These movies speak to your inner mammal. Reviews below.
Excerpted from I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power. These movies explore our mammalian urge for social importance. No one likes to admit to this urge, though we easily see it in others. Modern psychology invalidate this urge and blames it on “our society.” But social rivalry has shaped every society throughout history because natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you have a moment of social importance. That good feeling is a spurt of serotonin. The chemical is soon metabolized, which is why we seek another moment of social importance, and another. You can see how “they” do this, but it’s useful to see how YOU do this.
Mean Girls (2004)
The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
What Makes Sammy Run? (1959)
Caterina in the Big City [Caterina Va in Citta] (2005)
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
The Last Emperor ( 1987)
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)
The Good Earth (1937)
Young Victoria (2009)
The Bicycle Thief (1948)
Ninotchka / Silk Stockings (1939 / 1957)
Mrs. Brown (1997)
Creation: How Darwin Saw the World & Changed It Forever (2009)
Tina Fey adapted the popular sociology book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, into a comedy about teen status conflicts. We see the meanness of a high school alpha female (the “Queen Bee”) to her “best friend.” The friend has to accept this treatment if she wants to keep her place as the second-ranking girl in the school. In primate troops the alpha usually has a beta, and this sidekick role is immortalized in the movies. Sociology illuminates this mammalian pattern. The “Wannabe” has invested a lot in status, but they haven’t yet attained the top reward. If they give up they lose all that investment, so it behooves them to hang on and put up with whatever the alpha dishes out. Lower-ranking individuals can easily remove themselves from the game because they have less to lose.
The herd behavior of high school is brilliantly depicted in Means Girls. One scene shows the alpha female returning to her locker to find that her clothing had been vandalized while she was in PE. Holes were cut into her T-shirt in two strategic places. She calmly puts the shirt on (over an under-layer) and strolls to her next class. She personifies the confidence of a dominant individual as everyone stares at the prominent holes. The next day, in a mesmerizing mammalian moment, we see the halls at school filled with girls wearing holes cut in the same strategic places.
Imitating the alpha is a mammalian way to raise your status. The isopraxis of mammals is obvious when we see other people doing it. But when we are the ones blending in with a herd for our own protection, we often find other ways to explain our choices.
Linsey Lohan plays the heroine of Mean Girls. Her character, Cady, is the daughter of a field biologist, and thus disposed to see the parallels between the behavior of wildlife and the behavior of the herd she is trying to break into. We get to hear Ms. Lohan pontificate on mammalian behavior when Cady goes to the mall with friends. The mall has a fountain reminiscent of the watering holes Cady saw in Africa with her mother. While students strut and preen around the fountain, Cady has a revery in which they morph into baboons and elephants splashing around a drinking pool. Cady perceives that high school is a mammalian social dominance hierarchy motivated by reproductive success. The opportunity to hear Ms. Lohan expound this view is priceless.
The movie presumes to be a critique of social hierarchies. Yet it unwittingly proves the rule that mammals care about status. Cady sets out to oppose the Queen Bee and her retinue rather than just going her own way. She eventually sees the error in that path, but then she suddenly becomes an alpha herself. In the guise of a Mathletes champion, she substitutes one status indicator for another.
Cady is elected Homecoming Queen despite her professed disdain for status. Fiction often revolves around the fantasy of rejecting status but acquiring it anyway. Cady goes to Mathletes instead of the prom, but she drops by in jeans just to refuse the crown. This unlikely scenario ends in her giving a triumphal speech about how everyone is special. Fat girls cry when they hear her words. Ugly girls glow when Cady says they’re beautiful. They suddenly feel beautiful because the popular girl says they are beautiful. The movie aptly shows how much people voluntarily focus their attention on high-status individuals.
Opposing status is tempting, but it’s useful to realize that status hierarchies are not always forced on us. People often choose to engage with social dominance hierarchies. They enjoy the dream of status, and they look to high-status individuals for leadership. We don’t see this in ourselves because our mammal brain does not speak to us in words. So we may feel like victims of a hierarchy even while we are active participants.
Mean Girls ends with some authentic assertions of individuality. The beta girl finally carves her own path instead of just submitting to the alpha girl. And in a glorious twist on life-imitates-art, the actress who played the Wannabe went on to star in the movies Mamma Mia! and Letters to Juliet.
The Gods Must Be Crazy
A South African woman is bored with her office routine and takes a job teaching at a bush school. In the bush village, she makes the acquaintance of a good-looking field biologist. The scientist falls all over himself trying to capture the schoolteacher’s attention. He is effectively the last man on earth, since the bush school is run by a priest. Yet the biologist’s courtship signals are so bumbling that he only succeeds at annoying her.
Competition for the schoolteacher’s hand soon appears in the form of a safari operator. He wines and dines her like an evil capitalist from central casting. If the biologist doesn’t up his game soon, the competition will be over. Male mammals often win female attention by providing protection for the female’s children, and the biologist embraces this strategy. He rescues the damsel and all of her students when they’re kidnapped by a band of guerillas. Suddenly, he looks good to her, even though he hasn’t really changed.
The rescue effort is aided by a Kalahari bushman who happened to be walking by. The movie takes its title from the bushman’s story. He’s a hunter-gatherer from a tribe sometimes known as the !Kung or San. He’s on his way to the end of the earth to dispose of a Coke bottle that brought conflict to his tribe. The Coke bottle fell from a helicopter in the opening scene, and we saw his tribe find many uses for this unfamiliar “tool.” But having only one posed an unprecedented problem. The gods must be crazy to have sent only one, they complain.
