Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Love and Ooloi

 “The genes hold culture on a leash.  The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.  The brain is a product of evolution” (Wilson 167).
Wilson argues that mankind is tethered by their genetics in that no matter how culturally advanced, we are like all other animals on earth driven by the motivations of genetics: surviving and passing on our genes.  In Lilith’s Brood, Butler presents a post-apocalyptic scenario with an alien species not confined by these aspects of evolution.  The reproduction of the Oankali is based on the presence of a third sexless member in addition to male and female called an ooloi. This entity has the ability to combine the genetic material for reproduction, select for different traits, and even combine with other species.  This form of reproduction is based solely on choice and making decisions for later generations.  (Perhaps the implications of deciding what is best for posterity will probably be seen with further readings into Lilith’s Brood.) While human reproduction is based on random events genetically with random combinations of genes from reproductive cells.  The choice in human reproduction is based solely in mate selection.   Lilith is the first human who will mother a child created for her through the methods of reproduction used by the Oankali.   Because of this, her and her offspring will be going against what evolution which not only had shaped her life but had also shaped her species and every species that has ever existed on earth.   Lilith still has the hotwiring given to her by evolution but yet she doesn’t need to be driven by these motivations.  As well as having another person to care for and add to the personal relationship.  This conflict is very creates a strange love triangle necessary for reproduction which goes against and previous system in history.  It can be argued that Lilith even falls more in love with her oolioo that with her human companion and that this shift indicates a transcendence from the laws of evolution to the new alien ways of reproduction.

As Wilson claims we are bound by our genetics, such human characteristics of love can be simplified as a means for reproduction involving a purely physical as well as a compansionate aspect.  Sexual attraction is one motivator in mate selection and this is traditionally been thought to been based off of physical attractiveness and whether a person looks sickly or not, will be able to bear children, and some research even shows that it is based off of scent - - directly reflecting genetics. Because the Oankali don’t need to rely on guessing if a person would be a good genetic match from attractiveness, there doesn’t need to be an element of physicality to sexual reproduction.   Lilith’s utter repulsion by the appearance of the aliens repulsed her so much that she “deliberately dug her nails into her palm until they all but broke the skin […] to distract her (Butler 15) and it took her months to get used to their appearances.  After she was used to the appearance of the Oankali and the oolioo and awakened other humans perhaps a shift in choosing a mate based on physical attraction was apparent.  Liltih surprised her captors when she did not chose a large strong attractive mate but instead chose a shorter older man.  While their relationship proceeded in a somewhat traditional fashion, the addition of the oolioo complicated the physical aspect of the relationship and this can perhaps be explain by Wilson as being because the ability to reproduce with just a man and a woman was lost.  After losing the ability to conceive without the the oolio, Lilith and Joseph, although still caring for each other are repulsed by the idea of the other as sexual beings without the ooloi.  When Lilth tries to hold Joseph’s hand they force themselves to remain holding hands but “shudder with revulsion”(Butler 220). Yet on the other hand earlier that day she was missing Nikanj and that fact that it wouldn’t be there at night for “gentle multiple touches of sensory tentacles and sensory hands”(Butler 213).  This explicitly sexual language is a stark contrast to not only the way she felt initially about the alien species but also to how she currently feels about her human mate Joseph and this switch can be explained by change in the process of reproduction.

Another element of attraction, companionship or love, is women want men who will stick around through their pregnancy and through the life of the child and provide for them and men want women to be good mothers to their offspring.  It is this mutual caring and ability to get along that bring Joseph and Lilith together initially.  Interestingly, this aspect of the importance of caring for offspring and thus forming a loving unit is as essential for reproduction in humans as it is  for the Oankali population.  Although they can control their traits, they still have to rear their children and take great care.  Not only that but they must also care for the oolioo. Lilith took on this role with Nikanj when she first met it and from then on her relationship with it was one that involved much more mutual dependency and caring than her relationship with Joseph. At the end of the battle between the humans and the oolioo, Lilith actually “strip[s] naked on the battlefield to lie down with the enemy”(Butler 232) and lies with Nikanj until he is able to use her body to heal himself.  This type of compassionate intimacy does not in any way exist in human society other than perhaps when a person donates a kidney.  In this way Lilith’s relation with her oolioo deepens as they literally become one for a time.  Again, a Wilsonian explanation for this is that the compassion comes from the fact that the two can produce offspring together and need to care for one another to effectively raise and pass on the genes (however altered).

In summary, Lilith is the first being in history to go beyond to constraints of traditional evolution by being able to reproduce with a new species that do not rely on random events.  As a result, the love and feeling of closeness changes from being towards her own species to a being that she can reproduce with.  It also changes from being more based on physical appearance and initially attracting to being based on mutual compassion.

