Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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.


  1. I was very interested in your comments about history and genetics. I'd be interested to see you go more into the idea of lacking history or the role of genetic history. A metaphor for DNA in biology is often as a library containing books from early history to present day. I was a little confused by what you were saying about the Oankali keeping the genetic information. Where you referring to them denying the humans history by refusing to let Lilith write things down? Or was there a moment when they wanted to know genetic material and the Oankali refused? Or are you considering genetic history the same as cultural history and how the Oankali destroyed the rest of the remains of the cultures on earth? I'd be curious to see an expansion of this area.
    As for later paragraphs, your implication that Wilson is like the Oankali and what that means for human society is a strong connection. You address the positive and negative aspects of this decision making process and a lack of control. You may be able to push a little farther into what this means and perhaps reading more into Lilith's Brood will give more answers to the question about what happens to the original human species and the later generations. I think that this future will be important to understanding how Butler regards Wilson. If it's a complete disaster, that would have one meaning, or if it works out really well than that would mean another thing - I'm guessing it'll be somewhere in between.
    There's also the fact that we're humans reading this, like was addressed in class, we value individual choice and decisions.

    I think in general you have a lot of interesting suggestions here. You may want to make the transitions between things more clear if you were going to expand this. Also you ask a lot of questions which are suggestive to the reader but if you were to expand, perhaps you could look into answering them.

  2. I like the first sentence: it's opinionated and interesting. Ideally, if you'd revise, I'd like you to try to coherently state not just that Butler responds to Wilson's question, but to articulate what her *answer* is - that is, how are we "solved" (or not) as a moral problem?

    The second paragraph raises interesting questions - but as such, it is at least somewhat unfocused. Ideally, you'd want to raise the most relevant questions in the first paragraph, and direct the rest of the essay at least *toward* some kind of answer. A clarified and shortened version of the first two paragraphs might more explictly show how withhodling genetic history is a moral choice, or the answer to a moral problem - anyway, I think that's what you're up to.

    The idea that the Oankali should be understood as Wilsonian scientists is fine, as is the argument we can see a Wilsonian view of gender and the history of gender here - but while all of that is fine, none of it really gives you a focused argument - if anything, the essay is becoming less focused as it goes.

    Unsurprisingly, given the tendency toward increasing vagueness throughout, the final paragraph is vague indeed.

    Overall: All of your ways of relating Butler to Wilson are fine, even good. But as an exploration of what seems to be your thesis - that like Home Superbus, the Oankali face a difficult moral dilemma - you don't make much progress. Probably what's most lacking is a response (that is, your response) to the moral choices or orientation of the Oankali. That is, your point of view is overly absent, and probaby needs to be what guides us through this essay.