A heroic tribe member volunteers to save his people by walking to the edge of the earth and throwing the thing off. These opening scenes are presented with subtitled !Kung speech, and a narrator who hails the indigenous people for their pristine freedom from the taint of private property. As the bushman saunters off on his mission, we see breathtaking shots of African wildlife. Herds of gazelles, zebras and giraffes prance majestically across the savannah as the bushman moves toward his encounter with the biologist, the safari, and the guerillas.
The bushman’s hunting skills help the scientist triumph over the guerillas and rescue the woman and children. When the school teacher falls for the biologist, it’s a charming mammalian moment. We see that he’s still a bumbler, but he has proven his ability as a protector. She did not want him when he was only gorgeous, kind, and a successful professional. Female mammals confer status onto mates capable of protecting children.
The schoolteacher went to the bush to find happiness in good works and nature, but finds it instead in the arms of a tall blond guy. A movie that starts with narration about the discontents of civilization ends up with the predictable contentment of romantic love. The reason things unfold this way so often in movies and in life is that reproductive success is a huge trigger of mammalian happy chemicals. Sex is only a small part of the agenda. Everything that promotes surviving children triggers mammalian happy chemicals. Movies are popular because they trigger happy chemicals without all the fuss and bother of reproduction.
The sequel, The Gods Must Be Crazy 2, combines all these elements in a fresh way, and is a joy to watch.
Doctor Zhivago finds true love while the Russian Revolution shatters the world around him. We want to see him enjoy his island of security amidst the ruin because he has done so many good deeds. But he throws it all away when another alpha male enters his territory.
Zhivago’s rival barges into the lovers’ hideaway in the snowy tundra. The rival declares that advancing troops pose immediate danger, and he offers to help them escape. He invites them into his special train compartment to cross Siberia into the relative safety of China.
Zhivago’s mammal brain responds badly to this invitation. He wants to save his lover, but he would rather die than be stuck in that train compartment in the subordinate position, dependent on the rival for survival. A silverback gorilla would react the same way. Mature male gorillas never tolerate proximity to another mature male gorilla. They will risk their lives in a bid for the dominant position if they can’t withdraw.
In a tragic mammalian moment, Zhivago tricks his lover into boarding the train without him. Why would a hero just give his girl to the rival and stay alone on the brutal steppes? To the human mind it makes no sense, but to the mammal brain it’s clear that Zhivago’s hatred of submission is stronger than his love for the woman. Once Zhivago makes this choice, he’s a broken man. Though he miraculously survives the massacres and deadly deprivations of the early communist years, his zest for life is gone. Zhivago is portrayed as a person of enormous intelligence, sensitivity and courage. Yet that momentary urge to avoid the one-down position was stronger than every other fiber of his being.
Zhivago’s lover was carrying his child when they parted. That child is the frame of the story. We see history from the perspective of this orphan who knows nothing of her own ancestry. She’d gotten separated from her mother in the Soviet Far East. She never knew her father, and being descended from an aristocrat would have been dangerous anyway for a child in the Soviet Union. When she’s told who her father was, it means nothing to her. We feel a sense of hopelessness over Zhivago’s lost legacy. Then, the camera lingers on her holding hands with a boy. It reminds us that the cycle will continue. Her mammal brain will seek happiness in reproductive success, whatever the calamities of her moment of history. Zhivago’s DNA will survive.
What Makes Sammy Run?
Sammy is a social-climbing clod. He kowtows to high-status individuals who can help him and snubs those who can’t. We are told Sammy’s story through the eyes of his best friend. The jealous friend solicits our disdain for Sammy’s ruthless ambition. But the friend’s protestations ring hollow. He does nothing to realize his own “higher values.” All he does with his life is criticize Sammy’s life.
The movie is based on a novel that became a hit Broadway musical before the movie. The author, Budd Schulberg, aims to mock the Jewish ghetto boy who clawed his way to the top of the movie biz. Sammy is a jerk, so it’s easy to cluck your tongue at his actions. But if the best friend is so offended by Sammy’s self-seeking, he is free to go out and live what he considers a better life. Instead, he dwells in his resentment of Sammy’s choices.
The friend is too proud to admit that he cares about his status. He’s too fearful of pursuing his own status. Feeling superior to the high-status Sammy is the guy’s short-cut status strategy.
This quirk of human nature is perfectly capsulized in a brief mammalian moment. The friend rages for the umpteenth time, “Sammy, what makes you run?,” and Sammy responds: “what makes people run after me?” The point is not that Sammy is good, which of course he’s not. The point is that good people seek him out because they care about status. Mammals care deeply about social dominance, even when they pretend to despise it. Frustration prevails, but there’s no one to blame but natural selection. It’s tempting, during moments of frustration, to blame anyone you perceive as outranking you. But this leaves your attention focused on them and what they have instead of on the pleasure of your own accomplishments.
We are all free to reject status and to invest our energy into worthy and productive ends. But that’s not easy to do, so people often invest their energy into critiquing other people’s choices.
Caterina in the Big City (Caterina Va in Citta)
This movie is the least known on the list, but it has my favorite mammalian moment. Imagine you’re the new kid in school, watching two rival cliques sparring against each other. Imagine it’s a fancy private school in Rome, and the cliques reflect the politics of the students’ parents. Now imagine both cliques are courting you, and your father courts your friends in an effort to raise his status.