Homo superbus

Lilith’s Brood seems to me a direct response to an idea posed on page 51 of Wilson’s Human Nature, “But even worse, imagine our predicament if we coexisted with a mentally superior human species, say Homo superbus, who regarded us, the minor sibling species Homo sapiens, as the moral problem.”  This idea of course is not a totally new, even Dr. Seuss has suggested how life would be different if humans were the animals of the planet, but the combination of Wilson’s ideas and his statements immediately previously on our obligation to a mentally inferior brings me to this passage as a question to which her book responds.
            Of course in Butler’s version, we are not cousins; we do not share a genetic or personal history with our alien superiors.  For good or ill they have removed what history they can to start the human or what was human civilization anew. “’You'll begin again.  We'll put you in areas that are free of radioactivity and history.  You will become something other than you were.’ ‘And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?’ ‘No.  Only different.’” (Butler, 34)  They want us to hold onto nothing and become something new and yet they keep their memories of every merger genetically locked so they can never forget.  As humans we no longer know why each gene we have nature decided made us more likely to survive and this is one of the things Wilson seeks for us to learn.  The Oankali have this information genetically encoded.  Is it this understanding of themselves which Wilson seeks that makes them such a peaceful if manipulative species?  Is Butler suggesting we to could gain this harmony and cultural control if we knew our roots?  The question for me then is why deny humans this information.  Would our genetic history be too much for us to handle or is it merely the cultural history we normally see as civilized they want us to forget?
            The Oankali seem to have a similar belief system to that of Wilson.  They have a natural ability to reengineer the basic foundations of life, our genes, and feel compelled to do so with themselves and others to spread and change their genes.  Although Wilson lacks the ability to change our genes himself, this is also the goal he believes we should explore and improve ourselves through.  He, like the Oankali, delve into the possibility of guiding and engineering the evolution of another species as the Oankali do to us,“ Should we divide the world, guide their mental evolution to the human level...?”(Wilson, p.51) Wilson’s writing suggests to me that he would like to be the Oankali of our species understanding us, manipulating our genes and perhaps feels compelled to do so for us to make a better world.  If he believed it was best I do not doubt he too would wish to improve are DNA with the DNA of other species as the Oankali do as well; however, what is different from him and the Oankali is that he could not make that choice for all of us.
Giving Wilson’s beliefs to the Oankali simultaneously makes the ideas of genetic modification and design more appealing and much more perverse. The Oankali make genetic engineering appealing because the beings are our saviors and their way of life if strange seems harmonious. While not our ways, their ways seem to peaceful and virtuous; they do not eat meat, and while they argue we do not see them coming to blows. On the other hand their manipulation of the genes makes what they do to humans inhuman.  It was not decided on by humans and thus humans cannot use it to define our own evolution.  It was done to us without choice.  Our future has been taken away from us. Like the australopitecine of Wilson’s example (Wilson, 51) we are but the lower species for a higher to manipulate and care for.
I then see most of Butler’s work as a hashing out of On Human Nature with the Oankali taking the place of Wilson or the scientist, and the humans, Lilith and those she awakens are humanity responding to what Wilson has shown us. “’We pair off!’ Curt bellowed, drowning her out. ‘One man, one woman, Nobody has the right to hold you. It just causes trouble.’” (Butler, 176) This is how we tend to think we are supposed to be, paired.  But we would like it to be by choice. Marriage is one of the “characteristics that have been recorded in every culture known to history and ethnography” (Wilson, 21) And females as the weaker sex, become home bound with the creation of agriculture and then something to be traded or taken.  In this world of 43 humans everyone has been raised in civilization and yet we still revert to this need for a mate and, aggression which goes along with Wilson’s “crowding in the environment” is present and we revert to cave men. 
The Oankali can help us to succeed, help us overcome what we are at our basic core, but at what cost? This is what we ask of the future; would cleaning our genes make us less human? Would the changing of expression or adding in of other species features diminish our humanity? Lilith despite the benefits for her child believes that humanity is what matters not the benefits but could we really turn down the possibility to grow limbs? To stop cancer and disease in our children? By using another species Butler is able to dramatize Wilsons dream into something we can either fear or dream of.

