Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hope on Mars

Colleen Lloyd
Revision 1                  
While sociobiology would interpret the happenings in Lilith's Brood as an example of a successful community  stemming from accepting and developing a way to move beyond the confines of DNA and evolution, a critical approach can say that this ignores environmental aspects.
The driving force of evolution is survival of the fittest.  Those genes in DNA that code for protein which leads to the expression of different traits which make an organism better adapted to survive and reproduce in an environment will be more likely to be passed onto future generations (Young, 4).  Sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson are of the opinion that people should be studied from an evolutionary perspective.  That humans are merely products of hundreds of thousands of years of the process of evolution.  Additionally, we are nothing more than mechanisms for passing on genes.  No matter how complex the behavior, from creating sky scrapers to symphonies, human nature is driven by the need to pass on genes, reproduction, sex, and protecting those with similar genes.  In many ways the purpose of human existence is no different from the single celled organisms we evolved from.  Sociobiologists argue that aspects that have traditionally characterized us as human have like everything the sole basis in evolution such as aggression and violence and love and altrusim  According to sociobiologists, these seemingly conflicting but ever present aspects of humanity are innate and humans cannot get beyond these binds.  In a way sociobiologists accept a certain fatalism in which humans by definition will always be motivated and driven in everyday lives from processes that were evolved to suit them  in an environment thousands of years ago.  Hope in sociobiology comes from understanding accepting and coming up with ways to adapt through genetic evolution and cultural evolution  the natural human processes into more favorable ways – though Wilson holds back in addressing how this is to be down practically.
This evolutionary approach, is a suggestive weaving of science and the humanities but may not be as straight forward as it is argued.  Lewontin offers important criticisms of sociobiology based on the fact that science itself is a constructed human institution and as such is subject to the biases of its practitioners.  Society influences science and science influences society in ways that cannot be separated from each other.  A main premise of science is reduction, understanding the simple observable explanation. In considering the practice of medicine and understanding DNA – which is the biological mechanism for evolution, it was claimed that understanding the human genome would result in many advances in human health from eradicating cancer to greatly expanding human lifespan.  However, these results have not been shown.  This reductionism – the idea that DNA determines existence, resulted in the view and perspective in medicine that tiny fixes could be found to solve human disease suffering.  Society as a whole values a quick fix, a hypothetical hour session in a doctor’s office to change DNA rather than a life style and diet change.  Yet, evidence shows there is more to the picture than DNA.  Underlying in Wilson’s argument is the importance of inheritance, the determination, - fatalism, of DNA.  Yet a very important aspect of evolution and genetics, argues Lewontin is the environment by saying “there is no organism without environment, there is not environment without organism”(Lewontin 109)..  Genes cannot and do not determine fate – if this premise were true then identical twins who by definition have the same genes would have the exact same personalities, same thoughts, same lives.  People born to the same families sharing the same amounts of DNA often vary in success levels, one may be an addict and one may be a successful athlete and as humans we know that this is possible.  The reason that understanding the human genome did not result in the great advancements it was believed to was because of ignoring not only the important role of environment but the fact that it is nearly impossible to parse out the influence between genes and environment.  Genes affect environment,  in certain genes make one person seek out a certain environment, and even it has been shown that being in certain environments can lead to the expression of different genes.  In that way DNA is not like a set of rules passed down through evolution but a library in which different books can be read at different times depending on the situation (Young, 212).  This affects the arguments present in understanding sociobiology by suggesting that the human species has more ability to change their environments and not so tied to biological determinism.
A relevant series to the discussion of sociobiology and its criticism is Lilith’s Brood.  Octavia Butler, who is known to be interested  if not a supporter of sociobiology creates an situation where human species are saved, and ultimately reproduce with aliens that are beyond the need for evolution. Natural human  reproduction  results from first selecting a mate and  then a random  reproductive event of the creation of a new full set of chromosomes containing DNA with the fusion of the sperm and egg.  Evolution results from mutation and changes in this DNA that are passed on to the next generations – again those more favorable being passed on (Young, 6).  The Oankali reproduction involves direct manipulation of this DNA by a third different sex party called the oolioo.  The oolioo is able to pick and choose the favorable aspects of DNA to bring together to create an offspring, there is selection but not by natural mechanisms of environment over time but rather a choice.  The Oankali can be seen as an ideal by sociobiologist or even as sociobiologists themselves.  Wilson suggests that people can be able to manipulate their evolution to be more favorable and this manipulation, though not within the grasp of human understanding now, could be specifically manipulating these genes.  The situation in Litlith’s Brood thus is also relevant to the study of sociobiology by exploring the possibility of the mixture of the human species with this new means for reproduction and what happens to these offspring and humans is suggestive into the results of actual use of sociobiology.
The humans in Lilith’s Brood represent a number of the negative aspects of humanity that sociobiologist would say are inherent in humanity such as aggression and male dominance.   In the beginning the Oankali come to earth to rescue the human species in the midst of destroying itself in a nuclear war which is the manifestation of the inherent problems in humanity.  The aggressive aspects of humanity are often expressed  hand  in hand with male dominance in the human society on the ship and in the colonies on earth.  The first instance of this is with Paul Titus who as the first interaction between a male and a human female on the ship when Lilith declines to have sex with him  is “enraged .  Out of control.  He attack[s] members of his family […] and would have killed them if he could have”(Butler 100).   Though arguably acting out of frustration at the situation in general, it is stated that Paul was peaceful up until meeting Lilith and his desire for sex which is a clear drive from evolution is overpowering so much that he has to be put to sleep.  On earth, as soon as the people are away from Oankali control, hierarchies are created where men are in charge and weapons including guns are created.  When Tino first comes across the Lo settlement, he expresses the belief that it seems like a primitive existence and likens the inhabitants to savages.  He says “Five men, […] no wonder you haven’t built anything” implying the fact that men are the gender that have the drive and desire to build up civilizations (Butler 281).  At that point in time resistor settlements which started out being dropped in the woods with nothing had already developed guns.