Caterina is so embarrassed by her father that she erupts into a brawl with the two clique leaders. The three girls’ parents get called into the principal’s office, so Caterina’s Dad gets to rub shoulders with the two alpha-male Dads. One is a right-wing Cabinet minister and the other a left-wing media star.
As they all leave the principal’s office, the alpha Dads greet each other with the same gestures that high-ranking chimpanzees use to cement alliances. They back-slap and head-bob with such exuberance that one can’t help thinking of a nature documentary. Caterina’s Papa makes social overtures to the other two Dads, but they flatly ignore him. Papa looks on with grief as they as they chat cozily, and Caterina takes it all in. It’s an iconic mammalian moment.
Caterina’s Dad expresses his bitterness to her. He points out the irony of these political enemies enjoying each other so much because of their shared alpha status. “They are both the same kind,” he tells Caterina. “The kind who know how the world works.” He warns her that you can’t get anywhere in Italy without being part of a clique.
It was hard for me to watch this because my mother also shared her bitterness about status with me. Caterina’s father has good insight into mammalian social dominance. But his constant raging about other people’s status seeking was self-destructive. His life falls apart because he loses control of his bitterness. Caterina’s challenge is to make peace with the mammal world despite the lack of peace in those around her. Of course, that is everyone’s challenge.
Caterina looks to her other parent for guidance. Mamma begins a love affair with a neighbor as Papa melts down in a frenzy over slights and disappointments. The mother is a very submissive character, and the attention of a shy neighbor gives her what she doesn’t get from her self-centered husband. Soon, Caterina adopts this strategy. She gets a twinkly-eyed look for the boy next door and by focusing on him she retreats from the conflict between her peers and her parents.
Romantic love is a popular refuge from status anxiety. You can’t always get the respect of the world, but you can get respect from one person. This feels good for a while. But the mammal brain did not evolve to sit around and enjoy it. It evolved to keep seeking more ways to advance its legacy. Our lives have complex plot lines as a result.
Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennett hates the pressure to “marry well.” She especially hates the alpha male next door. She blames British high society for her frustrations, without realizing that every female chimpanzee faces the same dilemma. Should a gal choose the alpha as the father of her child, or should she lean toward the guy she finds strong and clever regardless of his position in the eyes of her troop?
Female chimpanzees are often attracted to outsiders who have no status in their troop. A lady sometimes prefers a gentleman for reasons unrelated to the public esteem he commands. Yet there are distinct advantages to mating with the alpha, and most female chimps end up preferring him too. A baby can only have one father, alas, so these choices have consequences.
Mating decisions are fraught with uncertainty because you cannot really judge the quality of a partner until long after your mating decision. Whether you’re male or female, human or chimp, this conundrum is real no matter how carefully you choose. Mammals have always struggled to maximize their mating choices; it did not begin with “our society.”
Every society develops ways of sorting out this mess. Every female decodes the signs of male potential according to her particular life experience. If all ladies used Jane Austen as their guide we would not be here today, because she was so picky that she never mated. Romantic fantasies are nice, but if every lady over-analyzed the matter as Ms. Austen did, a species would not reproduce itself.
Of course, modern women are not consciously shopping for father material most of the time. They are shopping for “attraction.” But the mammalian drive to keep your DNA alive is at the core of neurochemical attraction.
Our mammalian inheritance perplexes modern males as much as modern females. Low-ranking males may find themselves shut out by pushy high-ranking males and status-conscious females. And even alpha males have mating problems. Consider Mr. Darcy, the hero of the book behind this movie. He is rich, good-looking, and socially prominent. So many ladies want an alpha male’s attention that he could not protect all the babies that would result. He must choose between the quantity strategy (having lots of babies and hoping some of them turn out well without his involvement) and the quality strategy (concentrating his attention on the best mother, however that can be determined). Mammals with small brains opt for the quantity strategy. Mammals with larger cortexes tend to create fewer children and invest more time in each.
Mr. Darcy’s large brain ends up setting its sights on Elizabeth Bennett, the girl who hates him for being rich. He displays his protective skills to her over and over until she falls for him, despite the blemish of his wealth. In fiction, girls who hate rich guys always seem to land a rich guy in the end, despite the abundance of available poor guys. This construct seems unrealistic to me, and Ms. Austen’s real-life failure at romance reinforces my suspicion. Even a female baboon knows better than to antagonize an alpha male and expect him to respond by becoming ever-more devoted.
Yet rich-boy meets poor-girl remains a staple of fiction. The theme is recast in a modern setting in the TV sitcom, Ugly Betty. Betty is out of step with the herd, but every season another rich, handsome guy falls for her. We like the idea of attraction that’s not based on social status. But what really gets our attention is attraction that raises someone’s status. We want to think status doesn’t matter, but what we really want is for status to come anyway as a reward for virtue.
Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy share an abhorrence of the status-driven mating game, and they think they’re unique in this! Of course, almost everyone hates the status-driven mating game. Yet it continues because mating choices have huge consequences. A primate does not risk letting another primate get close until they have reason to expect unthreatening behavior. But unique life experience makes primates hard to predict, so we take all available information into account – including status.
The Last Emperor
The emperor of China is the most alpha human there is if you judge alphas by the size of their troop. This movie follows the life of the last “son of heaven,” Pu-yi, who was born as China’s imperial system fell. We watch the last emperor tumble down the status hierarchy from boy deity to elderly graduate of a communist reeducation camp. Bertolucci filmed it on location in the Forbidden City, so it’s a visual delight.