The Oankali's Critique of Hierarchy

In Lilith’s Brood, the Oankali make several critiques about the values and actions of the human race.  One of the most fundamental evaluations made by the Oankali concerns the hierarchical nature of human beings.  “You are hierarchical.  That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all…that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing” (Butler, 39).
The Oankali believe the hierarchical nature of humans is one of the characteristics that brought humans to nearly destroy themselves.  The alternative presented to this characteristic is a society that is non-hierarchical and non-violent.  The Oankali assert that this alternative is far superior to what the humans practiced on Earth long ago.  They believe that the new race of beings that will be created, will be a great improvement over the previous inhabitants of Earth because these inhabitants will be more like the Oankali in nature.
The theme of hierarchy is played with in several instances throughout Lilith’s Brood. One of these instances that I find most fascinating is when Lilith and Nikanj are placed together.  Instead of only one of them having the power to teach the other, they both possess this power.  Lilith is dependent on Nikanj to learn about the Oankali, just as it is dependent on Lilith to learn the English language.  This way of learning seems to benefit both beings.  This is perhaps an example of the Oankali rejecting the hierarchical tendencies of humans; there is not the classic teacher-student relationship, both are students of each other. 
Another instance in which hierarchy comes into play is when Lilith meets Paul Titus.  Lilith was very excited to meet Paul because she had not interacted with a human in such a long time.  However, Paul had more than just a meeting in mind; he desperately wanted to have sex with Lilith.  After Lilith refused to accept his advances, Paul attempted to rape her but only ended up beating her.  I believe this interaction between Lilith and Paul supports the Oankali’s statement about human hierarchical tendencies being a fundamental flaw.  Paul assumed a type of hierarchical power over Lilith, similar to many male-female relationships on Earth in the past.  Paul acted in a selfish manner, placing his urges to have sex over Lilith’s feelings.  I believe that the Oankali may have viewed this interaction as a small-scale example that supported their beliefs; the human characteristic of hierarchy greatly influenced the death of much of the human race.
When Lilith begins training the Awakened humans, the Oankali change many of her characteristics.  She acquires many of their special abilities and becomes much stronger than a normal human.  These characteristics ensure that she is in charge of the Awakened.  They see her as different and as someone who is attempting to lead them.  This makes her stand out like a sore thumb to all of the Awakened; it also makes her a target, as some begin to believe that she is not human or that she sides with the aliens.  Changes are also made to Lilith’s close friend Joseph, leading some to target him as well. Ultimately, the Awakened humans turn against Lilith and attempt to escape. Joseph is killed during this process.  I was troubled by this part of the story because the Oankali seemed to create the hierarchy that they so despised.  By making Lilith and Joseph similar them, the Oankali gave them a sort of power over all of the Awakened.  Eventually a power struggle erupted between the Awakened and Lilith, destroying any hope of the Oankali’s plan succeeding.  On the other hand, perhaps it did succeed.  Is it possible that the Oankali intentionally created this power struggle to demonstrate to Lilith that the hierarchical nature of humans does indeed need to be eliminated for a successful return to Earth?
In closing, I believe that the Oankali might be on to something when they say that the hierarchical nature of humans is a fatal flaw.  The most violent wars in our history have come about as power struggles between two or more parties.  If humans were non-hierarchical, it is likely that some of these wars may have never occurred.  It is not hard to imagine a future war that is capable of destroying the Earth; it would be very easy to do with all of our nuclear capabilities.  Do I believe that the only way to avoid our destruction is to genetically alter us? No, I believe that the Oankali take it too far.  In addition, we do not even have the capability to do such a thing at this present time.  We should aspire to be like the Oankali in that they are non-violent, but that does not mean we have to change our genetics to do so.  If we just look at the critiques presented by the Oankali, I think we may find a solution to our flawed hierarchical nature.  It is mentioned that the humans did not use their intelligence to guide their hierarchical nature; they used their intelligence to serve it.  This caused their destruction in Lilith’s Brood.  If we can find ways to use use our intelligence to guide this characteristic, I believe that we can avoid the fate humans suffered in Lilith’s Brood.   

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989

Parting with Humanity in "Lilith's Brood"

            The Oankali take an aggressive tack in revising the human race in “Lilith’s Brood”, one with a pace and magnitude so great that it often frightens and even angers their subjects. Reactions to their plans range from the murderous, in characters such as Curt, to the frightful, in the instance of Cele.  As Nikanj tells Joseph, “Different is threatening to most species…different is dangerous It might kill you. That was true to your animal ancestors, and your nearest animal relatives. And it’s for you” (186). To be fair, there is a relatively small group of wary support for the Oankali in Lilith, and to an extent Joseph, but by and large it seems as though the humans aboard the extraterrestrials’ ship are far from ready to have so much of the foundations of their former lives taken away from them.  Parting with the once-dominant paradigm of human biology and culture seems as though it will be quite difficult for much of the humans, but in order to reunite with their beloved homeland, they must submit to the metamorphosis the Oankali have in mind

            One of the primary concerns of Lilith and those Awakened by her is the nature of any potential offspring that would occur on the new Earth, including that of strictly humans and that of intermingling between humans and the Oankali. The fact that the Oankali wish to permanently imprint themselves on Earth and on what remains of humanity is an uneasy prospect for many of the humans, but one that they must accept and even embrace if they expect to set foot on their home planet again. This conflict first fully materializes itself near the end of the first book, when Nikanj reveals to Lilith that he has impregnated her with material from the now deceased Joseph. Although she finds some comfort in the fact that her offspring will be at least partially related to a person whose company she valued so much, the fact that it will be, in her words, “a thing-not human” (246) obviously upsets her.  As the most accommodating of the humans to the Oankali, a “Judas goat” as she says, it is her reluctant designation to also be the forerunner of the hybrid race that will eventually inhabit the new Earth. 

