Monday, January 30, 2012

Questions on Butler/Wilson

Post your thoughts and questions as comments to this thread.


  1. On p.149 Edward O. Wilson claims that, “We sanctify true altruism in order to reward it and thus to make it less than true, and by that means to promote its recurrence in others.” The question I then must ask is whether we should reward altruism. The sentence Wilson writes seems to imply we should not if we want true altruism, since rewarding it encourages other ‘soft altruism’ to occur. However, Wilson believes ‘soft altruism’ based off our own selfishness is actually the basis for harmony and peaceful coexistence instead of tribalism which results in ‘racism and
    nepotism’. So with the understanding that both forms of altruism can be for good my question changes into which form should we praise more, ‘hard altruism’ which has individuals protect their kin and family but forsake
    the larger population, or ‘soft altruism’ which may have selfish motives but may end up serving the greater good of society? It seems to me we could never as a society, even if it was in our own benefit, raise selfishness above true altruism but is this a flaw that should be overcome? Should we strive to raise societies hero over the families? Or should we continue to recognise heroism and altruism in all its forms?

  2. “One more case of Oankali omniscience: We understand your feelings, eat your food, manipulate your genes. But we’re too complex for you to understand.” (Butler, 225)
    Many times in our readings this week we saw examples very close to this one of the Oankali feeling that they are far superior to the understanding of the human race. This gives them the right to manipulate the human’s feelings and even their genes. It seems to me that Butler is making a parallel with a statement made in On Human Nature. At one point Wilson stated that our rationalization of meat consumption of animals that are of lesser intelligence could be used by an alien of higher intelligence than ourselves to eat us without breaking a moral standard. This leads me to wonder if we should actually be viewing the actions of the aliens in this book as human impediments being reflected back at us.
    Also, the Oankali ‘completely’ understand the humans; their actions, motives, and feelings. Through years of individual observation each human is mapped out and ‘understood’. However, Lilith often points out that there are parts of human nature that the Oankali cannot grasp as well. If the human condition is too complex for creatures that advanced, is it possible that Butler is trying to impress upon us that there are characteristics of humans that simply aren’t possible to comprehend?

  3. As I read through Lilith's brood, my opinion of the Oankali was constantly changing. I could not decide, and am still having trouble deciding whether or not they are, to put it in the simplest terms, good or evil.
    The idea that they are purifying the earth and have done their best to keep certain humans alive so that they can repopulate it seems to be very noble and self-sacrificing. However, the idea of genetically engineering humans so that they will become a hybrid between the Oankali and human beings seems somewhat diabolical.
    They appear to be saving humanity for their own purposes, which inevitably will lead to humanity's destruction.
    However, Lilith's relationship with Nikanj deeply complicates things. Nikanj takes care of her and makes her feel good, but this in turn makes Nikanj feel good as well. This is the same for all of the Ooloi. Can they be seen as benevolent creatures when they are benefiting so heavily from acts of "kindness"?
    Even when reading, it is difficult to completely hate the Ooloi, because of their calm demeanor and the way in which they diligently take care of the humans...But when you think about what they have done to the humans, and what they will do, it's hard to understand the Ooloi's motivations. Are they truly evil, masquerading as good? Or are they good in their own, alien way that only appears to be evil to us because they don't share our morals and belief systems?

  4. "'You mean...' She frowned. You mean my family problem with cancer, don't you?' 'It isn't a problem anymore,' Nikanj said, smoothing its body tentacles. 'It's a gift. It has given me my life back."(Butler 237).
    I think the part about Lilith's Brood so far that has intrigued me the most is the concepts associated with the medicinal practices of the Oankali. From the plant like pods keeping the humans in suspended animation to altering biochemistry, to altering the genetics of Lilith and eventually Joseph, the concepts are interesting because they don't seem too far off technologically. The idea of using embryonic cells to regenerate others has been around for decades and has great implications but perhaps the biggest obstacle to this technology is not that is is technically impossible but there is still so much debate going on about ethical implications and issues of altering and messing with life. The population of the Oankali don't seem to have any conflict and seem in general to be in consensus. Perhaps this is because they are a more advanced society and viewing them as a human, it would seem strange but I find it eerie that they can be so confident in these decisions about what is best for the health of a totally new species. I'm also interested in this in the context of Wilson. In many ways, I read this as a Utopian society that Wilson would admire and believe that humanity should strive to achieve. Yet in the back of my mind, I still don't trust the Oankanli and feel that perhaps later in the reading we will find that they didn't forsee all the implications of mixing with the human race or using their medicinal practices on the humans. Butler did show that the ooloi were fallible with the death of Peter and I think that this may be predictive of later events that will take place in the book.

  5. “We did things to them – inoculations, surgery, isolation-all for their on good. We wanted them healthy and protected – sometimes so we could eat them later.”
    “Doesn’t’ it frighten you to say thinks like that to me.” (pg. 33)
    As I continue to read Lilith’s Brood, more and more I become annoyed and confused by Lilith’s dialog. The way she answers questions and the types of questions she asks make little to no sense to me. I just feel that the way she goes about her induction into the Oankali’s life style is all wrong. Her stubbornness to understand and except things is her 1st quality that bothers me. After she meets Jdahya and he explains that he could easily harm her but has absolutely no intention of doing so, why then does she refuse to comply with his simple demands and (I would claim deliberately) fails to grasp his newly presented concepts. For example why does the idea of gene trading bother her so much? Lilith is terrified when Nikanj offers to enhance her memory. I know that Lilith later complies but I can’t understand why at this moment she is so opposed to it. If she is trying to hold on to a sense of humanity that doesn’t make sense because it would seem that there is no other human among the Oankali who hasn’t been changed in some way. Fukumoto lived to 120, an unnatural age and Sharad had also had his memory enhanced when he met Lilith. I don’t think she has a reason to hold on to any sense of humanity; the earth as she knew it is destroyed and she was convinced by Jdahya that human nature is flawed and self-destructive, why then can’t she accept change, enhancement, basically evolution into a new better human being. This is essentially what Jdahya and the Oankali are offering. I understand this idea is a little underdeveloped and I do have a little bit more reading and thinking to do before I can fully analyze Lilith’s character, but as it stands I find her thought process very hard to follow and slightly unbelievable in this context. So I guess my question would be, what is her reasoning for acting the way she does and what will it take for her to accept change.