Displaced emperors find few suitable jobs openings, so Pu-yi is glad when an Emperor slot opens up in Manchuria. The Japanese install him to help keep control of the territory they invaded. But in a touching mammalian moment Pu-yi realizes that he is a powerless puppet rather than a real alpha.
In nature, weaklings like Pu-yi don’t dominate the social hierarchy. But as mammals grew larger brains, they increasingly cooperated in pursuit of shared goals. Cooperating with a dominant is one way for a mammal to raise its status. Pu-yi is a cooperator. We have compassion for his weakness because we see him being ripped from his mother at age two and raised by the scheming palace staff. The staffers clung to him to raise their own status. So Pu-yi learned to raise his status by cooperating with dominators.
In his old age Pu-yi finally stands up to aggressors. During the Cultural Revolution, he witnesses Red Guards attack the elderly communist official who had dominated him in prison years earlier. Pu-yi recalls the moments of humanity the official displayed during his long imprisonment. Pu-yi tries to protect the official from the Red Guards, while all the other witnesses submit to them. He takes great risk in doing this, but he’s near death anyway and perhaps this will enhance his legacy.
During China’s Cultural Revolution, Red Guards dominated their elders and gained status in the social hierarchy. Every generation of primates strives to do this in some way. Young male primates have no reproductive opportunity until they displace their elders, or at least impress elders with their strength. Older male monkeys bite and scratch younger troop-mates who try to mate with available females. This goes on until the rising youth are strong enough to retaliate, either at home or in a new troop. Humans have an ancient motivation to rise in the social hierarchy, but we dress our motives in lofty language. We explain conflict with theories that overlook the underlying mammalian drive to rise in the status hierarchy.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
Neurochemistry plays a lead role in this Neil Simon gem about unemployment. Jack Lemmon plays an executive who falls apart after losing his job of two decades. His devoted wife, played by Ann Bancroft, does everything she can to help, but nothing works. They try therapy for his depression, and 1975-style therapy is fascinating to watch. It doesn’t help, and the frenzy of Midtown Manhattan makes everything worse in classic Neil-Simon fashion.
What finally works is inappropriate rage. Jack Lemmon thinks he’s been pick-pocketed, and fights back. This is not the cliched rage-at-the-system plot, because it’s obvious that his aggression is misplaced. He jumped to the conclusion that his wallet was stolen when a stranger pressed against him on the street. The stranger is a very young Sylvester Stallone. Jack Lemmon chases Stallone around Central Park and Fifth Avenue, through the neighborhood inhabited by Jackie Kennedy, Bobbie Short, and the Metropolitan Museum. Finally, the depressed man tackles the presumed thief in front of aloof Manhattan passers-by, and grabs a wallet.
Jack Lemmon realizes the wallet isn’t his when he gets home and shows his wife. But he suddenly notices that he feels good. The physical exertion and the vigorous pursuit of his self-interest jump-started his depressed neural circuits. His wife doesn’t understand. She concentrates on the wrong he has done. In a compelling mammalian moment, he tries to put into words the sudden feeling of well-being he’s experiencing. He suddenly feels adequate to face the challenges of life, from making amends with the owner of the wallet to finding a new job.
This is not just some playwright’s fantasy but a real physiological phenomenon. Novelist Nick Hornby describes the same experience in his memoir, Fever Pitch. Hornby was in a deep depression for seven years, which coincided precisely with the losing streak of his favorite soccer team. When they finally won, his depression suddenly lifted. He was glad for that, but he was ashamed to think he’d hitched his emotions to such a banal guiding star. A more satisfying explanation is that his explosion of joy in a stadium full of like-minded people sparked his positive neural circuits enough to get them going again.
This movie shows how neurochemical reactions to events can be more significant than the events themselves. Our neurochemistry is rarely as easy to control as we expect. Our unhappy chemicals do not always yield to the verbal logic we impose on them. Sometimes, a mammalian problem requires a mammalian solution.
The Good Earth
This movie is a useful antidote to the belief that “life is hard these days.” No one wants to watch a movie about people slowly starving to death, but the joy people feel when they triumph over scarcity is well-portrayed here. The movie is based on the book that won Pearl S. Buck the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature and a 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The story is set in rural China, but the characters react to their status ups and downs in ways that humans from any time or place will recognize.
The husband and wife react differently, and that is the core of the drama. The wife seems unable to enjoy abundance when she has it. She grew up with cruelty, and once she has money the only thing she wants is to flaunt it in front of her former tormentors. She never built neural pathways for enjoying herself. She’s a brilliant survivor, but she doesn’t know it because her attention is always on the next crisis. Mammals have survived for millions of this years with this skill.
The husband is a lover of life as well as a survivor. When he gets rich, someone says it’s time he take a second wife. His reaction to that suggestion is a captivating mammalian moment. He scoffs loudly, but he is clearly rolling it around in his mind. Soon, Wife #2 is installed in his home. A mammal turns its attention toward the survival of its DNA as soon as its immediate survival needs are met. We express this in different ways, but the same basic drive to leave a legacy generates the energy.
Wife #2 wrecks this prosperous home in classically primate ways. The women antagonize each other in a manner that is characteristic of female apes. Ugly male rivalries surface too, because Dad bought himself a woman without buying one for his two grown sons. One son retaliates in the time-honored manner of young primates. The junior wife is pleased to receive the attentions of the younger, stronger male. The alpha male reacts badly to this challenge.
