‘David’, an ageing patriarch whose time at the top is nearly over and who is clearly anxious about challenges from his younger rivals and concerned with his legacy, narrates this compelling programme about ‘David’, an ageing patriarch whose time at the top is nearly over and who is clearly anxious about challenges from his younger rivals and concerned with his legacy.
The BBC’s new block-buster, Dynasties, can perhaps best be seen as an impressive and timely reflection of the unconscious concerns and obsessions of late capitalism – as Marx presciently observed, ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (e.g. ideas of power, dominance, hierarchy, survival as telos, become ‘naturalised’), and nowhere is this unconscious dynamic seen more clearly than in the dominant ideas of environmentalism.
The ideological mantras which underwrite and sustain Patricianist Malthusian David Attenborough’s latest outing – the familiar post-industrial, late capitalist rhetoric of ‘fighting for survival’, ‘winning against the adds’, and the centrality of the ideology of ‘the family’ – are evident in the opening lines of Attenborough’s breathy narration: “The family, is, one of the most powerful, forces, in nature.”
And with no hint of apparent bathos or inappropriateness, we’re then introduced to “an alpha male known as David”. Known as David to whom? Did the documentary makers scientifically work out that this was the name given to him by the rest of the chimp tribe? – or is it a name that was made up and imposed on this unfortunate chimpanzee, like everything else in the programme?
David turns out to be rather doleful and dour, resembling how Prince Philip might look at hearing the news that Jeremy Corbyn has become Prime Minister. To call him ‘David’ is clearly a seductive narrative ploy to encourage the viewers to identify with this rather pitiful and desperate loner (or “alpha male” as white-coat scientists like to call this type), but is also highly inappropriate, misleading, and rather farcical – in its blatant anthropomorphism, ‘David’ unfortunately resembles Rowan Atkinson’s performance as ‘Gerald the Gorilla’ in the brilliant satirical sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News:
You wonder whether the BBC audience would have warmed to him so closely if they had not given him any human name, or perhaps called him Gerald, or indeed Sixtus Alfred Wulfric Leyson Pius, Dwayne, Chardonnay, or Kanye.
“He’s surrounded by rivals prepared to kill him for his crown”, we’re then told. Crown? The narrative framework for these purportedly ‘natural history’ programmes is typically drama-oriented and relentlessly violent, and here again Attenborough doesn’t disappoint: hours of footage of cows interminably chewing the cud, termites farting, or sloths hanging around doing basically nothing, would presumably not drive ratings, even though they would suggest to viewers a more realistic view of the natural world. In this, Dynasties is a sort of Peaky Blinders or Eastenders with a highbrow, high production patina to gloss over and justify the satisfying undertow of bickering, rivalry and violence lurking beneath.
But I think there’s a deeper psychological attraction to violence in contemporary culture, chiming as it does with the peculiar form of brutality and sadism of late capitalism (acting as both convenient naturaliser, outlet, and container of its rage), as well as with the continuing left-hemipshere fascination with use, manipulation, and power.
These, as McGilchrist notes, are key attributes of toxic, ‘free-wheeling’ hyper-rationality, the form of consciousness that he argues has dominated Western culture since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of consumer capitalism. Hence the pervasiveness, and appeal, of predators and psychopaths in these cultures: ‘Nature’ has always been a convenient cypher for the disavowed unconscious of human society, a blank canvas on which we can smear our deepest misanthropy or most idealistic longings.
The Political Basis of Darwinism
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out that “scientists, as ordinary human beings, unconsciously reflect in their theories the social and political constraints of their times.” He also succinctly observed that Darwin’s theory is “the economy of Adam Smith transferred to nature.” In order to understand David Attenborough’s rather dismal view of Nature in terms of over-population, struggle, scarcity and competition, it is necessary to examine both the social background to Darwin’s original theory and the language he uses to describe the world that he sees.
It is notable in this respect that the chief influence on Charles Darwin’s thinking about ‘Nature’ was not a biologist but an economist, and indeed a clergyman, the reverend Thomas Malthus. Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) publicly promulgated ideas of over-population, competition and a struggle for life. As Charles Darwin himself wrote, the theory of natural selection was “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms”. By recognising the influence of Malthus, who was not a natural philosopher but an economist who worked for the East India Company, on subsequent evolutionary theories it is possible to see how far certain partial or distorted political and social ideas have found their expression in mainstream scientific discourse.
