A Clockwork Strategy

I was reading SUNY Plattsburgh professor William Tooke’s most recent blog post on this site about the old Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and started thinking about another Kubrick film: A Clockwork Orange. The main character in this movie is a symbol of wild depravity, with a clear lack of inhibition and a somewhat malevolent streak that is simultaneously aggressive and sexual—leading up to the somewhat climactic gang rape that lands him in the “reprogramming” project that dominates the remainder of the plot.

When thinking about this movie, though, I’m always reminded of a less often cited scene that occurs early in the movie. The main character goes to a record store where he meets two young women. He sweet talks them for a moment, at which point we are fast-forwarded through a departure from the store, and a thoroughly consensual, mid-afternoon ménage a trios romp.

I think what I like about this scene is that it reminds me that he is not merely a walking sickness, but a man with an unbridled, untrained testosterone system. Everything from picking up women in public, to being an intensely dominant leader of his little gang, to the rape scene, is a manifestation of this excessively testosteronergic behavioral strategy. Thus, his socially unconscionable behaviors arise from the same system that is making him more attractive to women, and in turn laying the groundwork for high reproductive fitness. (I mean, how many men can say they walked in looking for a Led Zeppelin vinyl and walked out with a threesome?)

This is actually the moment at which some evolutionists might say something to the effect of, “Shove your ‘depravity’ where the sun don’t shine, that’s a success story!” Now that’s the sort of bombastic, un-couched statement that might effectively emphasize a point, but, as any good publicist would be quick to point out, it reeks of a calculated insensitivity that may cause it to fall on deaf ears. I’d rather phrase it as follows (it’s a little bit less of a sound bite, but follow me): These crimes are part of a sophisticated strategy for attaining resources and sex partners. Furthermore, these tendencies are driven by a biological system that happens to be turned up to a very high volume. Someone with such a strategy needs to be socialized to the expectations that modern society puts on them, however, otherwise their selfish drives can become a cancer.

Owing to my involvement in quite a bit of research associated with the testosterone system, I’m just getting on a role. More in the next post on real-life examples of testosterone-pumped men and how they’ve helped to shape history.


About Dan

Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, PhD, is the Project Manager of the Harvard Boston Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University where he has been a key player in the development of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Both projects bring together academic and city agencies in the development of innovative solutions for the everyday challenges of urban life. Amidst these efforts, his own research focuses on urban social behavior. As an educator, he has concentrated on pedagogical techniques that bring evolutionary theory to classrooms outside the biological sciences.
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2 Responses to A Clockwork Strategy

  1. Dan Dan says:

    Glad you enjoyed the post! First, I want to admit that I am extrapolating from the plot, and completely ignoring the main point of the story, which is to reprogram. Ironically, this central theme of reprogramming is more akin to what I work on, and especially close to the work of my partner who is a social worker. It bears noting that the approach used in the story, however, is not exactly considered “best practice” these days. There’s a rich evolutionary story to tell there at some point, as well. Either way, my intent here was simply to illustrate the function of the testosterone system.
    The link between testosterone and habitual antisocial behavior, may in fact be established, otherwise it’s a multi-step relationship whose dots can be connected through the different literatures that address these questions (evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, community psychology, sociology, behavioral endocrinology).
    It’s funny; I’ve had many arguments that behaviorism and evolutionary theory are distinct explanations. I feel that behaviorism is a subset of evolutionary theory. The mechanisms that dispose us and other sophisticated animals to operant conditioning are themselves groomed by natural selection to permit a highly adaptive level of flexibility. It permits certain behavioral systems to begin as malleable and undetermined, using key experiences to elect a strategy that will earn greatest reward in the local environment. In the case of Clockwork Orange, the main character was placed in an environment that simulated a relationship between licentious behavior and pain, teaching the body to avoid such attitudes and actions at all costs. Had this simulation been real, it would be a wholly adaptive response.

  2. Mary says:

    I dig what you’re saying about the role of testosterone, but I think the point of the story, which you touched upon only briefly, is that Alex is not just a hormone driven, wild teenager, he’s also completely antisocial and lacks any empathy or compassion for others, hence the need to reprogram.

    The evolutionary perspective on antisocial behavior is really interesting to me. Is there a a proven link between abnormally high testosterone and pervasive patterns of antisocial behavior (you know, beyond the basic bar-brawling kind of stuff)? Or what about the effect of testosterone on empathy or theory of mind?
    (I know that’s not really what your post was getting at; I’m just curious!)

    Also, I think it’s really interesting to take a book based almost entirely on the principles of behaviorism and operant conditioning, and use it to illustrate an evolutionary viewpoint. Plus, it’s a great movie. We should have a whole series of articles just on Kubrick. Dibs on the Shining!

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