The End of the World Is Fictional… For Now
By J. L. Thurston
Post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my not-so-guilty pleasures. I recently read Year One by Nora Roberts. The story really jives with my dystopian-loving heart. Most of us have sat in our safe little societies and daydreamt about what our world would be like if it all came unglued. It’s a casual study of humanity under the ultimate duress. What would we really do if the world were ending?
In Year One, and many other books, once the main threat/enemy/disease/plague shows its ugly face and people begin to think their time is nearly up, they all start torturing and murdering each other. Groups begin to form and fight each other. You have the angry Christians, the frustrated scientists, the regular-dude-gone-nutso, and the tiny group of people who simply just want to live, dammit.
The way we look through the microscope of our imagination as creative people and paint a scene of a bloody humanity when worst comes to worst is haunting. As a writer, I get it. We need to up the drama, up the suspense, up the pressure and conflict. It must start high and only get higher or else you’re pumping out stale stories that today’s readers won’t bother to buy. I get it.
If you don’t read these dark tales like I do, let me fill you in. Stories like The Road, One Second After, The Stand, and films like Waterworld, and shows like The Walking Dead all have two things in common: the world as we know it has ended and all the survivors are trying to survive the cruelties caused by other survivors. These type of stories are full of murder, rape and pillaging. Oh, and don’t forget cannibalism.
I only took one semester of psychology, so I’m no expert, but I do work in a hospital nearly every day and I might as well eat popcorn while I watch the lows of the human experience from that vantagepoint. People suck. People get mean, they get hurt and angry, people lash out. Some people are always like that, some only do it under pain or pressure. But are my observations solid evidence that people would start to turn on each other in the event of an apocalypse?
A study done by Harvard and Yale states that our three principles of evolution are mutation, natural selection and cooperation. Yeah, you read that right. That means we tend to naturally cooperate. We have actual natural tendencies to work together. Shocking, isn’t it? But also reassuring.
Alright, so that might not make a great novel and maybe that’s why writers don’t take that approach with end-of-the-world dramas. Who wants to read about society crumbling and the survivors joining hands to farm and rebuild?
A study from the University of Buffalo involving scientists who recorded data from students playing an RPG fantasy game found that at the end of the game all of the players’ progress would be deleted so their choices and actions didn’t really matter. Ultimately, it sounds like the study showed that the majority of people gave up on the game and started improving relationships with other players while they still had the chance. There was a percentage of murderers who rampaged around their own area, but it sounded fairly minor. That is a positive outcome, but that’s just a game.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of research on the human response in a post-apocalyptic setting. I suppose that one would be hard to test with definite data. I suppose the question will always be unclear while we live in the thriving world we have today. In the billions of ways the world could end, would society disintegrate into savagery, or would we be more inclined to lend a hand and find the peace on earth we’ve sought for centuries?
I suppose, one day, humanity will find out for sure.
Good luck in the future.