When this family was starving, the actors played them with big smiles and erect spines. Once they become rich, the director presents them as petty and fatuous. The merchant father is practically twirling his mustache most of the time. Vilifying the rich and idealizing the poor is a simple way to make sense of the world, both on screen and in one’s own mind. In the real world, rich and poor have the same mammal brain. That brain looks for ways to advance status, causing frustration and disappointment at the top, the middle, and the bottom. If poverty truly brought happiness, everyone burdened by silk robes would just rip them off and be happy.
You don’t expect a queen to have status problems, and you surely don’t expect yourself to sympathize with them. But in this movie, we see how Queen Victoria was utterly dominated, even while the Crown of England was being handed to her.
Victoria did not have the alpha upbringing you might expect. Her ties to the British monarchy were weak. Her father was the fourth son of King George III, and died as soon as she was born. Her mother, a German, clung to status hopes by keeping her a virtual prisoner in Kensington Palace (later the home of Princess Diana). Little Vicky was slated to rule when every other legitimate heir to the throne died. Mum was determined to rule Victoria when Victoria ruled England.
The reigning king subverts Mum by clinging to life until Victoria’s eighteenth birthday. When he dies, England’s top leaders rush from his deathbed to Victoria’s home in the middle of the night to recognize her as their monarch, according to custom. Mum refuses to wake her up, invoking parental authority. If Queen Victoria submitted to her mother at that moment, she would have had trouble reclaiming her power. But in a stirring mammalian moment, she straightens her spine, puts her shoulders back, and commands her mother to stay back as she goes in to accept the fealty of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister.
Alas, Victoria’s life is full of people struggling to dominate her. Many status-seekers aspire to control the British Empire by controlling this petite, inexperienced teenaged girl. Hereditary titles don’t exist in nature. Wild animals only rule if they are able to dominate their group-mates. Mammal enhance their dominance by building alliances. Many mammals sought alliances with Victoria.
Like every group-living mammal, Victoria had trouble figuring out who to trust. Whether you’re a queen or just the monkey in the street, there’s no easy way to predict which potential allies you can trust and which individuals will only hurt your survival prospects.
In the end, Victoria put her trust in Albert. He was also surrounded by manipulators, and their shared need to manage challenges to their dominance strengthened their bond.
As we’ve seen, Albert had unique status problems. British law did not accord him a title. The males at the top of Britain’s status hierarchy were not keen to just give away the top slot. Albert’s power to impregnate the Queen was the only power he had. So he did.
Albert settled into Buckingham Palace to find the kind of sexual intrigues that ruined his childhood. He catches a palace staffer in flagrante, and Victoria shrugs it off with an “everyone-does-it.” Albert boils over and decides it’s time to resist her and the whole palace bureaucracy. He fires the staffer, and in so doing sparks change in the cultural acceptance of male infidelity. It’s hard for us to understand Albert’s contribution now that the word “Victorian” has become a pejorative. By taking a stand, Albert helped to stop the epidemic of venereal disease in the only way possible at that time. Of course infidelity continued. But keeping mistresses was no longer an accepted routine because it could cost you your job.
People who mock Victorian values today do not know how they have benefited. In the past, any extra money a father had was likely to get diverted to a mistress. Today, a straying father risks losing half of everything. Women and children can thank Albert instead of sneering at him. We will always be mammals, but cultural institutions evolve to manage the consequences.
You can get more of the story from the two-disc BBC teleplay Victoria and Albert (2001), also available from Netflix.
Mafiosi, like baboons, can move fluidly between cooperation and lethal rivalry. Primatologists like to focus on the cooperation part. They celebrate the caring and sharing of apes and skim over the brutality that regularly erupts. Movies often do that too. They focus on the camaraderie of criminals, representing them as a bunch of fellas uniting in common goals.
Goodfellas is more honest about the criminal urge to dominate. The movie is based on the life of Henry Hill as he told it to a journalist in the book Wiseguy. Hill had no formal status in the Mafia’s social hierarchy – he was only half Italian. But he was very outspoken about the dominance-seeking behaviors they engage in.
The movie has special significance for me because it opens with the caption “East New York, 1955.” That’s the Brooklyn neighborhood I was born in, and the year my father moved us to the suburbs. My father was quite a submissive person, and this movie helps me understand. He grew up on the same streets as Henry Hill, watching Mafiosi dominating and getting “respect.” My father never talked about it, but it’s clear he did not embrace Henry Hill’s strategy for getting respect.
In Italian, a Mafia member is called a “man of respect” (uomo di rispetto). Henry Hill grows up watching people defer to local mobsters the way baboons defer to their alpha. Young Henry’s mirror neurons respond to the pleasure in that. At home he is violently dominated by his parents, so we can understand his urge to get out of the house and apprentice himself to the mob at age eleven. Soon, he starts getting respect.
The everybody-does-it attitude toward violence is brilliantly illuminated in a scene where Henry and friends stop for a snack at Mamma’s house in the midst of committing murder. In an Academy Award-winning role, Joe Pesci invites the gang to his house to get shovels to bury the body and some home-cooked meatballs. In a stunning mammalian moment, Mamma is so thrilled by the company of these nice young men that she doesn’t ask nosy questions about the blood all over them. They politely wash their hands and enjoy the meatballs without fear of her sauce staining their shirts. Scorsese cast his own mother in the role.
