Welcome to my first ever Movie Trailer Premise Review. Due to a confluence of recent events (ticket prices are going up/banks are no longer lending) I can no longer afford to review actual films. So, I’ve decided to watch TV trailers for upcoming titles and review the premise of these movies instead.

Today we’ll be taking a look at James Cameron’s AVATAR. What I’ll attempt to do here in a few thousand words is live up to the concise genius of Southpark, which was able to sum up everything I have to say with a mere three: “Dances with Smurfs.”

Yeah, this movies is “Dances with Wolves,” except the natives are blue. The gist is that a tribe of peace-loving aliens, living in harmony with their environment, are sitting on a goldmine of precious resources. Civilized man, with all his corrupting machines, wants to wipe them out for some little jewels. So they send in a specialist to learn from these noble savages, determining the best method for smuggling in their smallpox-laden blankets. The man “goes native,” falls in love with one of the girls (after initial spats), and eventually helps the peace-loving people rally with their primitive tools and beat the everliving shit out of the dirty men with their dirty machines.

(Damn, I just realized “The Last Samurai” has the exact same plot.)

As a premise, I have to give this one zero out of five stars. And not because it has already been done (to death), and not because “The Return of the Jedi” would have been better with Wookies, rather than Ewoks, but because this premise is built on a fallacy that creates much heartache and confusion. It’s the fallacy of the noble savage. The idea that humans are born good and perverted by society. Not only is this an outright fabrication, it’s a dangerous (I will argue: evil) idea.

It doesn’t take a deep survey of human history, nor much time with the Discovery Channel, to see how nasty and brutish primitive humans are/were. The myth that man lived, or even desired to live, in harmony with his environment is complete bunk. Take the history of Easter Island. You know, the little spit of land with all the stone faces on it. Know why those people went extinct? Because they denuded their entire island of trees, primarily to make rollers to move around those statues. And the island is so small, the dudes chopping down the last tree could not have been in doubt that they were, indeed, doing something no Easter Islander would ever get to do again.

Without material for their homes, or to build boats for fishing, they moved into caves and slowly starved to death. These were hunter-gatherers that could not live in harmony with their land, nor did they show any awareness of such a process, or drive to discover it. They did what all animals do: grab as many resources as possible and stuff it all in their gullet as quick as they can. It amuses me that people use Easter Island as a warning, as if this should be a lesson to us for future catastrophes. Yeah, that’s why modern loggers replant trees. The lesson here is one of optimistic improvement, not dire jeremiad, people.

How about “Head Smashed In,” the aptly-named cliff used by Aboriginal people to drive entire herds of bison to their grisly, twitching deaths? Massacred by the hundreds, this ingenious method of resource extraction included dressing up like Wiley Coyote to urge the animals to their demise. So now we have primitive peoples committing genocide and lying to animals at the same time. Simply horrific. Of course, modern anthropologists still attempt to see this as some sort of “balance,” pretending the excess meat was used for the winter months. I’m certain they are right. Herds ranging from 100 to 400 somehow served the same goal. I can see the tribe leader with his Wiley Coyote disguise jumping out at the last minute, waving off the several dozen bison at the back of the herd. “Wait!” he would say. “We have plenty! Go and be fruitful and multiply!”

Yeah, right.

What puzzles me most about the worship of early man is that it is most frequently performed by those that should be most outraged by primitive behavior. These same, clueless folk purport to know and love the natural kingdom, but look at the natural kingdom! Most animals live in a state of constant warfare with their environment. Eating and killing each other, growing spikes to ward off the hungry, developing toxins to poison the same. The only balance in nature is the evolution of aggression and defense. The antelope evolve speed to get away from the cheetah, which is evolving for more speed. One lives in fear and the other on the verge of starvation. You really have to love it when these people rationalize the brutality by pointing out how much “stronger” the herd gets as the sick and the lame are culled. Hitler couldn’t have said it better.

The other night, I showed my wife a picture of a bacteriophage, an incredible little organism that actually does to bacteria what many bacteria try to do to us: take over another being’s living processes for its own. Not only is the brutality of nature broad, it’s also deep. Even bacteria have smaller things that prey on it! Violence in nature seems to be not the exception, but the rule.