These textual examples represent the negative aspects of humanity called by the Oankali to be the human contradiction and this human contradiction can be seen as coming directly from sociobiology. The human contradiction is basically the concept that humans are capable of incredible intelligence but are hierarchical and thus self-destructive which is a result of biological determinism.  The example of aggression of the humans on the settlement can be a direct example of the fact that as Wilson states: “we are strongly predisposed  to slide into deep irrational hostility under certain definable conditions”(Wilson 106).  Sociobiologists view aggression to be inevitable in certain situations including “the defense and conquest of territory, the assertion of dominance […] sexual aggression, […] and moralistic and disciplinary aggression used to enforce rules of society”(Wilson 102).  All of these instances that are argued to illicit aggression are shown on the colony from Paul Titus to the warring tribes asserting their territory.  Humans are shown to act aggressively out of passion and emotion first rather than logic.  Paul Titus attempts to fight his captures which he knows are much more powerful than him and this seems to be representing a biologically predisposed response.  Another aspect of the negative representation of the fact that humans are bound by genetics is the fact that the aggression in the novel is committed almost exclusively by men.  The Oankali are aware of this and this is the reason they are fearful of creating male constructs.   This is related to theories in sociobiology relating to the purposed inevitability aggression and how this is more apparent in men and the biologically determined difference between men and women.  Wilson states that “women as a group are less assertive and physically aggressive” and continues to say that “women differ consistently in this qualitative manner”(128).    This difference fundamental difference between men and women and the natural aggression are shown as aspects of humanity that need to be fixed and this goes hand in hand with the belief in sociobiology that negative aspects of evolution need to be accepted.
The Oankali then are the people that attempt the rid the humans of the contradiction by using the oolio to create offspring that are genetically selected.  The construct children they create to live on the earth can be viewed as literally a sociobiological experiment of what happens when humans are no longer bound by the laws of human evolution. The Oankali remove the negative aspects of hierarchy and aggression from the DNA and in turn take on the positive aspects inherent specifically the ability to grow new cells, or cancer.   The real test of these manipulated construct offspring is Akin, who is the first male.  He is the real test as he is capable of the power of the Oankali but may still be more hierarchical as he is part human  male.  After Akin’s exposure to the resistor culture, he is makes the decisions that the humans should be able to have their own colony without the Oankali on Mars.  This opinion is met by opposition because the Oankali believe that humans with the human contradiction will eventually destroy themselves again.  Akin even comes to understand that a human society will “create a civilization that will destroy itself as certainly as the pull of gravity will keep their new world in orbit around its sun” (Butler 475).  The Oankali believe that a settlement on Mars would be like a slow torture to people rather than just ending the misery quickly as the Oankali believe “factually Humanity [i]s doomed.  Now or Later”(Butler 475).  With this knowledge it seems that the conclusion to create a Mars colony is to give the humans the option of what they believe to be certain suicide because people are not capable on their own of getting past the human contradiction.  Broadening this  to a sociobiology, it seems the conclusion can be made that a humanity bound by its genetics with not attempts to understand its tendencies governed by evolution is doomed to perpetuate violence and  aggression.
The final book of Lilith’s Brood presents the example of a society that tries to reproduce without the help of the Oankali and thus are plagued by a disfiguring genetic disease from inbreeding.  This minorly successful but plagued society is essentially saved  by the oolioo which even though they are captured “heal the people in spite of guards [and] heal guards”(Butler 736).  The people come around to the idea of breeding with the Oankali and the novel concludes on a hopeful note for the human and Oankali. constructs with the first oolioo construct successfully finding human mates and creating a new town for the people.  This hopeful note at the end of the novel shows that even though there were natural difficulties in changing humanity from being based in evolution, in the end it was successful.   Construct children were able to get past the negative aspects inherent in human genetics and create a new community and place to live on earth.  This conclusion can be interpreted as a success to the engineering that sociobiology may suggest.
However the criticisms that apply to sociobiology can also apply to a critique of the reading of Lilith’s Brood and a critique of the Oankali.  It is believed by the Oankali that the humans are fatally flawed genetically through the belief in the human contradiction.  It is an undisputed fact to them that humans are predetermined to harm one another and will eventually destroy themselves.  But this negative view of humanity ignores positive aspects of humanity that can also be manifested even in terrible environments such as altruism.  While it is believed that humans are genetically predisposed to be hostile and aggressive, perhaps it has been the social institutions present that have elicited this behavior and that a different environment would elicit a different reaction – regardless of alterations to DNA.  As stated by Lewontin “If sociobiologists are right, then human beings have limitations coded in their genes that make them individually entrepreneurial, selfish, aggressive, xenophobic, family oriented, driven towards dominance, self interested in a way that precludes any real possibility for radical reorganization of society. You cannot fight human nature.  On the other hand, if […] human beings are biologically impelled toward cooperation and have been held away from it historically, then such a reorganization might be possible”(Lewontin 120).  Sociobiology provides hope for humanity in vague possibilities of accepting fated aspects of humanity or  restructuring through evolution  such as specifically altering DNA like the Oankali.  On the other hand, a way for improvement can come from environment as well, which is not and cannot be separated from genetics.  Improvement in the future and hope from humanity can come from “divert[…]ing changes in a more beneficial direction, and so, perhaps even postpone […] extinction for a few hundred thousand years”(Lewontin 119).   Along these lines perhaps the human settlement on Mars from Lilith’s Brood has more of a chance than the Oankali believe.  Perhaps the positive aspects of humanity will be more beneficial and humans will be able to create an environment for themselves that bring out these aspects.   The Mars settlement may not be as fated and destined for destruction as their genes would dictate and instead will be organisms capable with interacting with their environment to survive.  The fate of the settlement on Mars is implied to be ultimately be destructive, however, it is never stated.  From a criticism of sociobiology it can be suggested that the settlement may not be destined to die.
Butler, Octavia.  Lilith’s Brood. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1989.
Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. Concord: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Young, David. The Discovery of Evolution. Cambridge:University Press, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. In your first sentence - is that critical approach *your* critical approach? Claim it as your own, if so! Also, who is ignoring "environmental aspects" - Wilson? The Oankali?