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989

Unnatural Birth

                The Oankali certainly are one of the most interesting race creations I have ever experienced in science fiction writing. The late 1980’s were a time when scientific, particularly genetic, study began to grow almost exponentially. Butler, like many other science fiction authors, is imagining a world where genetics and people can be manipulated in a way to make them better. This is a very similar idea to the one that Wilson proposes. It all comes down to the idea that humans are creatures that have developed due to genetic changes, and we would need to alter those genetics in order to create a more perfect version of ourselves. Butler uses the genre of science fiction to imagine a creature that can be that force of genetic change for us to imagine what it might be like.
                The whole novel deals with these issues of change. The one part that I found to be particularly interesting was the very end of the novel. Ever since the idea of genetic engineering was formed, it has been a constant debate as to the ethics that are involved in it. Birth is the most natural thing that many people would think of, but it is not a flawless system. Humans have evolved over billions of years, but as Wilson points out, “The first dilemma is the rapid dissolution of transcendental goals … Those goals, the true moral equivalents of war, have faded” (Wilson 4). This statement and the passage above it illustrate Wilson’s idea that the human race should not accept complacency, and we should still be trying to advance forward. By advancement, I mean genetic altering that would give the changed person a better chance at success and survival. Success can be defined different, but for these purposes, I’ll just define it as Nikanj defines it. He knows that “Our children will be better than either of us … We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it. And there will be other benefits” (Butler 247-248). Nikanj impregnates Lilith with a baby that she had no chosen to have. Although the child would be superior, as Nikanj points out, she is still in the traditional human way of thinking that this difference is just too much to handle. The technology to at least slightly change human genes and create a functional genome is not very far away from us now, and people are still not prepared to accept this idea. Butler essentially inverts the idea of human choice in the matter. This ending also seems to have some biblical implications to me, alluding to the Immaculate Conception obviously, but religion is a separate topic here. Lilith is very distraught here obviously, and she cannot accept the alien’s actions. She even goes as far as to say, “It will be a thing. A monster” (247). It contains the DNA of both her and Joseph, but she still considers it completely unnatural because the alien added other features to make it more perfect. Lilith’s usage of the word “monster” brings obvious parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster and the monster that is gestating in Lilith’s womb both share similarities. They are both created out of the ambition that they will be the perfect creation, they are a combination of pieces from different sources, and they are both being rejected by their creator. This idea of rejection from the creator brings everything back to the basic human fear of genetic change. Both of the creators, Victor and Lilith, know that the thing they are creating will be superior to other beings, but they cannot accept it as their own conception.
                I believe that Butler uses a rape metaphor as a way to force this genetically advanced child on Lilith. Although she rejects it, the alien knows that it will be an amazing child capable of almost anything. I’m not yet aware of what happens to the child after it is born, but I feel that this changed child might remove some of her natural maternal instincts towards it. If this is the case, it would just further the analogy that an unnatural child would not truly be the mother’s at all. The alternative to conventional thinking is presented by depicting generational improvement as a forced procedure rather than a matter of choice, and it’s a very radical idea for Butler to give these characters that ability.

Perfection of the Species

“They’ve had two hundred and fifty years to fool around with us,” she said.  “Maybe we can’t stop them, but we don’t have to help them.”
“The hell with them.”  He tried to unfasten her jacket.
“No!” she shouted, deliberately startling him.  “Animals get treated like this.   Put a stallion and mare together until they mate, then send them back to their owners. What do they care?  They’re just animals!” (Butler 95)

