability to know that person’s mind, possess his thoughts and secrets, implying that the metamorphosis is entirely emotion driven, and inaccessible to rationality.

Gil-Martin is completely aware that he is an anomaly to observers, and in devilish fashion toys and winks on occasion to suspicious laypeople as an affirmation to how, indeed, you are seeing me as a wholly unnatural part of this natural world, and try as you may, you are incapable of explaining me by any empirically logical standard. An example of this is shown in his coy salute to Mrs. Calvert and Mrs. Logan,[5] both of whom are completely ignorant of his true identity, but nevertheless sense something irregular about the faux-man. All of this points to the notion that Gil-Martin as an entity, is in no way dependent on anyone’s belief in his person for survival, because he knows that he exists independent of any mind’s perception of him; he is his own mind. 

He even occasionally gives hints to Robert as to his demonic identity, such as his explanation, “I have no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge,”[6] an obvious reference to Lucifer’s fall from God’s grace. Here, Gil-Martin could simply be relying on the fact that even a person as spiritually inclined as Robert will not possess the ability to cope with the logical conclusion of his statement, and will instead rationalize it and then conform it with his already presupposed religious convictions. But it also reflects on his nonchalant attitude towards keeping his demonic character hidden. Certainly when it comes to Robert, Gil-Martin uses the young man’s strong Calvinist faith in predestination to corrupt his mind, and get him to surrender his free will, but at no point is it insinuated that the devil needs Robert to believe him to be a man in order to carry out his sinister plot (and at times Robert seems to question this very notion). If anything, it is Robert who thoroughly goes mad by surrendering his identity to this devious doppelganger that is gaining more and more control of his mental and physical recesses: “But the most singular instance of this wonderful man’s power over my mind was, that he had as complete influence over me by day as by night.”[7]

To James Hogg, the devil is a real agent operating in the material world. Although, Gil-Martin’s face is defined by the individual observer, his identity is clearly not. One can even argue that besides giving him a means to enter the thoughts of those whose features he adopts, Gil-Martin’s metamorphosis also acts as a way to disarm those he seeks to manipulate by letting them believe that they themselves are the dominant personality between the two (since, after all, he is adopting their face), blinding them to the reality that the devil is subduing their very person.

Hogg’s devil-character is implied to be everywhere, manipulating people at any given times, his presence has no bearing on whether or not his influence is recognized as demonic or not, the end result will ultimately still be the same (as can be seen by the unexplainable political fight stirred up in the Editor’s narrative, and the ease by which Robert can be rhetorically swayed to commit one sin after another; both examples credited directly or indirectly back to Gil-Martin as the causal source).

Standing as a precursor to later Gothic novels to follow in the same century, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinners is certainly a dark genre read well worth looking into to get a feel for the earlier incarnation of the transition from Romantic to Gothic literature, and the various literary elements explored therein.

[1] Hogg, James.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 110.

[2] Hogg, p. 107, and p. 109.

[3] Hogg, p. 133.

[4] Hogg, p. 137.

[5] Hogg, p. 108.

[6] Hogg, P. 141.

[7] Hogg, p. 144.

Dexter Morgan: Character Portrayal in Books vs. TV

File:Dexter Logo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

It’s been several years now since Dexter aired it’s series finale on Showtime. Along with most of the viewership, I feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction with how the show decided to end things (more on that later), but at the time it also left me wondering how the story might have progressed if a set of creative forces had taken its reins and run with it. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to wonder too much, as there existed a whole series of books that had inspired the TV show just waiting for me to explore, and contrast with its small screen counterpart.

Fair warning for those still binging on Netflix, there are bound to be spoilers below, and now that you’ve been alerted of it [in bold font, no less!], please don’t send me emails complaining about it. Cool? Cool.

If you’ve watched all eight seasons of the Dexter TV show, and then read all 8 books in the Dexter crime thriller series by Jeff Lindsay, you’ll have noticed some key differences in how the two mediums portray the personality and life events of its eponymous main character, Dexter Morgan.