The denial of nature runs deep with those that pretend to love it. Even though rape is not uncommon in the natural kingdom, these people still contend it’s a human invention. Even when it’s caught on video. Yeah, the oft-worshiped bottlenose dolphin gang-rape their females. Lovely, right? In zoos, they won’t mix dolphin species because the male bottlenose will torment and rape the females. These are the mammals often cited by nature-lovers as “probably smarter than we are.”

Great.

How about the diving beetle? Its method of procreation is to half-drown the female, holding it under water until it’s so exhausted it can’t put up any defense. Sounds like a keg stand, doesn’t it? What about the infamous preying mantis, with its demonstration of ultimate girl-power? Among spiders, death, rape and reproduction form a common threesome. And birds aren’t just violent with their sex, they are also devious. Cuckold rates among some bird species run into the 30-40% range. And I’m not even going to get into the various penis structures used to remove the last rapist’s sperm before inserting one’s own. The corkscrews and barbs and hooks … okay, that’s enough of that.

What about war? Well, we know insects war with one another, but how about something closer to mankind? Good golly, primates do it?! Jane Goodall, say it isn’t so!

Damn you, Jane! What’s really telling about her speech, and really listen to it, is that her colleagues told her she shouldn’t have published the accounts. I repeat (or hit the “play again” button), Jane took heat for distributing scientific truth! And that’s what we’re up against, people. Those that worship at the altar of nature (and know jack-shit about it) think whatever happens in the animal kingdom is “good” and “virtuous.” They live by the naturalistic fallacy, which means they have to cover up nature, lest they take its many examples of barbarism as intrinsic life-lessons.

Just as AVATAR’s premise is wholly flawed, so is the naturalistic fallacy on which it’s based. There is no reason to suppose that nature has things figured out, or that the behavior among other organisms is righteous. None at all. In fact, the strident clinging to this arbitrary premise, and the desire to ignore data and pervert science in order to maintain it, makes nature-loving nutjobs the mirror image of the religious fruitcakes they openly loathe. Irony almost as delicious as the 500 million dollar budget and advanced CGI it takes for James Cameron to tell us that modernity sucks.

What about war? Surely, since civilization corrupts the noble savage, we should find that war is ever on the rise, right? Oops. Even with the famous worldwide conflagrations of the 20th century, it turns out that war, and its brutal methods and techniques, have been on the decline over the entire course of human history. Admit it, your brain just twitched inside your skull, right? Now you’re probably wondering how I doctored that Jane Goodall video. Once again, you can deny the facts and live in a world of your choosing, or you can explore the data and see where it leads. War is on the decline. Even today.

The UN’s Human Security Report looked at more recent trends (treating WWII as an aberration) and found conflicts from 1992 to 2005 shot down a whooping 40%. They also looked at trends from post-WWII up to modern times, with even more positive news (albeit slanted; starting from the worst years and looking forward is bad science). Even better, however, is the overall picture. If you look from primitive man to the present, the chances of dying at the hands of another human have steadily gone down. Check out what Stephen Pinker had to say about these studies (and dig the recommended reading list below).

What really bothers me about AVATAR, and all the uneducated nutjobs that come down hard on modernity, is that they get it completely backwards. It makes their viewpoint not just ignorant, but evil. They promote a mode of life that is worse for all humans. Life with ritual sacrifice. Life with environmental destruction more absolute than industrialized society (check out clear-cutting by primitive farmers vs. the modern logging industry). Life where women were raped, especially those won by conquest. Life where infanticide was common (as it still is in our primate cousins). Life where resources were always scarce, starvation a looming threat, and war far more common. They worship a life where infant mortality is higher (and the death of the mother as well). Where disease was rampant and almost untreatable (the vast majority of native Americans died from mere contact with Europeans, not from warfare). Life full of superstition. Life that didn’t, on average, last as long.

