Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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 clichés 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.


  1. I like the argument you made here a lot. It goes along with Wilson's idea that human beings have become almost stagnant and are no longer striving to reach "transcendental goals." The humans need to repopulate Earth, and the Oankali realize that emotions need to be taken out of the equation in order for the new population to thrive. I also like your idea on how the human ideals of a relationship have a large effect on the matter. People will often be happy in a situation, but because it isn't exactly how they imagined it or how it is in the movies, it is not enough. The Oankali's ability to look past these standards and craft a farmer-like system of artificial selection would certainly improve the new human race. However, it still seems like a far off idea that our ideal pairing can be found in our biology. I understand that their genetics may be compatible, but there is still some sort of parental value that needs to be factored into the child's youth. With incompatible parents, the child would not be raised properly. Another common human quality that the Oankali ignore is the fact that young children are heavily influenced by the environment in which they grow. I don't know if the Oankali system would be able to actually work in human society, but it is a complex idea that definitely requires a deeper look.

  2. "The Oankali construct relationships amongst each other and humanity with a clinical precision." This seems like an argument. Is it your argument? If so, it requires at least some sort of discussion. After all, there is disagreement among the Oankali at every stage. Will Lilith mate with Titus? Some say yes - Nikanj says no. Who will she pick in the training room? Nikanj says Joseph - others say she'll pick someone bigger, darker, or both. Is this clinical precision. I'm not sure that it is, but I'm also not sure that it isn't - you might argue, for instance, that Nikanj has a precision with the other Oankali lack. What I'm trying to say here is that I think this initial idea is a worthy argument - but you may be treating it as an obvious starting point, when I'm not at all sure that it is.

    Some of the first several paragraphs seems unfocused to me - maybe precisely because you're taking it as a given, rather than something to be argued, that the Oankali both know what they're doing and *know* that they know what they're doing. There's no room here for the messiness of actual events, nor of, e.g., Nikanj's understanding that events are messy.

    Then you turn back to the claim that Oankali relationships are otherwise - clear and precise. Here you might be on firmer ground, but is it as obvious as you make it out to be? Take, for instance, the multiple times in the novel when Nikanj risks separation from its Oankali mates. While you're probably at least mostly right, there are still messy details among the Oankali (for instance, one important fact is that male and female mates are ordinarily brother and sister, with the ooloi being unrelated - this seems to at least relate to your argument).

    In any case - what I want most here is for you to recognize the difference between the obvious and the things worth arguing: I think that you're assuming things that you shouldn't, and therefore making your argument out to be rather less interesting than it actually is - precisely because a careful reading of Nikanj's words and actions should at least pose interesting questions for your conclusion.