A trope I hate —

Tropes I enjoy: thieves with a heart of gold; girls/women disguising themselves as boys/men; personifications of Death. I’m sure there’re lots of other tropes that make me perk up when I see them in the book description. These are just a couple I thought of off the top of my head.

Tropes I hate: humanity is evil. Sure, I’m sure there are other tropes I hate, but this is the one I recently encountered. In its more extreme and worst form: all the other species in the galaxy are Good. Only humans are Evil.

As you may gather, I just read a story where this was a feature. It was just a couple of lines in the story, but THIS IS SO STUPID.

Humans, you see, are uniquely icky in that they allow their species to overshoot the carrying capacity, drive animal species to extinction, etc. One gathers there are other things in the etc, but these are the specific Evil Human Things mentioned in the story.

Okay, let me just describe what conditions must be like for every other species in the galaxy:

Resources are unlimited. There is unlimited food for every species, there are unlimited nesting sites / living spaces; whatever you need, you have it. How do I know? Because otherwise, at some point in your species’ evolution, you would be faced with the following choice:

a) You let yourself and/or your kids starve.

b) You make sure you and your kids survive, even if this means other people’s kids starve.

Resources are always limited. Periods of plenty are temporary and local. In periods of environmental stress, if you choose not to use resources yourself because you’re so concerned about the common good, then you will probably not have very good fitness and poof! Your genes will not be well-represented in the next generations. If there is a local famine, you will notice that few people step up and volunteer to starve themselves and their children for the common good. Creatures that nice (or that ridiculously timid, or whatever) take themselves right out of the gene pool. It isn’t possible to get species to behave that way. Unless you construct them, sure, that would work, but it’s not possible for them to evolve.

You know what I think when I hear about a species that is SO nice and SO cooperative and SO unselfish that they do not overshoot the carrying capacity? I don’t think How nice you must be.

What I think is: Wow, you must have developed a vicious totalitarian system right from the start in order to prevent the tragedy of the commons and other types of overuse of resources.

If there is another option besides individuals work to survive and protect their kin and individuals ruthlessly and viciously control the group, destroying their rivals so as to protect their own kin, I don’t see it. And option B doesn’t look to me like it offers much moral high ground to stand on.

I hated this trope when I saw it in Star Trek and it has by no means improved with age. It’s worse than simplistic, it’s ridiculous and offensive. Time to retire the everyone-else-is-so-nice, humans-alone-are-selfish-and-wicked trope. If I never see it again ever, that’d be great.

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6 thoughts on “A trope I hate —”

  1. I don’t know that I’ve ever run into a book where Only Humans are Evil, though I recall a few stories that tended in that direction. And there have been times I’ve read most of a book waiting for the other shoe to drop before realizing no, there is no other shoe, the author thinks the world really works (or could work) that way.

    Slightly unfair to Star Trek, though: humans certainly weren’t morally inferior to all the other peer species. And while they had their supposedly post-scarcity society in TNG, both before and afterwards they seemed to know better, at least some of the time. There’s a charming DS9 story where Jake Sisko wants to get something nice for his dad and has to work around the Federation pseudo-economy, doing a chain of favors for different people because he can’t just *buy* it. I think the ferenghi even commented this would be a lot simpler if you still used money.

  2. Hi, Craig —

    I was thinking of “Q”, who put humanity in particular on trial for the crime, as I recall, of being uniquely mean. Isn’t that right? It’s true that this doesn’t make sense even within the rest of the Star Trek universe.

  3. You got me: Q did put humanity on trial for overall moral failings in the very first episode of TNG.

  4. Though it’s not really clear that Q has the moral high ground, especially given the way the character is developed in the series. He’s just too powerful to ignore, so they have to play his game. Picard IIRC tends to be sort of impatient with him, accepting that he’s able to judge us but not necessarily acknowledging that he has the right to do so.

    Re the DS9 story, it’s actually even better than that. The baseball card shows up in a lot in a Ferengi auction, so initially it is possible to buy it with money. Jake’s being from a moneyless economy presents a bit of a problem. But he thinks he has a solution: his Ferengi best friend.

    JAKE: Come on, Nog.

    NOG: No.

    JAKE: Why not?

    NOG: It’s my money, Jake. If you want to bid at the auction, use your own money.

    JAKE: I’m human, I don’t have any money.

    NOG: It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favour of some philosophy of self-enhancement.

    JAKE: Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.

    NOG: What does that mean exactly?

    JAKE: It means… It means we don’t need money.

    NOG: Well if you don’t need money, then you certainly don’t need mine!

    Naturally, he manages to guilt Nog into putting up his life’s savings (without feeling the slightest pang about it, as far as I recall). Only when they lose the auction does the story turn into a chain of deals.

    Which is masterminded, of course, by Nog, in one of about three different instances in DS9 where Nog’s trade skills provide a functional workaround for a problem that’s utterly insoluble by Federation methods. (He must be some sort of wizard!)

  5. Thinking about it further, while I’m not sure that Q was ever that coherent, in principle the only thing he could really be trying humanity for is hypocrisy or disingenuousness. The Federation is the only power making ethical claims in the first place, and obviously Q’s not trying the Klingons for aggression or the Cardassians for tyranny or the Ferengi for avarice. (Or the Dominion, the Borg, the Romulans, etc. etc.)

    But I don’t think that’s what he says in Encounter at Farpoint. As far as I can tell, he really is suggesting that humanity at its core is too barbarous and warlike (“a dangerous, savage child race”) to be allowed to continue its explorations. Which doesn’t make any sense even in its own fictional context, except to establish that Q isn’t actually operating according to any sort of principle.

    And I still find it annoying even leaving Q aside, because it has Picard in the Smug Utopian position of saying: yes, yes, you’re absolutely right about people in the viewers’ time. Load of violent rotters who should be kept locked up to protect the galaxy. But we’ve transcended all their terribleness in the clear-eyed future.

    (Some years back, I did the Star Trek Experience in Vegas, where we were told that we had to stop the Klingons from grabbing Picard’s ancestor, lest the future be without him. This reminds me why I muttered that maybe we should just give him or her up to them.)

  6. Exactly, Mike. One has the definite impression the show’s producers are themselves quite sure that humanity is the meanie of the galaxy. One also suspects that they count themselves as Enlightened and Superior and put all the meanness and intolerance “out there” among the unwashed masses. Phooey.

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