That Charles Darwin was himself seeing nature through Malthusian spectacles has been commented on by his recent biographers:
Darwin’s Malthusian specs were beginning to fit comfortably, and peering through them revealed ‘the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings. going on the peaceful woods. & smiling fields.’ Or rather, on the capital’s dirty, disease-ridden streets, because he was hardly seeing nature at all any more. His increasingly bleak image of nature was a counterpoint to a society in the grip of depression, with the war in London’s slums forcing the starving poor to emigrate or march in protest. (Desmond and Moore, ‘Darwin’)
Darwin’s “image of nature” was increasingly bleak partly because he was seeing it in the terms set by the social reality of his own day. As Desmond and Moore acutely note:
Darwin’s biological initiative matched advanced Whig social thinking. This is what made it compelling. At last he had a mechanism that was compatible with the competitive, free-trading ideals of the ultra-Whigs … the Malthusian superstructure struck an emotionally satisfying chord; an open struggle with no hand-outs to the losers was the Whig way, and no poor-law commissioner could have bettered Darwin’s view … From now on he could appeal to a better class of audience – to the rising industrialists, free-traders, and Dissenting professionals.
And it was the “rising industrialists, free-traders, and Dissenting professionals” who constituted the very class that was to dominate and control science for the forseeable future. “More and more these oligarchs of new wealth were occupying the back benches of the learned societies: mining engineers, empire builders, improving doctors, and London professors. Darwin’s Nature sanctioned no privilege; everything was thrown into competition, and talent was rewarded. These new meritocrats wanted nothing more.” As Desmond and Moore observe, Darwinism was always intended to be Social Darwinism.
This political aspect of Darwinian thinking was present in it from the very beginning, reflecting the social and economic womb out of which these perspectives and metaphors of ‘Nature’ emerged. Shelley had already described Malthus as “the apostle of the rich” because his arguments, like Darwin’s after him, were invoked to support the social consequences of contemporary economic commerce. Shelley rightly believed that Malthus’s views on population were more the expression of political creed than an understanding of natural processes. The practical consequences of Malthusian thinking, he pointed out, are to debase man’s conception of nature and to prevent a “radical reform of moral and political evil” from ever taking place because it is held to be “visionary and inconsistent with human nature”.
In 1838 Charles Darwin read Malthus’s Essay on Population, “and this”, according to anthropologist Richard Leakey, “sowed seeds that were to be important for the later development of his theory of natural selection.” “No one,” as Desmond and Moore conclude, “was to have a more crucial influence on his science than Malthus.” Its influence was evident to Karl Marx, who wrote to his colleague Friedrich Engels: “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society, with its division of labour, competition, opening-up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.” In a century of British imperialism, of survival by conquest, of warring classes and devastating famines, of massive social unrest and change, how coincidental that a biologist should come up with a theory of nature that might be said to mirror existing human preoccupations. Darwin himself acknowledged the debt:
A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence … It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.
Peter Bowler, in his recent study Evolution: The History of an Idea, has similarly shown how developments in the science of evolution closely mirrored and tracked social and economical developments during the nineteenth-century and points out the similarities between Paley’s natural philosophy and Adam Smith’s economics, both trying to salvage the idea that harmony and the general good could come out of competition, struggle and individualism. By 1800 this rosy image was already breaking down with the result that writers such as Malthus were attempting to legitimize the increasingly severe hardship and poverty by claiming that they were natural. In a sense both Malthus and Darwin were right: wars, genocide, disease and famine were the necessary effect of the preservation of a competitive market philosophy in which those which have the best fitted organization will gain the day.
“This is a story of power, politics, and a fight for survival”, Attenborough dutifully tells us, continuing this predictable Malthusian narrative, and to make sure we’re not missing the intended lesson. At least with Johnny Morris you had the amusing voice-overs, rather than this subliminal sociological masterclass with its quasi-religious overtones and turgid, orchestral score. ‘David must be political to hold onto power’, we’re informed, as if we’re witnessing the last days of the Borgias. Attenborough’s unexpected use of the word ‘political’ here – just like the BBC’s bizarre christening of the chimpanzee as ‘David’ – shows an extraordinary disregard of the lexicon: political means of the polis – the self-created, artificial, human, city. Citizens of the city were therefore ‘political’, meaning ‘of the city’. The Ancient Greek name βάρβαρος (barbaros or “barbarian“), was an antonym for πολίτης (politēs) or “citizen” (from πόλις – polis, “city-state”). A barbarian is therefore a human who is perceived to be either uncivilized or primitive. To refer to creatures who have no conception of the polis, let alone live with it, vote for it, or exercise political (‘polis-based’) rights – all of which give the word its meaning – is as inappropriate as putting monkeys in PG Tips sweaters and pretending they’re having a tea party.
To its credit, Dynasties is certainly compellingly produced and beautifully filmed. It’s an impressively edited, orchestrated, and scripted drama, that should be up for a BAFTA – perhaps for best religious documentary, or Award for Best Editing. To have edited out so much of Nature – the endless waiting, the boredom, the sleeping, the shitting, the monotonous chewing – is certainly an impressive artistic achievement that clearly required a great deal of technical editing skill and thought (the original filming, we’re told, took place over a period of 309 days in Senegal, which if broadcast ‘naturally’ would’ve made a programme of Webergian length).