Henry becomes attractive to women as he rises in his chosen profession. He desires a nice Jewish girl from the other side of the tracks (played by a young Lorraine Bracco, the therapist in the Sopranos). Ordinarily she wouldn’t look twice at him, but she sees maitre d’s fawn over him at top nightclubs, and she sees his brute-strength protectiveness when she’s harassed by the boy next door. He seduces her with so much stuff that she quickly stops asking where the money cam from. He abuses her, and she submits to protect her own safety. It could easily be a case study from a primatology textbook.
Henry Hill gets the world to submit to his domination, over and over. He kills and steals with impunity. He brazenly defies the Mafia, first with drugs and then by testifying against them in court. Even the US Department of Justice submits to Henry. The Federal Witness Protection Program saves his life with a new identity, and he flagrantly returns to drugs and crime while under their protection. He blows his cover and they give him a second new identity, and then a third. This part of the story in taken up in another Hollywood movie, My Blue Heaven. Steve Martin is cast as a Henry Hill who’s too hip for the suburban life the Feds have foisted on him. The FBI agents assigned to protect him are portrayed as bumblers who eagerly submit to his dominance. The uomo di rispetto is the good guy in Nora Ephron’s screen adaptation of her husband’s book Wiseguy.
Why would movie makers and audiences empathize with a brutal dominator rather than with his countless victims? Because the mammal brain is so impressed by social dominance that it can skim over horrific means to that end.
Remorse has not impeded Henry Hill’s quest for status. He is still leveraging his story to pay the bills. He developed a Mafia cookbook, a website, and other marketing tie-ins to supplement his income from royalties and drug-dealing. His career as a celebrity is still gaining traction – consult YouTube for the dismaying details.
The Bicycle Thief (originally, Bicycle Thieves)
This movie has become a classic for its depiction of the crushing struggle for survival in post-war Rome. Young mammals learn their survival skills from their parents, and The Bicycle Thief keeps reminding us that the child is watching.
We see an unemployed father thrilled to hear of a job pasting posters around Rome. Unfortunately, a bicycle is required for the job. He and his wife decide to sell their last possession, their bed linens, to buy a bicycle. All too soon, street toughs steal the bike and the father searches for it desperately. The 1948 footage of Rome filled with bicycles rather than cars is intriguing despite the somber tone.
The young son joins his father on the search. They find the thief but can’t get justice from the police. Feeling wronged, the father decides to steal a bicycle himself. He is quickly caught and arrested in front of his son. The son explodes with grief, which moves the victim to not to press charges. The victim’s empathy for the child makes this a truly mammalian moment. Mammals nurture their young longer than other species. The victim was deprived of his bicycle as much as the father, yet his urge to nurture the young is stronger than his own self interest.
Father and son return home with a sense of hopelessness about their quest for survival. Hopelessness is a neural circuit that makes it easy to find facts that fit. Some historical context helps us see that things are less hopeless than the movie suggests.
Lawlessness spun out of control in Italy after World War II, especially in the South. A mass outbreak of theft and violence came with the end of fascism. The police tried to respond, and were vilified for jailing fathers who were allegedly “just feeding their families.” The Bicycle Thief portrays the hypocrisy that perpetuates the problem: the father wanted law enforcement when he was the victim but reviled law enforcement when he was the perpetrator. A man who was anti-theft when he was the victim is pro-theft when he is the beneficiary. Humans can overlook contradictions in their logical positions because their mammal brain’s perspective feels more real. To the mammal brain, what promotes my survival is good and what hinders it is bad.
Policing cannot keep order when large numbers of people decide to put themselves above the law. When parents think this way, children learn from watching. In many places, children watch a lot of disrespect for the law. In Southern Italy, order was re-established by organized crime because they got respect where the formal system did not. When people only respect force, violent dominators rise to the top of the status hierarchy.
A hungry father has no other choice, people often say. That view is reinforced by the lack of hope presented at the end of this film. It is called a “neo-realist” film, which implies that hopelessness is realistic. But the fact is, Italy’s GDP pulled ahead of England’s four decades after this movie. Life does improve. We live better than our ancestors. We don’t realize it because our mammal brains still feel insecure and frustrated. They’re just doing the job they evolved to do: staying alert for risks and focusing on problems rather than accomplishments. Our problem-focused minds improve our lives and quickly shift focus to the next problem. We hardly notice our past successes as we rush to solve the next problem.
Some days are a total bust, and movies reflect that. But some days hold breakthroughs. If you lean toward “neo-realism,” you can build a mental model of the world that only includes the disappointment and frustration. Such a film festival of despair would include La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles), which is even bleaker than the Bicycle Thief. This Visconti saga portrays an impoverished Sicilian fisherman trying to better his life by buying his own boat. His family risks everything to eliminate the middleman instead of being a cog in the wheel of Big Fishing. Everything goes wrong, and they end up with even bigger holes in their rags, and more emaciated bones showing through. Worst of all, they are shunned by their peers. A viewer could easily conclude that no one has ever bought a boat and improved their life, and that everyone will always be a hopeless victim of big business. Or a person could choose different movies.
A wonderful choice would be the Chinese re-make of this movie, called Beijing Bicycle. It revolves around a poor boy who needs the bike to make a living and a rich boy who bought the bike from a used-bike street market. This movie astutely avoids oversimplifying things. It show the social frustrations of both the rich and the poor boy – frustrations universal to group-living mammals.
