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The Natural Selection of Survivor

Philippe Larochelle

Perhaps one of the least-asked questions concerning “Survivor” is, just what kind of survival was being tested during this island human experiment? Initial glimpses into the series for most people, I believe, set forth the illusion that this was a deserted island where castaways would operate in a fashion to ensure their well-being on the island. Those who were productive and benefited the general welfare of the group would be rewarded and allowed to stay on the island; those who were lazy, unproductive and a genuine pain in the ass would soon enough be booted off the island. This conforms to our general vision of island castaways -- in a real life or death situation on a deserted island the policy would expectedly be, eat the useless ones first.

The final four remaining castaways, however, were a far cry from the expectations of this model. They were Sue, the most reprehensible, hate-filled, hypocritical truck driver on the planet; Richard, an overweight middle-aged corporate trainer who was never even competitive in all but one of the immunity challenges; Rudy, the oldest and most secluded person of all the competitors, who on occasion kicked people in the face while getting out of bed; and Kelly, an on-the-fence river rafting instructor who was as easily influenced as a six-year-old and could not out-paddle a guy who had never gone swimming. Seeing how the expected result of the initial perceptions differ from the actual ones, we are left to analyze how exactly the selection process in this experiment really occurred.

The first four voted off seemed to conform to expectations. They were Sonja, a 63-year-old musician whose classical guitar and folk songs were of little use to anyone; B.B., a 64-year-old contractor who, although a hard worker, was far too much of a hard-ass to function properly in a group; Stacey, who was nominated as the weakest member of her Tagi tribe by the Pagong; and Ramona, who was for the most part just too lazy and whiny to be of prolonged use. Slowly, however, the trend began to reverse itself. The last person voted off by the Pagong tribe was Joel, arguably the most useful in the tribe. By the time the tribes merged into one, it was becoming clear that a person’s practical use and ability had no correlation to their remaining on the island.

The first one voted off from the newly named “Rattana” tribe was Gretchen, an easy to get along with, hard-working woman who had taught survival in the Air Force for several years. Next was Greg who, despite his affinity for coconut phones, had proven that he was one of the most useful of those remaining.

What began as a show of survival of the fittest degenerated into survival of the weakest. Those demonstrating ability, ambition and desire were weeded out; those who had shown the virtues of laziness, ambivalence and indifference were allowed to stay, for the time being at least. Gervase, Colleen and Sean did remain on the island because of their virtues -- specifically, because of a lack of them. Their lack of drive, will and ability was an asset; it prevented them from being targeted as a threat by the voting alliance formed by the final four. So, if the guiding principle behind the success of a castaway was no longer their prowess for adaptation to an island environment, what were the factors that characterized one’s survival or demise in the later stages of this game?

In one of the early installments Susan Hawk, the mid-western trucker, made perhaps the most untrue of her assortment of moronic comments, although probably only one person knew how wrong she was at the time. She said to Richard Hatch something along the lines of “you’re from a corporate world, and being corporate out here won’t help you at all.” It was precisely Richard’s background in the corporate world that won him the competition. The key to success in “Survivor” was not an affinity for surviving on a deserted island but rather having an affinity for survival in capitalism. The pursuit of a selfish objective while operating and interacting with individuals with the same selfish objective was the name of the game, not nobility or ability. Cooperating for mutual benefit and turning on one another when it was necessitated, forming a cartel if beneficial while maintaining a decent reputation, was not only something Richard was adept at, but it was something he taught others how to do in his career.

Richard Hatch was much more than just the winner of the prize in “Survivor” -- he was the architect of the entire series. The three people with him in the voting alliance never would have made it as far without the alliance he put into motion; many others would not have been voted off. The reluctance of the rest of the competitors to employ the same tactics was their ultimate downfall. George Bernard Shaw once said, “If you’re not a socialist when you’re twenty then you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist when you’re forty, you have no head.” We saw the demonstration of this in its purest form with the majority of the young idealists pledging to do nothing but vote their conscience; the one exception, Kelly, offered a lament for not doing so afterwards.

People often say that we didn’t really get to know the participants on “Survivor.” I disagree. I believe that the remote setting of the island allowed us the deepest insights into the personalities of the average people in our society and our reactions to them. Perhaps this accounts for the show’s popularity. Rudy, an admitted homophobe who used such lines as “the only reason I’d bring a Bible on this island is to wipe my ass with it,” was the most popular among opinion polls because of his adherence to promises he had made, demonstrating to us that honesty overshadows even intolerance in the public’s eye. Richard, who from the start admitted he would do whatever it would take to win, was unpopular most likely because of our own distaste for the tactics we need to employ in everyday life to get ahead. Sue showed us perhaps the worst of all of our characters: hypocrisy. She openly lied about being in an alliance and she repeatedly chastised those who did not deserve it, while her own achievements were minor, and the speech she gave to Kelly at the end could easily have been turned around on her attempted backstabbing of Richard.

Finally, perhaps the most reprehensible display was Kelly’s. Despite the impressive feat of winning four immunity challenges, in her end speech she gave a shameful plea to the jury saying, “In retrospect I wouldn’t have joined an alliance.” She had the willingness to win, without the courage to admit it. If asked if she should not have tried to win, would she have responded with the same thing?

Now I’m eager to see what lessons will be learned from “Survivor 2.” My only hope is that Rudy makes another appearance (he did apply to the second one as well).