I’m someone who happens to believe that changes to characters and narratives should not be reflexively dismissed as a negative. It is simply a fact that certain means by which a story can be structured within the confines of a book, does not always translate well onto the screen, and vice versa. Writers often have to make adjustments to allow for pacing, as well as the diverse means by which audiences consume either medium, in order to weave together a consistent and coherent plot. To put it simply: sometimes what reads well on paper, doesn’t always work too great when watched on a TV set (or any other screen). And audiences need to be mindful of this when comparing the differences between the two.

With that aside, these are the major difference that jumped out at me between Dexter, as portrayed in the pages of the books, and the TV series inspired by it, as well as the impact these differences hold for the overall narratives for either medium:

  • In the TV show, Dexter goes through a clear character arc where we see his psychopathic nature soften as he starts to identify with the individuals in his life, and humanizes as a result of his interactions with them (at least when comparing Season 1 Dexter, with Season 8 Dexter). In the books, no such arc happens. His outlook is the same in the last book (Dexter is Dead) as it is in the first book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), that is to say, book Dexter remains as narcissistic and egocentric as he always was through every major life event. Personally, I think this difference works best for each medium. When it comes to books, you can still sympathize with a psychopathic protagonist if the story is written from his point of view, and he’s charmingly humorous about his monstrous behavior to boot. We’re just more forgiving because we experience the first-person account with him from inside his head, and had fun doing it, no matter how “bad” of a person he objectively is. Without a doubt, this wouldn’t work the same on a TV Show, or would be very tricky to pull off properly. Viewers want to know that the story they’re watching is progressing forward, and obvious character growth is a key way to portray that progression, otherwise you risk leaving the audience feeling cheated at getting invested in a character who seemingly has remained unaffected by anything that’s happened to them in the course of all major plot points you spent with them [I’m looking at you, Season 8 Jaime Lannister].
  • In the TV show, the Dark Passenger is just a metaphor Dexter uses to personify his homicidal urges, and in no way supernatural; in contrast, the books take a whole different angle on this whole concept. Book 3 of the series (Dexter in the Dark), makes it clear that the source of all psychopathic tendencies in the world has a supernatural origin, and descends from an ancient sacrificial deity named Moloch. Rather than being a manifestation of his darker urges, Dexter’s Dark Passenger is explained to be an entity existing separate from his own psyche, and is in no ambiguous terms presented as stemming from this supernatural source. It was a weak and nonsensical plot device that divided the fan base when Book 3 first came out, and for that reason gets downplayed in subsequent books. Nevertheless, it’s still there in the subtext and remains weak and nonsensical all throughout the book series’ run, whenever it is referenced again. For those wondering if there is an element of the story the TV show handles better than the books, I would say its interpretation of the Dark Passenger is an obvious winner in that regard. Not only is it more consistent with the tone of the greater narrative at play, it also serves as a better overall characterization of Dexter’s character, as the ultimate responsibility of his nature is still understood to be him at its core, and not the results of some convoluted spiritual influence at the hands of some ancient deity craving for a regular dose of human blood, or whatever.
  • Finally, the finale conclusions are very different. The last book in the series is titled Dexter is Dead, and although a bit of a spoiler in name alone, I found it to be a satisfying enough finish to the character, and recommend it as an overall entertaining read (though you do need to have also read at least the preceding book to understand many of the circumstances and references made throughout the narrative). In contrast, when it comes to the show’s finale, I defy anybody to defend that horrible last episode to me. I won’t go into too much of the details for those who can handle any and all spoilers except ones regarding a series’ closing scenes, but I’ll give a warning that I personally found the show’s finale to be an incoherent mess that spits in the face of all logic and any viewers who stuck around with it to the end (no, I’m not bitter–you’re bitter!). The final book in comparison is a much more fitting conclusion to the narrative, and has no stupid lumberjacks in sight.

I’m sure there are many other differences one could choose to go over, especially regarding secondary character developments (let’s just say, the books are not too kind with how they treat Detective James Doakes; I mean, he survives throughout the run of the books, but it sure ain’t a good life), but I wanted to primarily keep the focus on the character of Dexter himself. Also, maybe low-key intrigue some of the people I know reading this to read up on a few of the books, so I can finally have someone to discuss them with. Hey, a self-centered, narcissistic bookwork can dream, right?

Pin by esky :) on memes | Dexter morgan, Dexter, Michael c hall