Dispatches > The Buzz

Alternate reality

Survivor neglects how people really survive

Issue: "Locking up the big guns," Aug. 12, 2000

Fiction on TV is losing out to reality. Viewers have been surfing past sitcoms, soaps, and action shows to watch real people surviving on a desert island or trying to win a million dollars, whether by marriage or by brains. Big Brother, in which people are locked up together in a house under the constant eye of the camera, is not faring as well. Still, the networks have lots more ideas in the works: chaining a man and a woman together to see how they get along, planting video cameras to catch cheating spouses, and more.

That reality is in vogue might be a good sign. After all, the fashion has been to reject objective truth. But those who claim to be realistic need to be asked what they believe is real. "Reality TV" conveys a worldview which, more often than not, is just as fictional as a sitcom.

Survivor, the summer's biggest hit, imposes a heavy-handed Darwinism on the Robinson Crusoe premise. It is indeed intriguing to watch how a cross-section of humanity thrown together on a tropical island get along and how they manage without the modern conveniences we have all become used to. But the show's creators insist on turning the dilemma into a competition, a survival of the fittest.

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When human beings are actually trying to survive, they band together. A single individual cannot survive for long on his own. One man is no match for an elephant, but a group of men will rule the jungle. Co-operation, mutual assistance, and the division of labor have always been essential to man's conquest of nature. This is also why human beings always organize themselves into social communities-the family, the tribe, the state.

This imperative of individuals pulling together to assist each other is evident in Survivor. The contestants

cooperate in building shelters and scrounging food. One of them is a good fisherman, providing food not only for himself but for the rest of the tribe. Another has the nerve to eat a rat, thus enhancing the menu for everyone else. The contestants start assuming particular roles and get close to starting a community.

But then the producers make them compete in games-tug of war, obstacle courses, silly ordeals like eating maggots-that culminate in voting a member off of the island.

The result is a Darwinian view of survival: individuals pitted against each other in tooth-and-claw competition, with the weak getting eliminated and the fittest carrying off the prize. True, real survival is not an issue, with those behind the camera making sure there is plenty of medical care and suntan lotion. And being "the fittest" by contemporary standards is essentially a popularity contest. But still, with its self-conscious primitivism and its dog-against-dog competitive struggles, this program is brought to you by Charles Darwin.

Once this worldview establishes the rules of the game, the results of those who "die out" are as predictable as a grade-school values-clarification exercise. The old people were the first to go. This was because, in the words of the survivors who voted against them, they were "too weak."

Another early casualty was the one vocal Christian. He was always carrying around his Bible and witnessing to everybody. He had to go.

Interestingly, the homosexual guy was also voted out fairly early. (Question: If Darwinism is true, as most liberals believe, what accounts for homosexuality? Surely this behavior does not advance the reproduction of the species. And if only the most breeding-adaptive genes get passed on, how can homosexuality be genetic? Under the logic of Darwinism, isn't homosexuality a bigger dysfunction than it is under Christianity, which can condemn the sin while valuing the sinner?)

The Christian versions of Survivor-such as Shakespeare's Tempest, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson-depicted the island as a microcosm of the world and of human society. The characters worked through tribulations and conflicts, but achieved harmony not only with nature but with each other, all under the providential design of God. If television's Survivor is a microcosm of today's world and of today's society, eating rats and maggots are the last of our worries.

The reality of other reality shows is similarly all mixed up. In the ill-fated Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, marriage is reduced to a flashy public ceremony, plus money, with predictably sterile results-an annulment and the bride posing for Playboy. In Big Brother and MTV's roommate saga The Real World, we see people living together as individuals, but not as families.

Just as Darwinistic scientists impose their naturalistic worldview onto the universe they purport to study, TV producers and other artists cannot help but project their own assumptions and blind spots whenever they try to be "realistic." Christian realism, mediated through the lens of Scripture, is far bigger, broader, and deeper than anything we can see on TV.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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