For the Oankali sex/breeding amongst one another appears to be a very structured system.  Emotions as humans understand do not seem to factor into the decision of who to pair with.  In the “ideal” human situation we are supposed to meet someone that excites us, we fall in love and have many little babies and a happy life.  In actuality real relationships are often difficult if not disastrous affairs.  Many people will go through multiple partners before finding their “perfect” mate, ending up alone or settling.  The Oankali construct relationships amongst each other and humanity with a clinical precision.
Presuming the first encounter with Lilith and Paul Titus marks the Oankali’s first attempt to pair the species together ends in total disaster.  Octavia Butler uses this encounter to establish the inherent violence in human nature to contrast with the rather civil and “matter of fact” society of the Oankali.  Paul, having elected to live with the Oankali, has been told that his genetic information has been used to “create over seventy children” and forces himself upon Lilith to experience something he has been denied.  In essence this is how the Oankali view human relations at first, simply as animals that need to be put together to successfully breed, that is simplified human breeding.
Later in the novel when Lilith begins to awaken the other humans she believes that she herself is making the decision on who to bring out amongst a pool of acceptable candidates.  In fact the pool was not only chosen by the Oankali but chosen purposefully to have the greatest chance for pairing amongst the humans.  For the Oankali this presents the most logical choices, having studied each human intensively, they have been able to determine not only acceptable candidates to begin repopulating Earth but who will pair and mate with whom.  Human relations are messy affairs, we have a number of clich├ęs involving pairing off or finding love, marry someone like your mother/father, and opposites attract, marry someone uglier than you or just marry someone ugly.  Hundreds of little phrases designed to simplify the complicated process of finding a compatible mate amongst a relatively speaking incredibly small sampling of the population on the off chance you will fall in love and mate.  While this whole process has its own mysticism attached to it that make it all seem worth it, any rational judgment of the subject is often clouded by our constructed ideals of how relationships are supposed to be.
For the Oankali there is no confusion on who they should be mating with, no uncertainty on whether the partners are correct for one another, the connections are made and that is that.  They not only function but thrive within this structure.  Applying this same logic to humanity the Oankali has removed any chance for humans to make inefficient pairings, to allow emotion to override logic in their choice.  This human engineering may appear problematic at first removing the human component of chance but in the end this would serve to make a stronger human.  The Oankali have taken species engineering to the extreme not only can they cure disease they can perfect genetic code, improve upon it and collect the genetic knowledge of other species to better themselves.  That is how one creates an ideal species removing emotion from the process of creation, removal of the useless parts and expressing the successful parts.  This may change what it means to be human but only what it means to be human as current humans understand themselves.  Like our ancestors that came before something new must come along to replace the old.

Our Need to Rule

It is clear that Octavia E. Butler is trying to make several claims about humanity and human nature with her novel Lilith’s Brood. It is also clear that Butler is attempting to respond to the work of Edward O. Wilson and his novel On Human Nature with several of her passages. One of the major claims in Wilson’s novel that Butler addresses is our need to be aggressive and how that need leads to us asserting our dominance on others. Butler uses her novel to agree with and connect to these claims but also to further the idea to say that this need for dominance becomes a need for sovereignty. She begins to claim that humans need to have a social hierarchy and that that need is (and was in her novel) our downfall. Butler uses her novel and a close reading of Wilson to claim that it is human nature to be hierarchal but also that that trait will cause us to destroy ourselves.
In a previous chapter Edward O. Wilson asserts that humans have an innate tendency towards aggression. However he uses his chapter on Sex to show that one gender has historically been more aggressive than the other, and has also evolved into a position of social and physical dominance. Wilson presents us with the fact that “Males are characteristically aggressive,” (125 Wilson) and that this aggression coupled with the fact that we are typically larger, and faster makes it easy for us to place ourselves in a more dominating role of women. “The physical and temperamental differences between men and women have been amplified by culture into universal male dominance” (128 Wilson). Wilson lays these ideas out very clearly in this chapter and it can be seen that his ideas about the evolution of not only man, but also male aggression are echoed in Butler’s novel.            
Up to the point in the novel where Lilith is introduced to Paul Titus she is longing to meet another human being. She wants to come in contact with something familiar and welcoming. Initially Titus is all of that. He was amiable, pleasant and even probably of the same or a similar race as Lilith. He was and English speaking American, basically everything she wanted to see in another human being. But one of the things that she failed to see or realize was that the man she was going to see was just that, a man, a human with distinct qualities that adhere to the principles of human nature laid out by Wilson. 
Early in their encounter we begin to see Paul Titus establish his dominance over Lilith. “It’s funny… [y]ou started out years older than me, but I’ve been Awake for so long… I guess I’m older than you now” (89 Butler). Here Titus isn’t simply trying to state a fact that he’s older, he is trying to alert Lilith to the fact that he is superior to her, that he is wiser, that he has been around the Oankali for longer and that he knows what is best for the both of them. He then goes on to show how he can open the doors like the Oankali can, again showing how superior he is to his female counterpart. Here Butler is beginning to show us how her characters adhere to the defined qualities of Human nature as presented by Wilson. But not only does she continue to do so as the encounter between Lilith and Paul Titus goes on, she also shows us how self-damaging these qualities are.
Butler begins to escalate the situation by showing Paul Titus’s genetic predisposition to physical violence. Titus begin to stand over Lilith, showing his physical superiority, then he attacks her, attempting to take of her jacket and have his way with her. We being now to see Wilson’s assertions truly illustrated in Paul Titus’ actions, he becomes aggressive, dominant and asserts this dominance on a supposedly inferior female. We become aware here that Butler is trying to echo Wilson’s sentiments about human nature but not only that, we see her attempting to take the idea one step further.
With Paul Titus’ last assault Butler shows that we as humans strive not just to assert dominance but sovereignty, “They said that I could do it with you. They said you could stay here if you wanted to. And you had to go and mess it up” (96 Butler). Obviously Lilith did not ruin the chance that she and Paul had for a relationship, he did. At this point it can be seen that Titus wanted to show Lilith her place in the hierarchy of their relationship. That he was a male and he was going to keep her, a female, around for sex. And not only that but she could be given to him for that purpose without her consent. By trying to assert this, Titus ruins any chance he had of having sex with Lilith, the one thing that he wanted to do. With this Butler is trying to claim that yes, humans are naturally, aggressive and dominating, but that dominance can also lead to a need to rule over someone or something and that that need for sovereignty is our downfall.
Not just with Lilith’s encounter with Paul Titus, but even with the destruction of the whole earth and with the later interactions with the other Awaken humans Butler attempts to show us that our need to be hierarchal is our biggest downfall. She shows us, with all of these examples that she agrees with Wilson in the sense that humans (mostly males) have the tendency to be aggressive and dominating, but she takes this a step further and claims that this also leads them to be hierarchal, and that this need for hierarchy is a self damaging trait. With Wilson in mind we should read Butler as stating that she agrees with Wilson in his claims about aggression and sex but also asserting that that trait will lead to self destruction. Butler is trying to tell us that our humanity, or at least that aspect of it, will lead to our self-imposed demise and that if we cannot transcend a need for sovereignty that we are doomed. 