Ninotchka / Silk Stockings
Ninotchka is a female Soviet functionary visiting Paris on business. Greta Garbo plays her in the 1939 movie, and Cole Porter scored her in the 1955 Broadway musical Silk Stockings. Fred Astaire plays her suitor in the movie based on the musical. Beneath the fluffy trimmings lies a classic mammalian story.
Ninotchka has high status as a Soviet official, though she speaks in the rhetoric of self-sacrifice. In Paris she sees the bourgeois self-indulgence that she equates with the imminent collapse of the West. Lovers in Paris represent bourgeois sentimentalism to Ninotchka. Her inner Stalinist is soon challenged by a persistent suitor. She tells him what her communist teachers told her: sex is a physiological necessity but personal attachment is weak and decadent.
The suitor pursues Ninotchka doggedly. Both are caricatures. She is absurdly stiff and the suitor is implausibly smooth. But the conflict between them dramatizes the perennial mammalian conflict between the urge to meet one’s needs and the urge to defer to more powerful individuals in order to protect one’s self. The Cold War came and went but this conflict will always be with us.
Ninotchka expresses her disapproval in romance by telling her suitor: “We’re tiny cogs in the great wheel of evolution.” He’s an experienced Parisian boulevardier and refuses to give up on the apparatchik. She tells him, “You’re a product of a doomed culture; your type will soon be extinct.” Finally she warms up to him, but the only way she can express herself is in ideological terms: “Let’s form our own party.” I found this hilarious because I have known many such ideologues in my life.
Cole Porter transforms the socialist theory of sexuality into the brilliant song It’s A Chemical Attraction, That’s All. Physical attraction is purely electrochemical, Ninotchka asserts. She quotes Soviet scientists who “proved” that electro-magnetism is all there is to the decadent capitalist phenomenon of romantic love. Their debate continues in the song Paris Loves Lovers. Cole Porter’s counterpoint is the perfect vehicle for this debate. Fred Astaire flirts, and Ninotchka rebuffs each overture with the rhyming “imperialistic,” “militaristic,” “individualistic,” “not collectivistic.” When he says lovers are “in heaven,” she retorts “they should be atheistic.” It is rare to hear human nature debated with such perfect rhythm and rhyme.
The memorable mammalian moment revolves around Ninotchka’s love for a hat. At first, she scoffs at the excessive ornamentation of 1939 Paris. A pouffy hat on sale in the lobby of her hotel is clear proof to her that capitalism is crumbling. “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now, comrades.” But in the end, she buys the hat and even acknowledges her insecurity about her looks. She subtly acknowledges that her insecurity comes from her own desire for approval rather than from outside forces – a significant insight that not everyone achieves.
The point of the movie is not to celebrate pouffy hats, silk stockings, and seedy French boulevardiers. The point is that Ninotchka’s desire for status in the Communist Party hierarchy is the same as romantic desire – just a mammal brain’s quest for opportunities to improve its own survival prospects. The indulgences that Ninotchka saw as corruption ultimately make her less corrupt. The “before” Ninotchka had no regard for others except as it helped her pursuit of status in the Soviet hierarchy. Her answer to a request for news from Moscow was: “The latest mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer Russians but better Russians.” The “after” Ninotchka learns to feed her inner mammal with small pleasures rather than with grandiose schemes for controlling her fellow mammal. It’s amazing to see such deep issues depicted in song and dance routines.
Queen Victoria was in a deep depression after the early death of her husband Albert, and she only came out of it when she formed an attachment to a servant. Her relationship with John Brown was not sexual, but it so outraged polite society that they took to calling her “Mrs. Brown.”
Victoria’s huge staff of retainers and sycophants could not understand what she saw in the lowly Scottish horse groomer. But it’s clear that he satisfied her mammal brain’s desire for protection. John Brown was a primal-type alpha male: big and aggressive. He had low status in British society, but he focused all of his energy on protecting Victoria. An alpha female like Victoria could have her pick of the males. Like any female ape, she wanted an effective protector more than a toadying twit from high society.
Some women prefer a toadying twit with money, but Victoria did not need money. She needed someone she could trust to keep her safe. She got that oxytocin feeling around John Brown for the first time since her husband died. That trust was based on his ability to dominate.
John Brown tackled a prowler who tried to attack the Queen. Then he dominated the other servants who tried to keep him away from the Queen. These servants were well-born courtiers, as is typical of royal households. Brown lowered their status by capturing the Queen’s attention, so they united to resist him, as apes unite to eliminate a rival. John Brown’s status plummets from bodyguard with benefits to back-office security clerk.
To be fair to the twits, it must be explained that John Brown is a drunken lout. In a brilliant mammalian moment, the courtiers convey their disdain for him with synchronized eye rolls that barely ruffle the extreme decorum they maintain in front of the Queen. We see the Queen strolling with her ladies-in-waiting, and we see the ladies give each other “the look” that says “we don’t respect him.” But we also see that these ladies have low status. They walk in lock-step with the Queen, pausing whenever she pauses, with their hands primly folded. They do not move a muscle without permission for fear of losing their status in the royal household, while John Brown freely acts on every impulse.
These upper crust ladies choose this life of servitude because it raises their status. The Queen feels trapped by them and longs to be free of her retinue. But the retainers cling so relentlessly to their alliance with the alpha that the Queen lacks the power to free herself. Primatologists often note that individuals in the second tier, just below the alpha, have the most relentless drive for status. Baboon-expert Robert Sapolsky discovered the highest stress levels, as measured by blood cortisol, among the high but not top-ranking individuals – the alpha’s cronies as it were. It makes sense because they have the most to lose. They’ve invested a lot of effort to reach the top, and their mammal brain goads them to keep trying. The slogan We’re #2, We try harder came from an ad for the second-ranking car-rental company, but it reflects a ubiquitous mammalian attitude.
