Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guns & Genes

The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Seamus McGraw, “Hunting Deer with my Flintlock” (26 December 2011, page A27), and the article not only conjures some very old memories, but invites comment from an evolutionary perspective. The short narrative is engaging, mostly since I am now editing our fourth literary anthology entitled: Being Human: Call of the Wild. McGraw’s piece (though not a short story) hits the themes of the book: the contradictory sides of humanity – both the cruel and the caring.
The article describes the hunter’s fascination with the flintlock, and the responsibility (his word) of pruning out the destructive deer population near Bushkill, Pennsylvania. (As an undergraduate, I read Harry Caudill, so I am not insensitive to a region’s delicate ecological balance.) Nevertheless, most intriguing is how the narrator expresses his disdain for killing – twice he says, “I hate to kill” – and yet his stated intention is to be, rather, responsible (to his community and to the increasing deer population).
The article is a brilliant exposition of, first, our deeply-ingrained hunter/gatherer mental archetypes, and, second, our more highly-developed moral sense. At times, these two poles, ever in conflict, can collide, and the killer instinct can become paramount. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that most of our long human history was spent as hunters and gatherers, so those mental operations and mechanisms are still quite predominant in us. For a much shorter period of time we were agriculturalists (and have spent only a fraction of our history in towns and villages). We are hunters at heart.
The article is primal humankind, the hunter/gatherer with his elemental genes responding to his wild, forest environment. The narrator reminds us, through his own story, what it means to be part of a tribe. Though he emphasizes his solitude in hunting, he makes clear that he is part of two special groups: one that hunts and one that hunts with a primitive weapon. This is classic male humankind, when specific brain chemicals become excited at the risk of hunting and activated by a gratified feeling of the kill. The article is a wonderful testament to our human history, how in spite of our humane development and progress, our still-active, ancient psychic life can be prompted unconsciously. At the same time, the narrator expresses the advanced, conscious human brain, one that contemplates complex moral decisions and exhibits conscience.
So why tell this story? On the one hand it validates the aggressive, violent side of being human; and on the other hand, there is the side which over the course of human evolution has developed mechanisms to control such aggression. Other, less-developed primates also express social and empathic emotions (and are not always completely aggressive).
On a personal note, I once attended a wedding in Eastern Pennsylvania during hunting season and was surprised to see men walking down the streets casually carrying rifles. Later that day, at the wedding reception, the bride’s brother clinically told me how he took one of his dogs (that had somehow annoyed him) in the backyard and shot it in the head. I also recall reading in The Atlantic Monthly, about forty years ago (when I was a teenager), a story very similar to McGraw’s. The narrator wrote about his hunt, and then proceeded to explain how, in spite of his apparent brutality, he could go home, listen to Beethoven, have a French wine, and read Henry James. (I might have those facts wrong, but that was the gist of it.)
There is no gene to control appetite, and we still have canine teeth for some purpose; so perhaps (for many of us) the desire for fresh kill is uncontrollable. The question is: Who satisfies that primal desire and who resists?
- Gregory F. Tague