Choice and Freedom Within Lilith's Brood

The idea of freedom; of having a right to choose and decide for yourself who you want to become and where you want to go, has been the catalyst for many wars and revolutions. The idea that one has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is an ideal that nearly every country aspires for.  This is a freedom that not only allows us control over our own lives, but also, over our own bodies.  However, one can be fairly certain that every person, no matter their age or gender, has moments in their life when their innate desires seem to distract or torment them from making the right choices.  But, if we are granted the ability to choose to do whatever we will to our bodies, even if this means harming ourselves or our depriving ourselves of something we most desperately want.  Most would say that this is an easy price to pay.  We may not always make the best decisions, but the idea that we are the only ones permitted to make them, is a right that most would fight for.   However, the Oankali don’t share the same philosophy. Although they give human’s the idea that they still have control over their lives, the Oankali intervene in nearly every decision they make, justifying their actions by asserting that they know what we want better than we know ourselves.  This seems to directly contrast with our ideals of freedom and liberty, but, is a society that is governed by all knowing beings who make the “right” decisions for us, perhaps the better alternative than us running amok with flawed judgement?
            After Lilith and Joseph are both simultaneously stimulated and pleasured by Nikanj, Joseph is mortified and confused.  When confronted with the situation again, Nikanj claims that this time, Joseph is allowed to choose whether or not he wishes to participate again.  ““No!”  He said sharply.  “Not again!”” However, despite Joseph’s refusal, Nikanj continues to virtually seduce Joseph, stating, “Your body said one thing.  Your words said another.”  Joseph continues to resist the Ooloi, protesting, demanding that the monster let go of him.  However, the alien simply replies, “Be grateful, Joe.  I’m not going to let go of you.”  Due to the lack of willpower to resist the temptations of the Ooloi, Joseph easily gives in and allows Nikanj to essentially have its way with him.  Lilith observes that his face is peaceful and that, “…he was ready to accept what he wanted from the beginning.”  (Butler, 190)  Joseph, although his body was apparently willing to be had once again by Nikanj, his mind was adamant in his refusal.  In doing this, Nikanj quickly dismissed what Joseph consciously and intellectually wanted, and instead opted to give Joseph what he truly desired, and in the end, Joseph is at peace with this intervention.  
            This is not the first instance in which the way that the Ooloi give human’s only the mere illusion that they have a choice before giving them what they truly desire and need.  After nearly being raped by Paul Titus, Lilith becomes irate at the prospect that she was put in that room to “share sex, ”and essentially breed with him. However, Nikanj reassures Lilith, claiming that she only will make the decision when she wants to have a child.  “When you’re ready.  Only then.”  (Butler, 98)  However, after Joseph is murdered, Nikanj informs Lilith that he has impregnated her.  Lilith, understandably, becomes enraged that she has been made to be pregnant against her will, especially since Nikanj seemingly told Lilith that she would decide when she would want to have a child.   In response to Lilith’s objections Nikanj supplies his logic.  “I said not until you were ready.  You’re ready now to have Jospeh’s child.  Joseph’s daughter.”  (Butler, 246)  Nikanj, for whatever reason, believes that now is the right time for Lilith to become pregnant, and thus he makes it so.   In this way, Nikanj asserts, time and time again, that he knows what Lilith (and previously, Joseph) wants and needs better than she knows herself.  This is apparently the justification for not just Nikanj, but all of the Oankali controlling the humans as completely as they do.  Although one could argue the fact that it is evident that Oankali are still somewhat inept at predicting human reactions; considering Joseph’s murder and Lilith nearly being raped by a man who had never acted out before.  Nonetheless, the Oankali and firmly in charge, dissolving whatever responsibility and control the humans thought they had over their lives.
            Through these instances, there is the implication that perhaps, the Ooloi are particularly adept in knowing and giving humans what they secretly desire, even if they consciously reject it. And because of this, at least from the Ooloi’s point of view, they are doing what is best for the humans, and are therefore allowing the humans to lead better lives.  “Just as Joseph could never have invited me into his bed—no matter how much he wanted me there.  Nothing about you but your words reject this child.”  (Butler, 247)  If the Ooloi know what the humans truly want and yet were afraid to admit; and grant their deepest, darkest desires, will the humans actually be happier than if we were allowed to make the decision ourselves, at least, in the long run?  This seems to be true for Lilith.  Never would Lilith consciously admit, so soon after the loss of Joseph, that she would want a child to keep her company.  Instead, it is Nikanj who makes the observation that she needs a companion, because, in his words, “You’ve been very lonely.”  (Butler 246)  Perhaps, what disturbs us isn’t the idea of a society in which decisions are made for us, but rather, the idea that this would in fact make us happier, and lead to a more ideal existence.  Our free will and ability to choose our lives is a highly treasured ideal that is universal, but if we could have something that would make the decisions for us, the decisions that we truly wanted to make, and then, be alleviated of its responsibility, would for many of us be a tempting option.  However, one might be too embarrassed to consider it.  Which is perhaps why, although the humans do put up a certain resistance, the Ooloi proceed with their decision anyway, because they know that we truly want them to decide for us.  Even though we might not admit it, maybe our true ideal society, is one that controls us, rather than us controlling it. 