If a royal courtier departs from prescribed convention in the smallest degree, they can lose the status their families spent generations accumulating. The other wannabes make sure of it. High status does not guarantee happiness, but the brain seeks it anyway.
When Prince Albert was alive, the Queen wanted to avoid the fishbowl court and be alone with her husband. But Albert insisted they make nice with courtiers for the sake of their legacy. Their main goal in life was establishing their children in monarchies, so they did everything they could to preserve the institution. Albert knew that what keeps a monarchy going is courtiers striving to raise their status. The reflected glory of associating with the royal family is what motivates elite support for the institution of royalty. If monarchs just kept to themselves, or cavorted with whatever Scottish louts amused them, support would soon dwindle. So Victoria kept letting retainers groom her the way alpha apes lets their underlings groom them. And she succeeded in marrying her children into royal families and producing lots of high-status grandchildren. Victoria wanted reproductive success more than she wanted to be free to do what she pleased on a moment-to-moment basis. Alphas and wannabes are as trapped by the status hierarchy as everyone below them. Each person traps themselves, as their mammal brain strives for happy chemicals.
Creation: How Darwin Saw the World and Changed It Forever
Charles Darwin was a mammal. He created two great legacies: the theory he’s known for today, and the ten children he fathered. His scientific legacy gets most of the attention, but this movie shows how intensely his brain was focused on the reproductive side of his life. On the day that his theory was finally presented to the public, Darwin was home grieving the death of another child. The torment Darwin experienced on the road to his great accomplishments is vividly recreated in this movie. That torment came not from the system but from the mammalian challenges that frustrate everyone.
Darwin did not want to lose the goodwill of his wife. She was a religious woman who believed Darwin would go to hell for his blasphemy. She agonized over the thought of being separated from her husband in eternity, and that forced Darwin to agonize over it. In truth, Mrs. Darwin also seemed concerned about what the neighbors would think if one blasphemed. Charles hated to cause her pain, so he hesitated to publish his findings without her support.
Darwin also suffered greatly over the health of his children. The death of his favorite daughter is the focus of the movie, but the overall sickliness of his children is the real issue. In a painful mammalian moment, Darwin realizes that marrying his first cousin may be the cause of his children’s sickliness. This insight is more significant than it seems today, with our molecular understanding of genetics. In Darwin’s time, the dangers of inbreeding were only understood through experience with animal breeding, a popular activity among country gentlemen. People were not accustomed to taking responsibility for their genetic choices – Victoria and Albert’s first-cousin marriage was celebrated at this time. Darwin’s advanced scientific intuition forced him to confront the likelihood that his choice to marry within the confines of his high-status family caused the suffering of his children. Today, most of us have not watched a child die, so it’s hard for us to imagine him doing it three times.
Darwin suffered from chronic abdominal pain, and this guilt made it worse. The movie shows how he finally overcomes his anxiety and presents his new paradigm to the world. It condenses the facts to add drama. A fuller account of Darwin’s inner turmoil can be found in a highly-readable book called The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.
Darwin was a modest man, not known as a status seeker. But his mammalian motives are obvious if you look deeper. First, Darwin grew up with a father who called him a loser in no uncertain terms (“you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family”). Charles came from an extremely accomplished family and he needed to do something to distinguish himself. He was pressured to be a doctor like his father and grandfather, but found the blood revolting. He considered other careers, but felt no calling to anything but observing nature. The only respectable way to do that was to be a country parson. He escaped that ironic double-bind when the opportunity to be a naturalist on the Beagle arose.
But twenty years after the voyage of the Beagle, he was still kicking tires. He hadn’t assembled his scientific data into a new paradigm he felt was persuasive. Only the threat of a competitor provoked him to publish his work. Rivals provoke mammals to take the risks necessary to triumph. Darwin had never proven himself, and without that urge for status he may never have taken the risk of presenting his ideas to the world.
The mammalian quest for a legacy shaped Darwin in an even more significant way. It is not widely known that Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had already thought of evolution. Darwin was only giving scientific respectability to ideas he had picked up at the dinner table. Though Erasmus died before Charles was born, each generation is deeply shaped by the ideas they’re exposed to during the formative years of their brain. The writings of Erasmus were public, so anyone could have built on their legacy. But not everyone would think it was worth the reward. To Charles, building on the legacy of his grandfather was his best shot at winning the respect of his father.
Early experience shapes our understanding of the natural world. Max Planck said that “science advances one funeral at a time.” In other words, the brain has trouble seeing scientific data in any but the way it first wires itself for. Thomas Kuhn highlighted this quirk of history in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He said that new facts are seen as errors until a new generation grows up with the conflicting data. Kuhn left out the status part. New scientists need new paradigms to raise their status. Old scientists see new paradigms as threats to their status, and from a career perspective this is patently true. Young scientists are not more “objective” or “honest.” They are simply mammals who build careers on new paradigms and the grant money and titles that go with it. Then they go on protect their new paradigm like generation before them. They too dismiss conflicting evidence, thus creating opportunity for the next generation of thinkers to make a place for themselves. Truth is not a finite set of facts. Truth is a social process that evolves.