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Children of Men

While scouting for a film I'm soon to shoot, I discovered two things about the new Seattle. One, it's whiter than I initially thought. (Either that or people of color have a weird aversion to the city's many marvelous parks.) Two, Seattle's population of dogs has really exploded. The humans—mostly white, mostly young—here are big into this "man's best friend" business. What is behind this trend? My best guess is that the dogs are filling the growing absence of children. Dogs—and pets in general—are a tech city's children. And this fact reveals something that Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men missed, not only about humans but also about what would happen if our kind of animal became catastrophically infertile.

To better explain the flaw in this otherwise amazing movie, I must introduce you to a baboon, Ahla, who died many years ago in Namibia. Her memory is preserved in the book Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Back in the early 1960s, Ahla had a job on a farm. She was a goatherd, and apparently was very good at it. She never failed to direct all of the goats back and forth from the fields, and she rode the larger goats with the pride of a cowboy. (Let us take a moment to picture this goatgirl at dusk.)

Ahla also kept track of which kid belonged to which parent. Apparently, goats are not very bright and get easily confused about their children. But not this baboon. Primatologists Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth wrote that Ahla was "'not only eager but a real maniac' in her efforts to reunite kids with their mothers."

There is more. The goats might have found the baboon's mania for their kids a bit annoying, but they certainly enjoyed her grooming. It was the pleasure of another species transferred to them by the accident of the baboon's employment. Indeed, we can describe this grooming as a species-specific surplus. Ahla had to groom the goats because that's what her kind spends a good amount of time doing. It is the heart of their sociality. Goat sociality, on the other hand, is very limited. They do not have an activity that's comparable to this baboon pleasure—this gentle and highly social picking at and pulling of the fur.

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It is here we can leave Namibia and return to the movie Children of Men. Set 2027, the film is about humanity facing extinction "after 18 years of global infertility." And what do the humans of this depressing world mainly do? The sort of thing that humans do when not facing extinction: throw humans into cages, contain humans in ghettos, shoot humans with powerful weapons. But a human world without children would also certainly turn to pets (dogs and cats), and lavish them with the surpluses of our form of sociality. An accurate anthropology of the crisis in Children of Men must include an explosion of pets. Dogs and cats have to be everywhere in this movie. Not just one or two. Not here and there. We must see them in soapy bathtubs, in prams, in clothes, in re-purposed pre-schools, in cots, in church. They would be subjected to our long sermons and bad poetry—the surpluses of human language.

The near absence of pets in Children of Men reveals that its makers did not have a deep understanding of human sociality, which, as sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy points out in a number her books, is a form of alloparenting that radically liberates and broadly elaborates the primary bond between a mother and child. In a global crisis of infertility, our species surplus would spread horizontally to domesticated (for example, dogs) and synanthropic (for example, squirrels) animals. Something similar is happening in Seattle, though not due to an extinction-level crisis but its transition into a tech city. Places of this kind tend to experience a deep decline in the children of men.

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Children of Men