            Parenting is a term that is thrown around in Georgia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. Lilith and the Oankali seem to have different viewpoints to what exactly parenting stands for. According to Webster’s Dictionary the word parent can be defined as either “a person who brings up or cares for another” or “an animal or plant that is regarded in relation to its offspring”(Marriam-Webster, Parent).

The Oankali like to interpret these words in ways that are self-suiting. For example, when discussing Lilith’s intended job of parenting the soon-to-be ‘Awakened’ humans, Kahguyaht says, “That’s the way we think of it. To teach, to give comfort, to feed and clothe, to guide them through and interpret what will be, for them, a new and frightening world. To parent.”(Butler, 111). This is in correlation with the first definition of parent. It ignores the idea of needing relations present. In theory, this is what parenting is between humans and adoptive children. However, true parenting is something more than that. Parenting implies a deeper relationship between parent and child, and a connection transcends the roles or parenthood. This is something that even the dictionary definition misses.  I believe that what they are asking of Lilith is more along the lines of a glorified mentor, with the unspoken secondary role of scapegoat.

Parenting is taken to another level at the end of the week’s reading when Lilith discovers that she has been impregnated with a interbred child. Lilith, obviously repulsed, states, “But they won’t be human… That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters.”(Butler, 248). This is a reinforcement of her previous statements, referring to the life inside of her as “a thing” and “a monster”. This intrigues me. Despite the fact that the “thing” is half human, part of her and Joseph, she is repulsed by it. I believe this returns to the definition of parent that refers to offspring. Though it is something that humans thus far are not concerned with in real life, I believe that these offspring need to be entirely biologically our own. Lilith is unable to feel ownership of this “monster” because it is not wholly of the same biological make up. Even I, a mere reader of a fictional novel am repulsed at the mere thought of it. This leads me to wonder if this is a type of taboo. Like the incest taboo we discussed in Wilson’s On Human Nature, perhaps because it is not biologically natural we are ‘programmed’ to cringe at the thought of such an act. Extrapolating on this theory, parenthood would then not simply be the offspring (or adoptive offspring) of the being, but biologically equivalent offspring.

