Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (3/3)

Part 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey

Or: The Episode You Shouldn’t Bother Watching

I know that quite a few people were disappointed by the first two episodes in Adam Curtis’s series. I rather liked them, but to me the third episode really went off the rails.

The Rwanda Watusi vs Bahutu genocide, caused by an imposed myth, is undoubtedly bad. It brought to mind a much longer lasting—yet in many ways similar—deadly myth: that of the Jewish exile to Egypt, their return to the Holy Land, and their racial separateness from the Palestinians. The idea that Jews and Palestinians are separate races has been a topic of much research, obviously frequently highly controversial. I don’t think it’s helpful to start playing genocide Top Trumps; both myths have obviously had horrific consequences.

The fact that terrorism, murder and genocide make sense from a rational genetic perspective is, to me, another example of the reason why extreme rationality doesn’t work as a source of moral guidance. But Curtis’s interjected comments about the danger of rejecting religion as a source of morality ignore that religion is another system of moral rules (or at least, it is in the West). His entire thesis is that simple systems of rules don’t provide stability. Exchanging The Selfish Gene and Atlas Shrugged for the Old and New Testaments isn’t really solving anything.

In fact, Curtis’s third program struck me overall as being a confused mess. I kept waiting for the threads to weave together, but they didn’t.

Linking it all to the PS2 is weak. The PS2 was a tiny, tiny part of the computer industry’s demand for mineral resources. Blaming aid camps for providing a target for genocide is weak too. The music really goes off the rails as well—party music for African refugee camps? WTF?

I don’t think the view of humans as machines is as widely held as Curtis suggests, either. The John Searle view that there must be an ineffable something-or-other seems to me to be much more widespread.

I also suspect that Curtis misrepresents Richard Dawkins’ position. I don’t think Dawkins really believes that the selfish gene is any more than a model, a way of seeing the world and hence gaining insight. (Dawkins’ followers seem to agree.) And while Curtis presents the idea of the gene as sort of analog of the immortal soul, that really doesn’t work as an idea. Souls, at least in Christian traditions, are eternal, separate from their environment and from other souls. Genes are anything but inviolate, separate or eternal. Your genes don’t survive intact after your death; they don’t even remain intact through your lifespan.

Curtis also takes a hatchet to the reputation of Dian Fossey, charging her with racist and imperialist attitudes towards the African people. It may be true, but it’s the kind of incendiary claim that really needs more evidence. Meanwhile, a thread about the belief that experiments on polio vaccines caused AIDS seems to meander in and out of the show, before Curtis admits at the end that the theory was without foundation, and he apparetly included it just to provide another example of a westerner going to Africa with a western agenda in mind—like that’s a revelation.

All told, it’s a confused mess that fails to present anything like enough background to support its personal attacks, and fails to deliver a coherent message. Watch the first two, but skip this one.