Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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. 


  1. Something to incorporate on future papers or revisions could be the fact that while Paul has been awake much longer he seems to have grown only physically. Mentally he is still the child that was rescued coupled with his physical we have a very aggressive man child with almost no learned social behaviors as far human standards are concerned. If we are keeping to the thesis/body/conclusion I would say tighten up your conclusion I think you did a good job of bridging the two texts and I would be interested to see your conclusions after we finish the text. If you can just eliminate the few ideas you stated repeatedly in different ways in your conclusion it will really strengthen your final argument.

  2. The third sentence isn't a coherent sentence - which is actually kind of important, because it makes what you're saying about Wilson very vague and indirect. Always aim for clarity!

    The next couple paragraphs are slow-moving, and rely too much on general and rather obvious claims about Wilson in particular. You do have a direction, it's just imprecise, and slow to emerge.

    I like your discussion of how Paul Titus' language shows his aggression, his sense of superiority, before anything actually happens. This is perceptive and interesting - I'd like to see you do more of what you're doing here, and less of what you're doing in the first several paragraphs.

    "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."

    Your argument, that Butler goes a step beyond Wilson, is fundamentally a good idea. While it's probably too big of a topic to do a thorough discussion of both Wilson and of Butler within the boundaries of one short essay, if you'd cut the opening material down greatly, you would have been able to deal more with the relevant details: I'm thinking it would have been very effective to pin down what *Wilson* has to say about hierarchies and our potential for self-destruction, and then to show on that much more precise basis how Butler goes beyond him (presumably going being Paul Titus, but using that as a starting point).

    Short version: Good concept, but a problematic execution of it, although you do have a some notably good moments.