    I think you do a good job of sketching out the where sociobiology and its critics stand - although, following the problem I mentioned above, this doesn't yet clarify your own direction.

    I like your summary of Lewontin (although it could have been shorter, by being more focused), and I thought the quote from Young was extremely well chosen - it's a great, compact way of expanding upon and grounding Lewontin's argument.

    By the time you begin to discuss Butler, two problems, one minor and one major, have become clear. The minor one is proofreading - there are enough problems with spelling, comma usage, etc., to be distracting. The important one is that you fall into a pattern of enormous, dense paragraphs summarizing (but summarizing well!) the relevant positions of an author, without providing us with sufficient guidance re: your own position.

    I am absolutely certain that if you'd given your own view coherently at the start, you could have done more, with fewer words, from there on out - you would find that if you're following a true thread of argument, not all of this material is necessary, for instance. You spend too much time, for instance, going over the basics of Lilith's brood - anyone who has been to class would remember the prominence of sociobiology-inflected aggression throughout, for instance. There are occasions when simply summarizing is necessary, but you summarize habitually.

    You seem to stay especially close to our collective discussion with Akin. You want to extend, challenge, or otherwise intervene into the discussion - otherwise, why reherase it?

    Is it obvious that the Oankali have succeeded at the end? Or have they been, at least, totally seduced by humanity - not humanity only in itself, but humanity as incarnated in construct ooloi? I'm not trying to tell you what you should think - I am, though, trying to argue that regardless of your response, it probably shouldn't seem quite so simple.

    You turn, at the end, to beginning a Lewontin-rooted critique which suggests that the Oankali are not as wise (and both humanity and Akin are wiser) than the Oankali themselves might think.

    This is a good approach. On one level, you'd be pitting Lewontin against Wilson; on another, I'd like to suggest that you'd be pitting Akin (with his near-violence, his acceptance of contradiction, and his embrace of tragedy) against Jodahs (with its quest for consensus, a powerfully fixed family structure, and ontological/biological certainty). The problem is that, as worthy as the argument is, you aren't really making it. Where in the text do you see the Oankali failing (like Wilson) to adequately consider a nuanced understanding of what environment is? Where in the text do you see a Lewontonian alternative emerging.

    You spend far too much time and effort summarizing familiar material (you do better, incidentally, with the biologists than you do with the novels - your use of Young actually does a lot for you), and not enough exploring the relevant parts of the text in light of your views.

    Remember - don't remind us of what we already know. Try to make us see things in a new way. Use Lewontin (and Young) to reinterpret Butler, rather than just saying that we *should* do so.