Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Fatalist 'Enlightenment'

Throughout reading Wilson’s On Human Nature, I have been persistently bothered by the implications that such reductionist approaches have upon, among other things, our concept of free will. This debate, of course, is philosophically ancient, but nevertheless extremely relevant. Many contemporary cultures, as well as many notions of patriotism, are based around the concept of freedom (which admittedly is a bit murkier and more political than ‘free will’), and perceived threats to such freedom have led to great social change: hundreds of revolutions and rebellions that have shaped the way our earth is today. Would this continue, i.e. would we have rebellions such as the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement if we were made intensely aware that these rebellions contribute to a repetitive cycle of power changing hands, of political and economic measurements of entropy? My guess would be, probably not, no. For as much as it is within human nature to maintain the status quo, we are often made uncomfortable when we come to realize that someone/thing else is pulling the strings, or that we are in any such way predicable (this occurs on both an individual and group-oriented level (note: predictable = insult; reliable = compliment, even though there is an extreme overlap in definition )).

Butler hashes this all out pretty extensively in Lilith’s Brood. Through her employment of the Oankali, she sets up seriously interesting sociological, perhaps even sociobiological, experiments within her text. The Oankali can be seen as representing figures such as Wilson, although they are less of what Wilson is and more of which he aspires to be or at the very least, the future that interests him profoundly. Take, as a quick example, what the cohort of humans do in the training floor. The Oankali’s simulation of a terrestrial forest is so complete and thorough that many of the subjects believe it not to be a simulation, but in fact, Earth itself. Their response, then, is to split. They leave their camp, in which are supplies and tools, and medicinal advances far beyond their comprehension (oolio healing powers) because their autonomy is threatened. Lilith is apprehensive towards ‘exploring,’ partially because she wants not to abandon Nikanj, but also because she knows the oolio have anticipated it, and therefore she views it as a futile action, one that will in no way demonstrate free will (at least until she is seduced by the small possibility that they could actually be on Earth). Lilith’s knowledge of the oolio’s anticipation of the human’s reaction is the very type of transcendental moment that Wilson, in his most benevolent, hopes to obtain within humanity through the study of sociobiology: a shift in our tendencies through a better understanding and acknowledgment of those very tendencies (NB: also a cornerstone in just about any type of contemporary psychological therapy).

The text, then, represents a highly fictionalized account of Wilson and his contemporaries against the general public perception of what Wilson would like to see done with the knowledge obtained through sociobiological studies. The Oankali are the ultimate sociobiologists: they are better anthropologists than we could ever aspire to be, as they are able to study us from outside of our cultural framework, a feat any human could never achieve. Not only are they experts on human culture, but they have also studied human beings on the molecular level up on through histology and physiology. Not to mention their apparent depth of insight with the human psyche. They believe that they can make improvements to the human species, and they do, without consent. The humans in the text play themselves. They are largely reactionary towards the structure and plans of the Oankali and serve as a counterpoint to the Oankalian (sociobiological) ideology. The main clashes between the two groups happen within the context of free will.

Which boils down to roughly this: the Oankali do not recognize human value for free will, or the perception thereof. I myself do not know whether or not I operate within free-will or my actions are determined by large (or small) unknown forces. What I am completely sure of is that I operate under the complete perception of free-will and, to me, that works just as well. In his chapter on Emergence, Wilson argues that it is probable, although not within the current constraints of human intelligence, to predict the future of a human being “with an accuracy exceeding pure chance” (Wilson, pg 73, actually referring to honeybees, but he makes the humanoid comparison in the very next paragraph). His concept is that the honey bee, within the constraints of its particular CNS, has the perception of free-will, although it is possible for humans, whom arguable have a larger, more aware and intuitive CNS, to see that the honey bee is simply responding to external stimuli in an extremely predictable manner. Wilson then postulates that what humans are able to do to honey bees, in terms of fatalist reduction, could theoretically be done to us “[b]ut only [with] techniques beyond our present imagining could [we] hope to achieve even the short-term prediction of the detailed behavior of an individual human being, and such an accomplishment might be beyond the capacity of any conceivable intelligence” (Wilson, pg 73). Octavia Butler has conceived, at least figuratively, of such intelligence within the Oankali. She is less concerned with the allegorical human study of the honey bee than she is with what the honey bee feels when we present it with our prescient data (it also may be worthwhile to mention that to do this, we would have to figure out a way to make the data digestible to a honey bee, which cannot read scientific papers or graphs, and this may be even more difficult than the initial prediction). For free-will and the perception of free will are functionally identical. The Oankali view their deconstruction of human choice as Enlightenment, although it is highly detrimental to many of the human subjects. This is probably best illustrated within the abstract alien sex between Joseph and Nikanj, when Nikanj is seducing Joseph:

                 “He pulled his arm free ‘You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!’

               “You have, yes…you see. Your body has made a different choice” (Butler 189).

As the Oankali are hyperaware of the way in which humans function - their predictable responses to external stimuli - they are able to see ‘past’ choice. What is interesting about the Butler’s text however, is the moment when the honey bee/human relationship between Oankali and humans breaks down, when the informatics the Oankali have gathered and applied to humans fails them in unanticipated ways: when Joseph is murdered. Nikanj admits, when referring to the murder, that “what happened was … totally unplanned” (Butler 224). This murder symbolizes the hope that human behavior cannot actually be reduced into any sort of computational statistics and is perhaps the strongest moment within the text (thus far) in which Butler seems to disagree with sociobiology. Furthermore, it is important to note what the Oankali do with Curt, whom surprised them by being wholly unpredictable: they return him back to suspended animation, and remove him from the ‘experiment,’ which is much akin to scientists occluding negative results when presenting their findings. 

Butler seems as deeply bothered by Wilson’s claims as I have been and she uses her text to illustrate how such applications – genetic engineering, and so forth – can severely threaten either our free will or at the very least, our perception of free will. She also presents us with a single moment in which the Oankali are not able to predict human behavior or influence the outcome of the future, leading us to believe that perhaps Wilson’s theories are more than just frightening, perhaps they are wrong.

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

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting in many ways, and on many levels. One critical component to this essay working well is your careful acknowledgement that what we certainly have is the perception of free will - we don't know whether we have the actual thing. This is important because you are clearly wrestling with the problem that Wilson (or what he represents, perhaps) poses a serious challenge to many of our aspirations and preconceptions - and yet, those aspirations and preconceptions are themselves very real.

    The above is only really meant as a summary of my very positive response to the essay. While remaining somewhat too general for somewhat too long, you pull of a reading of both Butler and Wilson which is alive to their nuances - you have a great sense of Butler's complex unease, and of the fact that Wilson believes that all knowledge, including this knowledge (assuming he is correct) is liberating, when properly applied.

    But all of that is just an introduction. If you revise, how to go about it?

    What stands out to me most here is an insight that I've certainly never had or read: that Curt (like Cain?) represents freedom, just as he would want to. It's an important insight, and it raises at least two questions for me which could be the basis of a lengthly revision.

    1) Is Curt's will-to-freedom, with all of its consequences, something we should celebrate? In other words, should we continue to value autonomy if this is what autonomy looks like? Either way, you have the basis for a lengthier exploration of either Butler or Wilson - or a chance to go off in another direction entirely.
    2) How does this insight that Curt=Freedom or autonomy in some sense impact our reading of the 2nd and 3rd books? One might focus on human resisters, or on Akin himself, as a way of moving this discussion forward.