Bryan Caplan  

Hunger in Maus

Good Question... Morning Commentary...

I recently re-read both volumes of Art Spiegelman's Maus. If you've never heard of it, it's an autobiographical graphic novel where the author gets his father to tell the story of how he survived the Holocaust. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, but the rest is painfully real.

Maus opens with one of the author's childhood memories. The boy (Artie) comes to his father (Vladek), crying:

Father: Why do you cry, Artie?...

Son: I - I fell, and my friends skated away w-without me.

Father: Friends? Your friends?

If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!

When the boy grows up, and gets his father to tell his story, we find out what the father was talking about. Not only did he really endure a week without food in a crowded room - he made it through Auschwitz. There's even a scene in a train where the father survives simply because he can reach some snow:
[Father Narrates]: I ate mostly snow from up on the roof. Some had sugar somehow, but it burned.

Other Prisoner: My throat! I need water! Water! Give me some snow!

Father: I can only reach a little for myself.

Other Prisoner: Please! Please!! I beg you!

Father: Okay. Give me some sugar, I'll get you some snow.

[Father Narrates]: So I ate also sugar and saved their life.

Reading a story where hunger plays a central role got me thinking: The sad fact is that through much of human evolution, hunger of this kind was a regular occurrence - anytime the crops failed, there was famine. And as Maus shows, when people are hungry, they do terrible things - even betray others to the Nazis - to get a little food.

All this makes me wonder: How much of our view of human nature is tainted by the fact that we evolved in a hungry environment? When food is scarce, you're wise to distrust others - even your friends. When everyone has plenty to eat, though, people play nice. But can we fully adjust to the fact that the next famine isn't coming? Or does evolution instill a distrust of our fellow man that no longer makes sense?

P.S. Please, no comments about financial crisis and bail-outs. When you read Maus, you'll know what a real crisis looks like...

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
N. writes:

I believe I have quoted it here before, but it bears repeating in response to this post: "even saints can act as sinners/when they haven't had their dinners." That's the inimitable Berthold Brecht for you.

Brecht was of course a strident socialist, but it makes me wonder how much of his socialism came from fear of his starving fellows.

Recall Lenin's promises of "Peace, Land and Bread."

William writes:

Since we're doing literature, how about Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor:

"Do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men?"

Robert Scarth writes:

"How much of our view of human nature is tainted by the fact that we evolved in a hungry environment? When food is scarce, you're wise to distrust others"

I recently read something about how people become less co-operative if they are primed to think of money. Sorry I can't remember the details or provide a link. An interpretation of this would be that in times of plenty there is less need to spend resources signalling that you are a reliable co-operator (although of course, as one has more resources the relative cost of signalling is less)

Bryan's thoughts lead to me to conjecture that in times of famine individuals are more co-operative towards their in-group, but more suspicious and less co-operative to out-groups. A test would be whether attitudes about race, or immigration for example can be changed by priming people to think about money. People who had been primed to think of money would be, for example, less racist than those who had not been so primed.

Kurbla writes:

Evolutionary explanations is like psychoanalysis or astrology - you can explain everything, predict nothing. Why? There are always animals that adapted on oposite way. You can find very reasonable explanation why large cats hunt solitary. But lions do not. You can find conviencing explanation why chimp has to be agressive - but bonobo has not.

MasterChief writes:

Oh I dont know about us being all hunky dory now vs times of extremes.

Other selection pressures exist now that werent that strong before. The mating game can be more ruthless and precarious for example.

Dont get me wrong, Id *way* rather be here than there- all im saying is, you change one factor, all you really do is allow other hidden factors to become dominant.

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