Darwinian thoughts on Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

I recently pulled out an old paper I wrote as an undergraduate examining Joseph Conrad & D.H. Lawrence using Darwinian theory of consciousness & self-deception derived from Richard Alexander’s “Evolution of the Human Psyche.” This would have been 1995 or 1996 or so, thus a good decade or more before I’d even heard of Literary Darwinism, let alone realize I was doing it. Narcissistic as it sounds, I impressed myself, as the paper holds up, so I’ve been poking at it here & there to get it in shape to submit for possible publication. In the meantime, I just happened to download the audiobook of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, not knowing anything about it whatsoever, as it was one of the few audiobooks available thru Tuscaloosa’s digital online library that looked compelling enough to help me dissociate from my usual thinking too much. Probably not too ironically, it’s main conceit is self-deception!

I say not too ironic because I think classic literature can be analyzed successfully using any number of Darwinian tropes (do I think that or did Joseph Carroll say that & now I think it? when will I start thinking for myself, the protagonist asks). That’s what makes it canonical, as Joseph Carroll has pointed out–it conveys something fundamental about the human condition &, thus, can be analyzed vis-a-vis Darwinism. Though this seems intuitive, it was striking to those who read my paper in 1995, as I recall. I couldn’t come up with anything to tie all the books together we were assigned to read & write about, but I was reading sociobiological theory for other papers I was working on & thought I could tie them all together from the perspective of “scenario-building.” I recall my English professor expressing delight at the novelty of it & had me read the paper aloud to the rest of the class (honestly, I recall writing about a Virginia Wolfe book from the Darwinian perspective & reading that, so I may be getting my stories crossed & there is another such paper lurking somewhere in my files). And this Ray Bradbury book is probably the first canonical piece I’ve digested in some years, & the Darwinian trope fairly screams at me here too.

In the book, a future U.S. has banned books because they upset people too much. Some minority is always upset by something, yet everyone wants to be happy. So, to facilitate this, they ban all books & punish people who keep them secretly by burning their houses down with the books inside. The protagonist is one of these “firemen,” whose new job in a future where houses can no longer catch on fire on accident, is to protect the public not from fire but by fire. In this world, people have TVs in their homes that are literally walls of their houses & on full blast or playing thru ear buds literally all the time. When they aren’t on to distract them, people become anxious (anticipating flatscreen TVs & iPhones, methinks). If these distractions don’t work, people go driving at high speed (55 mph in the minimum speed limit) & run over & kill small animals for fun (anticipating “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” & themes from The Simpsons). If they get anxious at night, they take sleeping pills to prevent dreaming (“Mother’s Little Helper”).

A neighbor girl–a questioning child in a world where children are hidden away in boarding schools & kept in desks with homework for 9 hours/day to wear them out & prevent them free time to think–keeps asking him if he’s ever wondered why this our that. Of course Why? is the ultimate evolution question, though the book doesn’t address this directly (at least not yet–I’m not actually finished). She agitates him by setting him to thinking, but he is so flattered & charmed by her that his mind begins to open. When she is killed by a speeding car for, almost literally, stopping to smell the roses, the fireman becomes obsessed with recovering his awareness & inflicting it on others, finding guilty satisfaction when he reads a poem to his wife’s yenta friends, for instance, leading one of them to erupt in tears she does not understand.

Fahrenheit 451‘s central tension, for me, is in extolling benefits & costs of consciousness. This future U.S. society has taken the position that, given the conflicting wants & demands of the exponentially increasing population, ignorance is, indeed, & literally, bliss. But the bliss is fragile & does not appreciate the demands of an impending war that will rend the society apart & the need of awareness & pain to be able to learn the lessons of history, protect itself, & heal. As student blogger Adriana Guardans Godo asks for her English paper,

Can happiness really be achieved through self-deception and conformity, or is challenging the truth what makes us content?

I am anticipating what I think is going to happen a bit, but it reminds me of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio‘s thesis on the approach & withdraw systems in, I think, Decartes’ Error.  The approach or pleasure system is separate from the pain or withdraw system because they are for fundamentally different purposes & vary in importance. If you fail to act on a possible reward, you might suffer long-term consequences (like failing to act on a possible reproductive opportunity) but with time to make up for it. If you fail to act on a pain, you could die, with obvious immediate consequences to your evolutionary viability. Consequently, pain & suffering are more memorable than joy & reward. It’s important to recall painful mistakes to avoid making them again. Thus, in Bradbury’s dystopia, the social purgation of unpleasant memory has doomed them to some future catastrophe. The weak link here, & in my entire conception of this, is that most mammals have learned aversive responses to pain or bad tastes without the costs of consciousness…how to rectify that…?

I’ll let you know, when I get there, if indeed it’s as bleak as all that & how I’m going to work this into my manuscript & theoretical models.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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2 Responses to Darwinian thoughts on Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

  1. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    This is spot-on effin’ brilliant, John. Thanks for sharing! I’m working it into a paper if I can…

  2. John E says:

    Hey Chris,

    Nice thoughts and I am glad you gave Bradbury a test drive. He’s a hero of mine, The Martian Chronicles and Golden Apples might be might two favorites. A lot of his short stories more succinctly state the points he makes, and the man did anticipate a lot of what our society has become today. The feeling that Bradbury evokes most often in his books is his sense of nostalgia for things lost and the tradeoffs we make as modernity infringes on other social institutions, especially the more healthy ones. I have some thoughts on stimulus and response. Many of the perceived negative things in our society, social media, etc. likely are having some negative evolutionary repercussions, but it is likely much to early to test this. I think there are a lot of studies that look at brain function and television watching for example, but I think in moderation such activities do have a positive effect on brain function, if they are used as a way to decompress after more intense neural concentration, but have negative effects if moderation isn’t practiced. I have to wonder how many people have failed at some activities because they are not able to balance social media with other parts of their life. I’m not a bio-cultural guy so I really have no clue how to approach this scientifically. So I will end light on a clip from Louis CK which I think is brilliant, and makes the point I think Bradbury was making in Farenheit really well. http://teamcoco.com/video/louis-ck-springsteen-cell-phone

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