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 innate need to be aggressive. Wilson also explores the idea of how that need leads to a need for social dominance. 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 hierarchical but also that that trait will cause us to destroy ourselves.
Edward O. Wilson does not only claimed that humans have an innate tendency towards aggression, but, that this aggression has been historically been directed by males towards females. “Males are characteristically aggressive,” (125 Wilson), 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). These ideas of male dominance and aggression are echoed in Eugene J. Kanin’s paper Male Aggression In Dating-Courtship Relations in which he claims that a vast majority of women experience offensive male sexual aggression when involved in the rituals of courtship.
Eugene J. Kanin asserts that the majority of the instances of male against female aggression happen during dating. Kanin also claims that the “conditions associated with sexual exploitation, such as greater age, intelligence, and social status, are usually thought of as giving added advantage to the exploiting member of the dating pair.”[i] When discussing the variable of age, his data suggest that the vast majority of males who show aggression toward woman are either of the same age or older than their victims. He also compares the more general variable of social status and sees that almost all of the male aggressors are of either an equal or higher social status then their female counterparts. It becomes increasingly evident as I continue to read Kanin’s paper that there is a connection between male aggression and a sense of either inherent or asserted type of social dominance. It seems as though Kanin is supporting the claims Wilson lays out very clearly in his novel. It can also be seen that their ideas about the existence and evolution of male aggression are echoed in Butler’s novel. When Butler describes Lilith’s first meeting with a human male, Paul Titus, we begin to see the traits of human nature that Wilson laid out.
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 the 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. These ideas of age being a factor in male aggression and dominance are also restated in Kanin’s paper. As we can see Butler is drawing from Wilson’s work, and that that work has been confirmed by Kanin. 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 begins to stand over Lilith, showing his physical superiority, then he attacks her, attempting to take off her jacket and have his way with her. We begin 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. Although we have seen through Wilson and through Butler’s understanding of his work that all men have the inherent ability to be aggressive, but we know through our social experiences that not all men show this trait. Why then do we see Paul Titus show such an extreme example of male aggression? I choose to look back to Kanin’s paper for an answer.
In his paper, Kanin gives several brief theories or factors that can contribute to male aggression. There is one however that I think is extremely poignant to our discussion. He claims that “Proneness to sexual aggression appears associated with a lack of parental sex guidance and the absence of older male siblings,”[ii] and I do not think there is a better description for Paul Titus than this one. Titus was awaken by the Oankali at age fourteen, I would contend that this is one of the most crucial times in a male’s adolescence and sexual development. Titus was force to go through that alone, with no guidance from parents or older siblings. Although he ages, he never really grows up; no one is present to guide him through his adolescent years so he basically remains a child forever. He is not fully privy to all of the correct social norms that come along with courtship so this expression of aggression makes much more sense. One would assume that the Oankali would attempt to repress his need for aggression and violence seeing as though they are aware that he is prone to it but as we can see from his interaction with Lilith that is not the case. With this claim by Kanin we see how he is attempting to make sense of Wilson’s work. We also become aware that with Paul Titus and the rest of her novel, Butler is trying to echo Wilson’s sentiments about human nature and take the idea one step further.
With Paul Titus’ actions 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.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Wilson feels about hierarchies. In On Human Nature he briefly touches on the idea of Dominance Systems, which are relationships between groups of men that are established and maintained through aggression. It exists as a type of pecking order with one male at the top and then a second with the position below him and so on. But when describing these systems Wilson makes it clear that they are not inherent to our biology, he claims that they are more shaped by developmental programs and learning rules more than anything (Wilson 177). If these are not inherent traits but learned ones why do we see them in generation after generation? I feel as though it is best to broaden our discussion in order to get a more concrete idea of his beliefs, so I decided to briefly analyze one of his other famous works Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Here Wilson assert that hierarchical social tendencies among human beings may be attributed to inherited tendencies that initially evolved in response to specific environmental conditions. He claims that at one period of time it was necessary for humans to form hierarchies but with the environment in constant flux, it would not be necessary to keep that trait forever. There was a transformation in the environment to caused hierarchies to be necessary, but when the environment transformed again for whatever reason we did not transform with it. By keeping these traits I feel as though we are going against our biology. This defiance of are genes seems almost self destructive, which is exactly what Octavia Butler attempts to show us with Dawn and the rest of Lilith’s Brood.
It is apparent that Octavia Butler has studied Wilson’s work. His influence is prevalent in all three novels but I believe that Butler is trying to make a claim about Wilson’s ideas about human nature that advances his assertions. Wilson believes that males are inherently aggressive and domineering towards women. He even claims that these traits can manifest themselves in social systems that promote hierarchy and supremacy, but Wilson’s analysis stops when he claims that these needs for hierarchy are learned and not truly ingrained in our biology. Wilson shows that there was a time when it would have been necessary but since the environment has changed we should have adapted with it. This is where Butler steps in. She shows us with her novel that our need for hierarchies are still part of our societies, and because they are unnecessary and ineffective in our current environment they must be self-destructive. She shows us that because humans, mostly males, feel the need to continue to be hierarchical it is inevitable that they will use this trait, coupled with their intelligence, to destroy themselves and the rest of humanity.
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 hierarchical 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 hierarchical, 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 and Kanin’s 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.