Friday, January 21, 2011

Human Nature

We, as humans, love to believe we are superior to every other species. Sure, we can build a building, paint a painting, fiddle a fiddle, and perform countless other complex behaviors; however, when it comes down to the genetic level, we are not too different than our Cro-Magnon ancestors from hundreds of millennia ago. So much of our behavior can be explained by our most primordial instincts—fight or flight, kill or be killed, dominance of the fittest. In actuality, we may even be worse than we were before; there is no other organism on our planet that will kill a member of its own species for reasons as trivial as our own. I believe Butler painted a very disturbing portrait of man’s true capacity for debauchery, and the scariest part is that it isn’t completely unfathomable.

The majority of the population in this dystopian future consists of impoverished families, drug addicts, and illiterate gangsters. This type of conduct actually doesn’t surprise me; in fact, it almost seems like common sense to assume that, without an enforcing government, anarchy will occur. This once-civilized populace completely retroverted back to animals in the span of a few years at the first sign of famine and actual independence. The sad irony here is that these people essentially gained pure freedom. These cold-hearted beasts now roam in packs, scavenging what they can, and following their old instincts of “kill or be killed”. It’s hard to believe that such a change in behavior can occur in one’s lifetime, and not in the span of evolutionary eras. Even Keith, a sheltered pre-pubescent child, turns into a merciless killer and robber after being exposed to the environment for only a few months. It’s not even that he was unjustly put in that scenario; he actively left safety in order to pursue his wants, like a coyote leaving to find its next meal. I think the cause is indeed our primitive nature attracting us to our uncivilized instincts.

Butler construes the people outside of the gates as inhuman savages, but she also subtly incorporates the gated community’s dehumanization throughout the chapters leading up to the massacre. The older generations are described as unmotivated and simply waiting for better times to come. Most of the adults are also described as being very intelligent—often holding jobs in engineering, medicine, and teaching—however, they refuse to collaborate as a giant unit and instead isolate themselves and their family into smaller populations within the community. For instance, the newcomers, Wardell Parish and Rosalee Payne, are described by Lauren as having a false sense of superiority over the rest of the group. This seems odd, considering that chances of survival are greater if everybody collaborates. Yet, once again, the natural instincts of the group come out in this unrestricted environment, causing families to assert domination and territory over others. Parents even take their youngest children hunting in order to prepare them for a violent future; besides the technology, it’s hard to see society anywhere you look.

Despite this very bleak look at human nature, Butler uses Lauren as a nostrum for all this debasement. She gives Lauren all the good qualities of a leader and the insightfulness to foresee the fortress’ collapse. She is basically the one human that still retains good merits in a collapsing world. This may be in part for her having hyperempathy, which differentiates her from any other person. I found it interesting that the author would make such an abnormal person so much more human than any other character in the book. Perhaps Butler is trying to shine a light through the grim hole that human nature has dug itself. With such a mutation, Lauren actually becomes a better organism; free of the natural instinct to protect herself over everything else, she is able to see through a religion generally constructed to control the public and create a new, more reasonable, way of living life. Perhaps Butler is trying to show a polarization between two populations of Homo sapiens—one path taking the more barbaric lifestyle, and the other taking an enlightened path of understanding another’s emotions. This type of character displacement is very common amongst other organisms in the environment and it may just be that humanity will be in need of such a divergence sometime in the near future, considering the storm of events that is about to be unleashed on us as a race in the next few decades.


  1. The thing that stands out to me most in this essay is that you work exclusively on the level of generalities. You begin with broad generalizations about human nature - not stupid ones, I'll grant you , but generalizations nonetheless - and then move into a series of generalizations about the novel. Because you are working on a highly general level, I'm a little unclear on your argument - the second to last sentence is kind of an argument, but it's in danger of being a trivial argument - would any intelligent reader deny that Butler is showing polarization with humanity, between (my terms) builders of communities, families, and knowledge and wreckers of the same?
    Nor is there any evidence offered for any particular position. Your understanding of the novel is reasonable enough - but because you avoid digging into particular scenes and issues, you don't do anything with it.

    A word about a rhetorical problem you have. You start out by classifying humanity, in general, as being no better than other animals, and maybe, in fact, worse. Then, curiously, you repeatedly use words like "beast," "coyote," etc., pejuratively - humanity in this novel is bad because we behave like beasts, even though you started out with the idea that we are lower than other animals, not higher. It's not really a big deal, but goes to show that you are wandering in circles, precisely because you don't have an argument.

  2. Anthony-

    I think your essay has lots of potential, but there are pretty substantial parts I would work on if I were you. First off, beware of generalizations. You cannot speak for all of humanity or the world, but you can give your own opinions. For instance: "there is no other organism on our planet that will kill a member of its own species for reasons as trivial as our own." How do you know? Some species will kill their own offspring for a meal. You want people to be able to agree with your point, not question you.

    Also, I don't quite agree that Lauren is the only human left. I would definitely discuss more the shooting lessons, but does that mean they aren't human more? Is it not inherently human to want to protect your children and ensure their survival? Is there a human quality to the fires that allow people on the street to find food for there children? But the world is a violent one in the novel, so this is definitely worthy of discussion.

    I would go further with your relation to the world today; if this is a survival guide, what lessons is it giving us, and how could we envision our world reaching those levels?

    Last, I would try to avoid double negatives (i.e. it is not uncommon). They tend to make your writing confusing when it isn't that complicated.

    Hope this helps-