Evolution, Insecurity, & Bureaucracy

In the novel, Zone One, Colson Whitehead confronts readers with uncommonly employed language and references. Many of the words and allusions Whitehead confronts readers with are “esoteric” in nature— or “intended or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge of interest”. Of the many allusions presented in the text, I personally took interest in the ones referencing evolution. The book’s protagonist, Mark Spitz, is extremely introspective and through his experience working to secure “Zone One” during a zombie apocalypse, his internal narrative references both evolution and the daily struggles survivors face. These instances of past and present struggles for survival are juxtaposed with Mark’s notice of the prevailing intricacies of bureaucracy present amid the world’s destruction. This contrast serves to forge a connection between the current state of social organization in our own society, and the infinite struggles this system imposes on individuals. 

Struggle in its purest form is referenced in the text through Mark Spitz’ allusions to the process of evolution. As Mark is fighting for his life against a raid of zombies (coined “skels”), he notes: “He needed every second, regardless of his unrivaled mediocrity and the advantages this adaptation conferred in a mediocre world” (Zone One 322). The wording of this sentence draws a parallel to natural selection, but for most the fact that something average (and not above average) would have a survival advantage does not seem to align to the typical idea of “survival of the fittest” that most associate with the theory of natural selection. However, natural selection is simply when organisms best suited for a particular environment survive, and there are many different forms of selection that can occur, one of which is stabilizing selection: where average individuals are favored, such as in the instance of birth weight. This reference to natural selection helps readers to associate the struggles of survivors with the most ancient struggles living organisms have encountered, and Mark’s constant reference to his self-proclaimed mediocrity also helps readers see him as an everyday person and identify with him.

Despite the constant struggle for survival that Mark and his fellow “sweepers” endure during their duties in the novel, elements of hierarchical organization still seep into this world in which everything was thought to be destroyed. In the story an epicenter of organization arises in Buffalo, where only the elite reside, making all the other citizens destined to live in camps. Of those who are actively fighting skels, the marines and army are first preference for equipment and safety, while “sweepers” such as Mark and his friends are, “the lowest priority in everything except when it came to bullets” (Zone One 21). Furthermore, as Mark performs the dangerous duty of clearing buildings of skels and stragglers, Buffalo starts to bring in people to begin planning the new structure of the city and Mark notes: “[e]ventually they’ll be displaced three subway stops away by rising rents and you’ll never see them again” (Zone One 207) when referring to the skels still present in the area. Here Mark’s reflection alludes to stratification that we are all too familiar with in our own society, and we once again begin to connect the situation of the novel with our own.

In another one of Mark’s reflections, evolution is referenced yet again when he notes: “so tentative bureaucracy rose from the amino-acid pools of madness, per its custom” (Zone One 111). The “amino-acid pools” being referenced are an allusion to the primordial soup theory of evolution. In this theory, and subsequent experiments, it was proposed that the fundamental units of life (amino acids) were formed when chemicals present on early earth combined due to an input of energy (such as lightening). This juxtaposition of a reference to the theory of evolution (a continuous struggle for survival) with the current intricacies of our own social organization systems makes readers draw a parallel between these systems of organization and the struggles for survival and existence they impose on others.

It is very clear that in our own society and others around the world, many do not have the privilege of security in their everyday lives. Many struggle for basic necessities such as food, shelter, housing, healthcare (dental care in particular as seen in this article). Right now, in our country many hard-working people who have one or more jobs are unable to afford dental insurance; furthermore, public healthcare in certain states fails to offer dental benefits (and if it does many dentists do not accept it) (Jordan and Sullivan). As a result, dental procedures that can only be paid for out of pocket are often forced to the bottom of the priority list for those with a long list of bills already (Jordan and Sullivan). It is brought to our attention by Dee Matello in the article “The Painful Truth about Teeth”, that despite voting for across party lines, the complex bureaucratic system in our country has failed to provide her and her family with adequate care.

This disparity, amid others, is a disservice to Americans. The complex systems that are meant to guarantee security and equity for all in healthcare (among other things) are failing many Americans. As we see in Zone One, the complex systems that are supposed to be creating peace and organization are also allowing many to suffer and struggle from day to day while less important items are being attended to. The ending of Zone One is not a happy one, with the territory Mark and others have worked so hard to secure being lost to a never-ending tide of the dead. However, this tragic ending serves to make readers uncomfortable, and begin to think about how our systems can be restructured and improved in order to reverse a tragic situation in our own society.

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