Zookeeper: Evolutionary psychology meets Hollywood

Charlie Jane Anders tells us "Zookeeper is a horror movie about evolutionary biology" (IO9, July 8, 2011), but she must mean "evolutionary psychology." Briefly, the zookeeper wants this girl, and the animals (who can talk, of course) advise him to use their mating strategies:

Griffin is encouraged to become an Alpha Male, to pee in public to mark his territory. (There is a lot of urination.) The Adam Sandler-voiced monkey tells him to fling poop. At various times, his mating seminar starts to seem like an episode of the Pick-Up Artist, as a lion tells him to throw some negs. He's encouraged to pick fights with competing males, to separate his desired mate from the pack, and to make his nerdy-but-gorgeous best friend pretend to be his girlfriend to make Stephanie jealous. There is much slapstick involving Griffin attempting to do a frog confrontation stance and making his pants split open.

Eventually, though, it starts to work — Griffin, implausibly, becomes an Alpha Male and everybody admires him. He becomes a kind of super-yuppie and God among ordinary shlubs.

The usual keenness of evolutionary psychology's insight into human nature is on display here;


the screenwriter captures the quintessential truth that humans have evolved to consider this kind of behaviour sexy – just as animals evolved to have equivalent-to-human minds. From Anders:

And here is the true genius of Zookeeper. Most "talking animal" films use the animals as caricatures of different types of humans. The cats are bitchy white ladies, and so on. (If you want a particularly painful example, here is a clip from Space Buddies, a "talking dogs in space" movie)

But Zookeeper does the reverse — the talking animals in the film represent actual animals, but they illuminate the truth of human nature. By casting off his artificial shackles of civilized behavior, and learning to fling poop like the Adam Sandler-monkey — at least metaphorically — the Paul Blart guy learns to embrace his inner animal to gain power and unlimited sexual conquest.

You just so want to see this movie. The interesting thing is that Anders doesn't seem to recommend it. Reflecting on the awfulness of human nature that it portrays, she writes,

We choose to watch tragically unfunny Adam Sandler-produced romantic comedies with contrived premises that are intended to distract from how formulaic it all is. We are the monsters. We are the pants-shredders, the rampaging feral beasts whose lips move weirdly when we wisecrack. This movie will not get you laid if you bring your desired mate to it — if anything, it will reveal how your attempts to get laid are a giant cosmic fart joke.

Thus, in the grand era of evolutionary psychology, the critic is in the awkward position of being unable to recommend what she seems prepared to acknowledge as public truths. Is that simply because the truths are badly presented? Perhaps not. Perhaps there is no way to present evolutionary psychology's supposed truths that even aspires to art, let alone rises to it.

That would seem to be the lesson from David Brooks's widely disliked EP novel as well. See, for example, "It doesn't matter whether you Like David Brooks's 'The social animal': Your moral and intellectual superiors do,"

Every Darwin myth you’ve ever heard is crammed into David Brooks’ recent happy face novel, The Social Animal (Even so, P.Z. Myers didn’t like it.) But, the curious thing is, notes John Gray in “Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir”, is who did like it:

A sounder strategy for Darwinizing culture is to insist that all actual art is homage to Darwin, by definition. That way, the evolutionary psychologist can parasitize traditions of human psychology in which art can exist, for grist for his theories. See, for example, "Literary Darwinism – it survived deconstruction,"

Sean Kean is suffering from evolutionary tone deafness. As it happens, the story really is about honor and wealth (to the extent that wealth confers honor), and about one man’s anger when he is dissed: To make that clear, it begins, Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Achilles … ”

Sure, all those guys wanted girls, except for the ones who wanted guys. In some places we take that for granted, like going to the bathroom. What’s of interest in the story is the role of “respected/dissed.” I’ve read far more insightful analyses of the Iliad from specialists in street culture than I’ll ever hear from literary Darwinism.

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Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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