The only issue with this extrapolation is the event of animals who adopt outside their species. This rare act baffles many, but I believe this is a logical event of nature that is reinforced by Butler. In Lilith’s Brood though Lilith and Nikanj are of entirely opposite species, they become very fond of each other, to the point of perverse interaction. It seems rational to me, given the circumstance, that this should be the case. Lilith is thrown into a stressful situation where she is without family, friends, or even her own species for many years. She then latches on to Nikanj who is kind to her, teaches her, and gives her shelter through unselfish behavior. This easily can account for the stories of cats adopting squirrels and dogs adopting piglets. Both parties are benefited by the relationship; one receives a companion, and the other receives protection.

Though the Oankali claim that parenting is simply raising a creature, I believe they are missing major roles. In my opinion, the true definition of parenting should be reformed to this; a deeper relationship between a biologically equivalent person and child that transcends, but still includes, the mandatory roles of parenthood.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989
"Parent." Merriam-Webster. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/family>.
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004

Gender Issues in Lilith’s Brood

“Males and females were closely related and ooloi were outsiders. One translation of the word ooloi was ‘treasured stranger’. According to Nikanj, this combination of relatives and strangers served best when people where bred for specific work—like opening a trade with an alien species. The male and female concentrated on desirable characteristics and the ooloi prevented the wrong kind of concentrations” (Butler 106).

Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood makes several critiques on the customs of human nature and American culture specifically within the context of science fiction. One of the most interesting is the theme of gender. Very quickly within the novel Butler is exploring the concept of an alternative to the gender inequality that is still relevant in most cultures worldwide. As established by the quote above, the alternative that Butler is exploring is largely facilitated by the presence of the ooloi. The presence of a third gender in this alien race brings to light an interesting view on the appropriation of power by gender that is currently enacted in the actual world. By incorporating the idea of the ooloi, Butler, who was obviously inspired by Plato’s Symposium, changes the hierarchy of men being dominant over women that is inherit in our society. She also emphasizes the similarities between men and women instead of the differences, the latter of which continues to be a significant dividing line that contributes to sexism and gender inequality. Because of these notions, it is easy to interpret the system set up by the Oankali to be an improvement of the one currently in place in reality.

Moreover, what I find especially interesting about the theme of gender in Lilith’s Brood is that although the oolio are essential to the balance reached between men and women and thus enable a shift in gender inequality within the Oankali that is unparalleled in reality, the plot of the first book within the trilogy still centers on an aspect of the female sex that is in itself fundamental to the foundation of gender inequality: the woman’s ability to give birth. Historically, the domestication of women has hinged on the physiological capacity and cultural responsibility to reproduce. This includes the implicit convention for women to care for children within the home, a reality that has only shifted within the last half-century or so. Additionally the historical presumption of women being biologically weak and emotionally unstable is also connected to the ability to give birth due to such functions as menstruation and the presence and affects of the estrogen hormone.

Because of these facts, Butler’s choice to have one of Lilith’s main functions be to act as a reproduction tool within the Oankali’s plan to create a hybrid race that is better than the human race is somewhat contradictory with the theme of gender equality in Lilith’s Brood. On one hand we have the oolio acting as mythical outsiders who work to prevent “the wrong kind of characteristics” within men and women, and men and women being “bred for specific work” (Butler 106), and on the other we have Lilith, the human protagonist, in many ways also being “bred for specific work”: the very human convention of reproducing. While a woman carrying a child is one of the most natural occurrences within human history, within the sci-fi world of Lilith’s Brood, Butler had the authority as the author to attain true gender equality by having the main character not be defined by her reproductive skills, which, as established, is in itself the basis of gender inequality. Because of this, from my point of view the Oankali themselves have achieved a credible alternative to the basis of gender hierarchy we have in reality, but fail to incorporate the character of Lilith into that alternative in a way that is genuinely any different than the role a woman would be playing in standard American society outside of Lilith’s Brood or inside of it, in the time before the war.

Additionally, I also find it interesting that, although there are ways in which Butler is commenting on plausible traits that if emphasized by our culture would benefit the human race, in reality there is no third gender. Therefore, although Butler is making a statement on the importance of equality for women by having the Oanklani’s gender system be superior to the male-based one still endorsed by most of the world today, there remains an undercurrent of pessimism because of the fact that a third gender does not now, nor will it arguably ever, actually exist outside of science fiction. Thus, the structure Butler has created in Lilith’s Brood, which highlights the advantages of the elimination of a patriarchal based society, cannot ever be achieved in the future by humans, or exist outside fiction, at least in the same way in which Butler envisions it. That being said, if one were to treat Lilith’s Brood as a collection of ideas that undermine the wisdom perceived by our culture, particularly towards gender inequality, they would have to assess the Oanklani’s traits beyond their science-fiction nature and, since a third gender does not exist in reality, apply the core idea behind the oolio to our world: the more commonality found between men and women, the less inequality there will be.