Explorer: Born To Rage debuts tonight on National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
I've made a lot of written arguments. I've been online since the mid-1990's, and occasionally, I have opinions, and I try to justify those. I also got an education—history/philosophy major at a small liberal arts college—which required a great deal of writing. One of the most interesting conundrums that I have as a writer is what to do when I find out that I've argued myself out of my original point. Maybe the evidence that I wanted to cite can't be found, or worse, it actually seems to say the opposite. Maybe I go searching for a trustworthy expert who disagrees with my initial point and convinces me that I'm wrong.
There are a few things that you can do in such a situation. You could scrap what you've written and start over, but that's the least appealing option. You could edit it slightly, so that the initial certainty is tempered, and the paper reflects your internal argument. Or maybe you could take the path of least resistance and refrain from commenting on it directly, and let that disagreement emerge from a conclusion that differs from your thesis.
The producers of “Born to Rage” end up having this exact problem and decide to go with the last option. Their premise is exciting: There's a gene that can, surprisingly, indicate a stronger likelihood for men to engage in violent behavior. Their hook is engaging: Punk rock icon and genuinely angry man Henry Rollins serves as a kind of host, interviewer, and lead test subject. Their other test subjects are also interesting: retired gang enforcers, biker dudes, Buddhist monks, and a former Navy SEAL/current successful CEO.
The show takes the form of Rollins traveling around, finding men who would seem to have either a very high likelihood of having this genetic trait—called “The Warrior Gene”—and a few who are either in a grey area or very unlikely to have it. They talk about their violent or non-violent past and their underlying rage. These are some of the best aspects of the show. Rollins is charismatic enough on his own, and the subjects are either fascinatingly introspective or hilariously lacking in self-criticism. After they talk, Rollins tries to decide if he thinks they have the Warrior Gene or not, while they wait for a test result. At the end of the episode, Rollins himself receives his test results.
It's all tied together with somewhat overbearing narration, which declares that in the constant debate between nature and nurture, nature might well be winning. It goes on to describe the effects of having the Warrior Gene—a higher propensity toward using violence as a response. It's dramatic stuff, and it makes some very strong claims about human nature. But don't take my word for it: watch it here.
Once the intro is finished, the show immediately starts drawing back from that intro's claims, without ever mentioning that it's doing so. It sounds like frightening stuff, but it's immediately undercut by suggesting that one in three men have the so-called “Warrior Gene.” Now, one can put together an argument that masculine violence is a major societal problem, but “Born to Rage” doesn't go there. It just shows dark, grainy footage of dudes near-rioting after a Lakers championship and throwing punches and head-stomps. This is extremely aberrant behavior, not something that 33 percent of men have to deal with on a constant basis.
The use of the term “The Warrior Gene” is also problematic. It's a perfect example of what popular science author Stephen J. Gould described as “reification” in his superb The Mismeasure of Man. By labeling a concept, that concept appears to become more real, creating logical fallacies and misperceptions about its reality. Gould focused on the amorphous concept of intelligence, which was initially measured by skull measurements and phrenology, later by IQ tests, and then by theories of multiple intelligences, all of which mask the fact that there isn't really a specific thing or group of things that can be called “intelligence.” “Born to Rage” examines the Warrior Gene, which takes a vaguely definable scientific concept—that one particular gene helps control serotonin—and gives it a catchy, misleading title. Supposedly this Warrior Gene makes people more prone to uncontrollable violence, yet halfway through “Born to Rage,” a group of young, would-be Mixed Martial Arts fighters talk glowingly about why they want to have this Warrior Gene. Why? Because in that profession, as well as in this culture, being a “warrior” is a good thing. It's a media-friendly hook, but it's also extremely deceptive. Whatever positive attributes they ascribe to warriors, that's not what the gene is supposed to do.
The results of the tests often come back surprisingly, and many of Rollins' predictions turn out to be wrong. Some of this may be good for drama, but it has the added effect of continuing to undermine the scientific premise of the episode. By the end of the hour, Rollins is ambivalent about whether he thinks he has the Warrior Gene or not, as well as whether he wants it. The ambivalence is fully deserved after an hour of undermining the gene's importance, and by the show's conclusion, the narrator has pulled back from the hyperbole of the introduction as well.
It's this tension that makes “Born to Rage” surprisingly interesting to watch. On the surface level, the way it puts a human face on its scientific argument is effectively done, and Rollins is a fine host. On a deeper level, it functions as an example of how our society and media try to deal with science and technology. A narrative is applied, regardless of the veracity of that narrative, alongside a catchy title. This is necessary to get people's attention. An honest presentation acknowledges those limitations, whereas a dishonest one can actually be damaging when it presents theory as fact and experiment as consensus. “Born to Rage” tilts more towards the honest side of that scale, but it's still fascinatingly located in the grey areas of popular science presentation.