  6. When Jdahya was speaking to Lilith near the beginning of the book, he relayed to her the two characteristics (according to the Oankali) of humanity. The first was intelligence. The second, considered ‘incompatible’ with the first was the fact that humans “are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. … 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” (Butler, pg. 39). Although this view of humanity is within conversation with Wilson’s sociobiology, it is more heavily steeped in Marxism than anything. The belief that the existence of class differences – which is part of what Jdahya is referring to here – can lead to dangerous outcomes and negative qualities is part of why Karl Marx made the initial diagnosis of and coined the term capitalism in the first place. The Oankali believe these two characteristics, intelligence and hierarchicalism, to be incompatible, somewhat echoing Marx’s claim that capitalism will eventually undermine itself and collapse. My question then, is why do the Oankali nurture a human hierarchy by choosing Lilith to lead a group of humans, even going so far as to give her special powers that other humans are not privy to? Does this choice not perpetuate class struggle? Are the Oankali themselves not subject to differences in class (‘or gender’)? Does Butler mean to suggest that class differences are inherently unavoidable within a human population large enough to be subject to a division of labor?

  7. Throughout Lilith’s Brood, many of the Awakened make it clear that they are horrified by the idea that their children on Earth will not be entirely human. The fact that the Oankali plan to have the children be similar to them in some ways is at times unthinkable to Lilith. Lilith says to Nikanj,“But they won’t be human, that’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters”(Butler, 248). As I was reading, I kept asking myself why the inherent quality of “being human” is so important to these characters. What would be so wrong with starting over with beings that are other than human? After all, humans destroyed the Earth in the first place. What would stop humans from destroying it again if given the chance to start over? I am just failing to understand why some of the humans do not perceive this as possibly a good thing. Their children are going to be better than humans ever were; they will live better, longer lives and accomplish things that humans could only dream of doing. I believe that this is a great opportunity to start a race that is superior to humans; one that would be less likely to destroy the Earth again. The humans should just be thankful that they are lucky enough to be given a second chance to live on Earth. What is so frightening to these people about being more than human?

  8. "Lilith?... it will be like this. A touch. Then a... a small puncture. That's all you'll feel. When you wake up the change will be made".
    "I don't want to be changed!". (pg. 76)
    When Nikanj asks Lilith whether she'd like to attain the Oankali ability of seemingly boundless memory, it's surprising how resistant she is to the change. Her reluctance is rooted in her desire to hold on to what remains of her humanity, attempting to differentiate herself from the otherness of her captors. As understandable as this effort on her part may be, it is quite arguably against her own interest as a prospective pioneer to the new Earth that the Oankali have built. This reflects a fear in Lilith of that what is new, but more importantly highlights an undermining of human tradition on the part of the Oankali. It's not as if the gradual loss of memory that humans exhibit benefits them in any way, but it's a extremely familiar aspect of life that Lilith has an instinctively difficult experience relinquishing. Part of the Oankali's plan for humanity is improvement through eradication of unnecessary, antiquated features, streamlining the species as a whole. Although humans such as Lilith may be initially opposed to these revisions, it seems as though they ultimately contribute to a better, more resilient species.

  9. If the Oankali/ooloi (if for the purposes of this argument we can consider them as two related but distinct species) are quick to point out the two fatal human traits of intelligence and hierarchy why are they so intent on mixing the species? And why would they set out to do so in such a contradictory manner? Lilith becomes subservient the aliens, the Awakened become subservient to Lilith to an extent before rebellion and Lilith returns to a life as a pregnant experiment to the aliens. For a species that admires our traits, even revere them, they not only structure humans within a hierarchy but pass along "intelligence" as they see fit. If humans exemplify the outcome of intelligence/hierarchy, what danger will the aliens face in blending genetically with humanity? How do they not see the danger they are placing both species in?

  10. "He could have been so much uglier than he was, so much less...human. Why couldn't she just accept him? All he seemed to be asking was that she not panic at the sight of him or the others life him. Why couldn't she do that?" (Butler 23)

    When I arrived at this passage I was immediately reminded of the reaction Victor had to the monster in Frankenstein, and specifically of our discussion on beauty vs. sublime. When that concept came up in class a couple weeks ago I interpreted Victor's disgust for the monster's appearance as a representation of Victor's own aesthetic shallowness and a perhaps a deeper significance about racism in general. I found it very interesting when reading Lilith's evolving reaction to Jdahya that it was in some ways very similar: at the start of the book she fears for her wellbeing in large part because of the way this creature looks. However, Lilith and Victor seem like dissimilar people thus far in terms of their strength of character and the motives behind their actions, so I find it interesting that two characters have such similar responses.

    So a question I have when considering all of this is how does beauty vs. sublime work into Lilith's Brood? Also, Lilith is cognitive of the fact that she is experiencing a level of xenophobia towards Jdahya (Butler 23), but is that realistic in this incredible circumstance? Also what does Lilith mean exactly when she says "He could have been so much uglier than he was, so much less...human." I'm having some difficulty wrapping my mind around that statement and would be very interested to hear other people's responses.