The Matrix Theories Homo Sapiens Mammal or Virus

Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, is my favorite character in the “Matrix” films. I prefer the first installment of the trilogy because it’s the one where Smith gets to speak his mind. I’m particularly intrigued by his thoughts on human nature, and there is one point he makes that I think merits consideration in these troubled times: Is it true that humankind is more virus than mammal, foregoing the virtues of adaptation for the excesses of wanton consumption?

Corporate imperialism and the wars and famines it has spawned would seem to testify to the harrowing truth in this notion. As the specter of nuclear war is resurrected and the consequences of global warming creep over the horizon the conclusion that human beings intend to utterly use up planet Earth seems all but inescapable. And if prevailing paradigms of human nature are correct, human beings are incapable of selfless behaviors unless they can be rooted in selfish motives. Thus, so long as people have no particular incentive to act today with the consequences to future generations in mind, there is little hope that things are going to change.

But the liberating point in all of this is that humans aren’t, in actuality, viruses. Sociologist Carl Couch discovered that the self-absorbed behaviors that often dominate competitive acts and exchange relationships are not the foundations of human life. Rather, the cooperative act is the bedrock of human existence. The key thing is our capacity to work with one another as opposed to simply with respect to one another.

Through a revolutionary approach to sociological theorizing and laboratory experiment, Couch revealed that the stimulus-response model of human behavior (which still dominates popular imagination and a number of university psychology departments) fails to illuminate the majority of human behaviors, in particular the signature ones. Couch recognized that human sociation is, like biological speciation, an emergent phenomenon that demands consideration of the dyad (two people) as the basic unit of analysis rather than the individual.

Why is it, then, that US culture seems obsessed with the idea that “looking out for number one” is a high virtue? Why is success in business tied to global market dominance, rather than simply to earning financial security by building trust with customers in your own hometown? Why are we addicted to championships and elimination contests and being on “the winning team”? Why do many who live in the US have to constantly tell themselves that it’s is the greatest country on the planet? Whether it is or isn’t, why is that important?

Recall that the operative component of Agent Smith’s Matrix was a lie, specifically the lie that lead humans to believe their experiences in the Matrix were “real”. Indeed, every lie requires a matrix to support it. A matrix of values. A matrix of laws. A matrix of institutions. And, most fundamentally, a matrix of fears. Such a matrix serves the purposes of convincing people that the lie is true and of ensnaring people so that, once believed, the lie is difficult to disbelieve.

The US was founded upon the sublime truth that all humans are created equal; a truth long hijacked by the “American lie” that conflict is the driver of human progress. The only way a person can win, apparently, is if another person loses. This worldview denies all but selfish motives for improvement. Forget about things like compassion or integrity or raw creativity. Good things only come to those who fight.

Thankfully, there is always, as it were, a red pill. It’s called forgiveness, and it means releasing all of the anger and resentment and regret that a life of ceaseless competition and self-centeredness ultimately brings. Opening one’s heart to the vulnerability of cooperation can be a frightening prospect, but the alternative is a life of grief, isolation, and, ironically, a self-loathing that is ever-present in your consciousness.

“Like a splinter in your mind.”