Class Warfare Blog

December 4, 2019

The Hero: A Book Report

Filed under: Culture,language,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:33 am
Tags: ,

I finished reading The Hero by Lee Child, author of action thrillers, most prominently those involving his main character, Jack Reacher. And I promised you a book report.

This is a quick read and quite enjoyable as it the author’s riff on what defines the word “hero.” He uses as a framework the evolution of humankind, focusing on the genetic bottleneck that occurred about 2500 generations ago in which the human population of Europe and its surrounds fell to about 4000 individuals (due to an ice age, you know). He believes that that event shaped us into the people we are. To quote him:

Conventionally our long, eventful seven-million-year evolutionary journey is thought of as an inevitable ascent toward ever-increasing perfection. Which it might be. Or not. It depends on where we started. Who are we descended from? Who was my 1,198-times great grandmother? What kind of person survives an eight-hundred-generation Ice Age? Such a thing doesn’t happen by accident. Potential survivors didn’t sit around hoping for the best. They spent eight hundred generations kicking and clawing and killing and stealing. Maybe they started on the Neanderthals. Then they started on each other. Conditions got worse. The nice guys died out. By the end the human population was reduced to the nastiest handful. My 1,198-times great grandmother was one of them. One of a savage, feral, cunning bunch. They would kill you as soon as look at you. They would steal your food and shelter. A ferocious will to live, with the emphasis on the first part.

Along the way to this conclusion, Mr. Child dissects the meaning of the word hero, from its initial meanings to the almost total meaningless it has now (ordinary firefighters are labeled heroes without having done anything heroic . . . for political reasons). Mr. Child explains why this happened:

The entire purpose of story is to manipulate. Previously who was doing the manipulating didn’t matter very much. It was always just some random person, with talent and energy, and no real agenda beyond some kind of empowering encouragement, which was intended to help the community as a whole anyway. But now there was a state, however rudimentary, and a government. There was an elite, and a hierarchy stretching out below them. There was power and control. The New Stone Age. A new system. Perhaps too long ago and too small and too prototype-crude to be given names from later periods, but all authoritarian and totalitarian governments need to control the story.

The bottom line is that Mr. Child, he of a classical education and quite erudite, has foresworn the use of the word “hero” as being meaningless . . . now.

This is a quick and good read, quite thought provoking.





  1. I might be interested in this book but not sure I exactly agree with it.

    My general thoughts have always been that up to around 100K years ago we were mostly like super-intelligent wolves. I use wolves because we did a lot of hunting in packs. Of course, we also had a lot of primate, ape characteristics. At any rate, our groups were relatively small in size and behavior inside the group and outside the group were quite different. Inside there would be a hierarchy with an alpha male, a constant threat of violence to enforce the hierarchy but also good amount of cooperative behavior. Outside there would be violent competition with other groups competing over the same resources.

    Some time around 100K years ago something changed that allowed the group to accommodate more males, hence larger groups. Wrangham in The Goodness Paradox hypothesizes the non-alpha males cooperating together killed off the most violent males and removed them from the breeding population. Over time this resulted in more docile males and broke down some the alpha male hierarchy. During this same time likely language developed and additional cognitive abilities possibly enabled by a delay in the maturation of prefrontal lobe.

    The development of language and culture allowed group identification to shift from direct blood descent to cultural identity. The antipathy towards the outside groups – those of not the same cultural identity – continued and continues to this day.

    None of this, however, happened directly as a result of dealing with the Ice Age. I think this mostly happened in Southern Africa then East Africa and from there, about 60-70K years ago, humans spread out and exterminated their competing humans who were deficient in most of language and cultural capabilities possessed of the new human.


    Comment by James Cross — December 4, 2019 @ 10:43 am | Reply

    • Well speculations abound. I do not subscribe to his thesis but it is an interesting speculation. He points out that Neanderthals were more like us that previously claimed, but not as ruthless, so when the going got tough …

      His primary thesis is that that recent evolutionary bottleneck selected for bad ass human beings over passive or kinder/gentler sorts. And that this created a certain set of qualities in Homo sapiens sapiens. This is not far fetched.

      On Wed, Dec 4, 2019 at 10:43 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 4, 2019 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

      • The question of a bottleneck itself is somewhat controversial.

        Some think the eruption of Toba about 70K years ago caused a bottleneck and I think other bottlenecks have also been speculated about.

        I think more likely than a bottleneck was modern humans are all descended from a relatively small group that evolved in Southern Africa, then migrated to East Africa, and from there conquered the world. This would look the same as a bottleneck, I think, because everybody still ends up descended from a small group even though there were possibly hundreds of thousands of other humans around at the same. The small group were more organized, better in warfare, and hence “out competed” ( as the expression goes) the other humans. Look at Wikipedia on founder effect.

        The prefrontal delay evidence, if you read the details, suggests that Neanderthals had a maturation pattern more closely resembling apes rather than humans. If that delay is required for language and culture, they probably couldn’t mobilize larger groups for warfare or anything else so they would be easy conquests for modern humans. Conquest usually meant capture and enslavement of women and some children, which probably accounts for the small amount of Neanderthal DNA in humans.


        Comment by James Cross — December 4, 2019 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

      • One other note. Somewhere I saw some analysis of Neanderthal skeletons that found a high number of young males who probably died from battle wounds. Whether they were fighting among themselves or being exterminated by humans might be a question.


        Comment by James Cross — December 4, 2019 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

    • The key phrase, to me, was “natural selection favored increased in-group prosociality” and I emphasize “in group.” I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone. Family values extended to extended family makes up a small tribe. Getting beyond that is the hard part.

      On Sat, Dec 7, 2019 at 10:23 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 7, 2019 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

      • Definitely. Actually our hostility to out of group may have increased in compensation. At any rate, our organizational abilities to wage war increased. To the dismay of some, there is widespread evidence of organized violence in pre-agrarian societies. Out groups are often regarded as inhuman and animal. Our notion of human became attached to custom and language. The same force is at work in the neo-Nazis and such in our current society.


        Comment by James Cross — December 7, 2019 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

        • The main battle is to expand the in group … safely. Currently in American education circles, competition is being promoted as a way to make a better system. Thsi is a gross mistake. Competition is what you do with people in the out-group. Collaboration is what we do with people in the in-group.

          On Sat, Dec 7, 2019 at 1:05 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — December 7, 2019 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

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