It’s grandly called ‘Dynasties’, with all of its intended cultural and imperial associations, but it might equally well have been called ‘Bullies’: one little bully picking on even smaller ones. For behind the thud-thud of the BBC string department, the cinematic long-shots, the faux Kubrick-esque gravitas, the grandiose title, and the entertaining Lion King vibe, that’s really all that’s going on. But then, that’s how it operates as documentary, as fiction, as socially made aesthetic prime-time product – all the cutting edge cinematography, orchestration, editing, and grand narration is exactly how it seduces the viewer, how it works.
Various commentators have noted how Darwin’s own vision of Nature is very much rooted in the dominant ideas of his own époque – indeed, Darwin himself admitted this. As we’ve seen, Marx regarded Darwin’s basic theory of the ‘struggle for existence’ as an inappropriately political application of Malthusian and Hobbesian thinking onto the whole of the natural world:
The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. (Marx to Engels, June 18, 1862; Engels to Lavrov, 12 November 1875)
As a historical materialist, Marx clearly believed that we were all part of the same process of embodied evolution – his opposition was not on religious but on scientific grounds, and the term he singles out to denote what distinguishes humanity as a species is not therefore “rational”, or “tool-using”, or “has a soul”, or “has language”, but that we are collaborative artists – producers:
The essential difference between human and animal society is that animals are at most gatherers whilst men are producers. This single but cardinal distinction alone makes it impossible simply to transfer the laws of animal societies to human societies.
That’s what distinguishes us for Marx: not language, logos, or left-brain rationality, but creative productivity – our ability to transmute and transform the world on a scale hitherto unimaginable, literally. Like Blake, Marx recognises that human energy and creativity are valuable and unusual entities, and that to collapse this extraordinary visionary capacity by equating us with chimpanzees who at the summit of their intellectual and cultural achievement use twigs to eat ants is both sad and rather psychotic. Only an animal deeply self-alienated and self-hating could see itself in this way.
It’s interesting in this respect that Sir David Attenborough and the prestigious BBC Studios Natural History Unit chose to focus on the hierarchal, power-based, drama of chimpanzees for their study, with all of its underlying political implications.
Fellow Malthusian naturalist Chris Packham (like Attenborough, a patron of the toxic ‘Population Matters‘ lobby group) has for example summarised Dynasties as being “all about primate politics, with a bit of general day-to-day biology on top”. “Dynasties is more akin to a political thriller than a traditional natural history series” purred the Radio Times, with its “brutal and bloody coups”, “pretenders to the crown”, “power bids” and “political skills”: “Just like humans”, it helpfully guides us.
But in fact the closest ape-like relative to humans is not the chimpanzee but the bonobo, who live very different sorts of lives. As the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observes:
Bonobos and Chimpanzees share close to 99% of their genome in common with humans, meaning that their genomes are more similar to that of humans than they are to that of gorillas. However, it may be that Bonobos, whose psychology is virtually unstudied relative to that of chimpanzees, are more similar to humans than are chimpanzees in how they solve various social problems.
Chimpanzees live in hierarchical, male-dominated societies where status is paramount and aggression can be severe, with frequent fights to the death. In bonobos, females share power and tolerance can allow for more flexible co-operation and food-sharing (bonobos are therefore often referred to as the “peace and love” apes).
A 2017 study found that not only in terms of social behaviour but also in terms of muscular systems, DNA, and molecular composition, bonobos are in fact “the best example of humankind’s ‘living ancestor’.” But clearly the idea of making a two-year, high-tech documentary about ‘peace and love’ apes didn’t quite fit in with current BBC scheduling or the ideological framework with which current ecologists like to see both humans and animals.
They Wanna Be Like Us-us-us: The idea that humans are basically just another animal seems to be based on a profound lack of imagination. To see this, just imagine living like one: in a way it’s pretty cool because you won’t need to wear any clothes, or indeed use toilet paper – your children can just shit in the back yard; you won’t need to shampoo your hair ever again, cut your toenails, wear Converse trainers, use a mobile phone, drink alcohol, or shower with hot water; you won’t need to spend all of that silly money on your children’s education and going through university; and when they get ill you won’t need to take them to the NHS, because of course animals don’t do that stuff either. You won’t have to read books, write poetry, travel abroad, drink coffee, use central heating, go to art galleries, or solve complex equations or medical diseases. Indeed, you won’t need to make expensive documentaries about how we need to care about the natural world around us, or indeed have this conversation at all, since we’re the only animal that does any of that. We’ve become so blind to our achievement – like myopic fish in water – we don’t see how staggering it all is. And equating humans with animals is also quite a dangerous historical step to take: thinking of other humans as animals is something that previously only the Nazis and American soldiers in Vietnam regularly did – for obvious “political” (as ‘David’ might say) reasons. Sadly, the Green movement seems to have inherited this rather toxic way of thinking.
