Mini Essay: on McCormac’s ‘The Road’ and human cooperation

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a profound novel–one which is frighteningly realistic in its portrayal of environmental and social collapse.

However: it seems to me that The Road seriously misrepresents human social behavior. The novel follows a father and son during their trek through post-apocalyptic America. The other people they meet in their travels are almost always traveling alone or in small groups. The only exception is roving band (bands?) of psychopaths, who seem to survive by raiding weaker travelers they meet.

Here’s the problem: it’s not plausible to suggest that a world-ending crisis would end all human cooperation except among the most depraved and violent of our species. Indeed, I’d expect the opposite: in every serious crisis I’ve seen or found myself in, all but the most damaged people have recognized that our communities of mutual aid are our most valuable survival strategy. In a post-apocalyptic America, tribal warfare seems plausible, but a bellum omnium contra omnes is the last thing I’d expect. From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings are fundamentally social animals; as Marcus Aurelius observes, we are literally built to support one another, like the fingers of a hand. There’s nothing idealistic or sentimental about this. It’s just a law of nature that human beings cooperate, or die. I’d also note that the survival strategy of McCormac’s roving band(s) of psychopaths is basically predation–but a group of predators, as a matter of the mathematics of energy, requires a much larger group of prey.

None of this is to take away from The Road as a novel. My guess is that McCormac chose to portray a group of human predators tracking a pair of human prey as much for thematic reasons as for realism. The Road, like all great literature, isn’t really about the concrete events it depicts. I intend only to point out that we’d be mistaken to think of this novel as a realistic portrayal of concrete events. The Road is a modern story of a man’s descent into hell for the love of his son, not a playbook for survival in the event of an actual apocalypse.

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