I like to keep the Hopi Indians in mind as a lesson on how not to live with our environment. Excessively cruel to animals, Hopi children used to (and still do, for all I know) tie birds on a string and swing them around. Reporting to anthropologists they admitted, “sometimes they get tired, and die, but nobody minds.” Worse, the Hopi played a game with live chickens where the body is buried, they run (and later ride horses) by the bird, trying to grab it by the neck. Once the head comes off, there’s a mad scramble over the body and the victor goes to the participant that comes away with the largest piece. If you are a Michael Vick fan, you’ll love that the Hopi used to kill dogs and pigs at dances for sport. Not to eat, but for entertainment.

Asked if these animals didn’t feel pain by Brandt, an anthropologist that lived and worked closely with them, they were quick to say the animal probably felt a great deal of pain. “Was this pain different than your pain?” Brandt asked. “No,” they said. “I sure wouldn’t want to be that chicken.”

So what do we make of these celebrations of more primitive, and far less ethical modes of existence? Mere ignorance by their proponents? Dissatisfaction with one’s own life mixed with a bit of old-fashioned nostalgia? A perpetuated myth, verging on the strength, complexity, and persistence of a formalized religion? I think it’s a lot of these things, perhaps a mix of all of them. What’s most annoying about the adherents of this religion, those that worship at the altar of nature without knowing the first thing about her, is that the world keeps getting better. Our ethics improve, our treatment of each other improves, and yet we pine for a return to our barbaric past. It isn’t just wrong, it’s evil.

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Recommended reading:

War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley

Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Stephen LeBlanc

The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory by Jean Guilaine

The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker

My post on Capitalism

The following statistic: 99.99% of all Earth creatures are now extinct. That’s what they do.


2 Responses to “Movie Trailer Premise Review: AVATAR”

  1. Luke Forney says:

    Hey Hugh,

    I had a couple of thoughts. First, in regards to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, I’ve actually spent years working at the biggest Buffalo Jump in America (Head-Smashed-In, for those unfamiliar with it, as I was before I did much research, is located in Canada). Your reasoning is at first seemingly rational, and is a common approach taken by backers of the “Whites weren’t the only ones to drive the buffalo to extinction” theory, but in fact how you stated it is slightly off. I can’t give great detail about Head-Smashed-In, but I can talk a bit about the Vore Buffalo Jump. Over its 300 years of use, about 15,000-20,000 Buffalo died at the site. That sounds very large, but even if you take the maximum estimate of 20,000, that is only about 66.67 buffalo per year, a far smaller number. The other thing to consider is that, of all of the times buffalo were forced over to die, all of them except for two were very late fall, October time frame, so that the food was indeed used over the winter. Native American’s made pemican out of it, which can stay good for extremely long times, so it didn’t go to waste. Also of interest, where the Vore Buffalo Jump is located (in Wyoming, rather than Alberta, meaning the Vore site had less harsh winters), a Native American tribe would still need around one whole buffalo per person to survive through the winter on. As to telling the animals they had enough, you would have to find the tribe that was lucky enough to ever get a surplus on one of these hunts. The tribes were excellent at knowing how many they needed, as well as having a rough idea what percentage wouldn’t fall over the edge, and so they could get a herd exactly the size they needed, with no overhead.

    On another topic, I’ve taken some courses in primatology, and it is incredible how much Chimps are like people. They have tribes, politics, and war. Every time I study them, they seem less and less distant from us. It was shocking when I first heard that research was being hidden because people didn’t want to lose the cuddly image. Much of the same problem of skewed research applies to bonobos as well, as we try to apply long-time captive bonobos’ test results to wild animals, with bad results.

    That leads to another example of what you were talking about, too. In Africa, the people cut down trees to make coal, and kill the animals, including chimps and many endangered species, to sell as bushmeat. These people are starving, and too poor, to worry abotu conservation.

  2. Clayton Dennis says:

    “Who trusted God was love indeed
    And love Creation’s final law
    Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.”

    From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H.

    It’s very nice to finally find an amazing and intelligent writer that I agree with on most every topic. I’m gonna be adding your website to my homepage tabs!

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