The point is not whether we are more like bonobos than chimpanzees. The point is that, unlike either chimpanzees or bonobos, we can chose what model we want to live by. And that’s a weird, remarkable, and above all liberating thing. The people wanting to deny our unusual or even ‘unique’ status – the only animals for example, as far as we know, who can measure how big the universe is, or calculate gravitational equations – also seem to want to deny the most obvious aspect of the natural world: its evolutionary aspect.
There seems to be a spirit of transcendence built into the very fabric of Being, pushing it forward and onwards, and perhaps upwards – “like hungry and unresting flame”, as Shelley beautifully put it in his revolutionary poem Queen Mab. To want to turn the clock back and live like ‘David’ the chimpanzee did eight million years ago, seems not only a degradation and denial of the human achievement, but also of the spirit of Nature itself. We laugh at the anachronistic oddities of Jacob Rees-Mogg, because he still seems to live in the 18th century; but at least he isn’t eating breakfast from a twig.
The final ten minutes of Dynasties is particularly interesting in that respect, taking us behind the scenes and chronicling the extraordinary making of the programme – all the effort, all the technology, all the thought, all the interest in and compassion for these endangered communities, all the editing, all the production decisions, all the lighting difficulties – all the things, in a word, that the group of animals they are actually studying are blissfully and eternally unaware.
The coda also notes the increasing gold-mining in the area, contributing to the sad disappearance of 80% of the chimps in western Africa in the last 20 years. But if you juxtapose that information with the narrative of how they’ve portrayed chimpanzee society itself – as being all about power, about being competitive alpha males, about being as violent as possible to get what you want and secure your goals – it seems oddly self-defeating as an argument.
For it suggests that the ruthless, hierarchical, Alpha Males currently running the Gold Mines in West Africa are doing exactly what the evolutionary programming of ‘David’ is telling them to do. Attenborough’s whole stance is inherently ambivalent and self-contradictory: he is appealing to us, as compassionate and cooperative creatures, to help preserve these communities of chimpanzees, whilst presenting the chimps themselves as individualistic, dynastic warriors, who will maul each other to death to maintain their hierarchy of power.
“There aren’t other animals that would have inflicted wounds like that – especially when you have multiple individuals attacking a single individual. He was very aggressive – that’s why he held onto his dominant status for so long. He was pretty clever but our best interpretation of what happened is that these adult males jumped him.” – Jill Pruetz, director of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project, explaining the mundane brutality of ‘David’, the head chimp in Attenborough’s show. As she reveals, ‘David’ was subsequently killed by younger males.
What Attenborough’s programme actually implies, though never has the nerve to admit, is how unnatural we are as a species, and how grateful we should be for that. As Žižek notes, “The emergence of human freedom can be accounted for only by the fact that nature itself is not a homogenous ‘hard’ reality – that is to say, by the presence, beneath ‘hard’ reality, of another dimension of potentialities and their fluctuations: it as as if, with human freedom, this uncanny universe of potentialities re-emerges, comes to light”:
Against this background one can fully appreciate Schelling’s definition of the emergence of man: in man, possibility is no longer automatically realised but persists qua possibility – precisely as such, man stands for the point at which, in a kind of direct short circuit, the created universe regains the abyss of primordial Freedom.
The BBC camera crew turned up with their wonderful high res equipment and shot for a period of 309 days over two years, and their resulting highly edited programme takes 50 minutes to watch; but to get a sense of the actual day-to-day life of these chimpanzees you’d really need to watch the documentary back to back, well, for ever basically.
For chimps the world is forever stuck at 6am
A brilliantly crafted 50min ‘best bits’ in the Chimp Big Brother house is one thing; imagining watching – or actually being in – that programme every day, for two billion nine hundred and twenty million consecutive days (eight million years), and you’ll begin to understand the crushing monotony and reality of actual life for most of the animal kingdom. Unlike poor ‘David’, we are not doomed to repeat essentially the same day for all time – the same cycle of mangled ears, the same mutilated fingers, the same challenges to leadership, the same ants on a twig, the same everything for ever and ever. I personally found this the most moving aspect of the whole drama – looking into their extraordinary, pensive, burdened eyes you seem to sense the whole weight of evolution within them – a sense that they are doomed to live in a perpetual Groundhog Day for ever and ever.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness. He has written a number of articles on war and militarism, including My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance and has reviewed Ernst Friedrich’s work ‘War against War!’ in How We See War, and written a review of the Disney film ‘Frozen’, Frozen Children.