Friday, January 29, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 - dir. Stanley Kubrick)

What can the most poetic movie that's ever been made possibly have to do with the evolutionary psychology of human nature? At first glance (and second, and third), Kubrick's magnificent 2001 seems to transcend any attempt to sully its significance with mundane psychological posturing. But, that would be to underestimate the power of the evolutionary psychological approach to human nature.

This is a film that, in many ways, defies description. Whenever one attempts to describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, one is gripped with a gnawing sense of incompetence. Rather like trying to describe green to a blind person, or rational discourse to Pat Robertson, describing this film simply doesn't work. This is because, like the best poetry, it doesn't have a "point." It doesn't have any meaning at all. Yet, as with the best poetry, it fills the viewer/reader with an overwhelming sense that profound meaning is deeply embedded in our lives....that there is apoint, in the grand sense, to our existence. And, research in evolutionary psychology explains why.

If the desire for "meaning" wasn't an important aspect of human nature, films like 2001 would be absolutely senseless. In addition to meaning in our mating relationships, our social relationships, the day-to-day sturm und drang of our own personal melodrama (much of which has been the subject of previous blog posts), people seem to have an insatiable appetite for a more transcendent peg they can hang their hat on. Religion may fit the bill for some but, regardless, this ineffable yearning for "meaning" is a powerful motivator of human behavior. Why? Apparently, this is closely related to our tendency to look for evidence of "purpose" in the natural world, including in the behavior of other humans. By being able to detect "purpose" as it relates to what other people do, we would have been able to better predict such behavior and, consequently, be in a better position to adjust our own behavior accordingly. These "purpose-detection" mechanisms would certainly lead to our attributing of purpose to things that wouldn't deserve it (e.g., supernatural agency lurking behind natural phenomena, ergo Pat Robertson's loopy diatribes about tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes). Evidence for this hypothesis has been elegantly provided by Deborah Kelemen who has demonstrated that teleological thinking begins in early childhood and persists into adulthood. Simon Baron-Cohen has suggested that much of the symptomology of autism is characterized by an impairment of an individual's ability to discern the intentions of detect the "purpose" behind their behavior. He calls this "mindblindness" and it has revolutionized our understanding of autism. Among other things, it suggests that people innately construct "theories of mind" about others that they interact with; theories about what their purposes are, theories about their intentions, theories about the meaning of their behavior.

Consequently, and as a likely by-product of this psychology, humans can be construed as meaning-detection machines. But, there is no reason that this innate cognitive machinery should stop with human interaction. It appears to be applied in a much broader way such that the "search for meaning" has become as elaborated as the plumes of the bird of paradise. And, this is why the poetry of 2001 has its magic. It is pure, crystallized meaning. This is why you are here. This is where you are headed. This is what you will become. This, along with the elegant articulation in poetic form, impacts our evolved human nature like a flash of light, making us experience meaning even when we can't really articulate what the film, itself, is "about." Perhaps only a poetic expression could possibly communicate all this to us. Kubrick's genius in 2001 is a powerful argument that this is the case.

I saw this film in 1968 upon it's initial release. It was at the Rialto theatre in Deer Lodge, Montana with my friends George, Ray, and Alan. The Rialto was constructed in the 1880's and was a source of dance hall and other musical entertainment for the cow-punchers and ranching families at that time and place. It was all velvet curtains and velvet ropes and elegance. We watched drop-jawed, re-fueled on Dots and Sugar Babies during the intermission, then fell back into Kubrick's vision. We were freshman in high school. After the "show" (that's what folks called movies back then), we talked and talked and talked about early man, space travel, personal transcendence, and...the meaning of all of this. As John Lennon suggested, this film should be playing 24 hours a day in temples all over the world. To Stanley Kubrick, I will be eternally grateful. And, for helping me understand much more about this experience, my humble thanks to Charles Darwin.

The Rialto Theatre - Deer Lodge, Montana