Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Superior Species

Lilith’s Brood seems to me a direct response to an idea posed on page 51 of Wilson’s Human Nature, “But even worse, imagine our predicament if we coexisted with a mentally superior human species, say Homo superbus, who regarded us, the minor sibling species Homo sapiens, as the moral problem.” This idea of course is not a totally new, even Dr. Seuss has suggested how the world would be if we humans were the animals of the planet, but the combination of Wilson’s ideas and his statements immediately previously on our obligation to a mentally inferior brings me to this passage as a question and idea to which her book responds.

            Of course in Butler’s version, we are not cousins of our superior species as in Wilson’s proposition; we do not share a genetic or personal history with our alien superiors.  This lack of genetic history and personal history may deprive the Oankali of the moral obligation they would feel for another species of under evolved Oankali, they have no cultural or genetic history connecting with us so why would they have any obligation to us? The idea of the Homo superbus in Wilson is only mentioned briefly but the only qualifier for what this species would be is a mentally superior.  Octavia Butler takes this idea much farther making the Oankali superior to us in just about every way; they are better healers, more peaceful, more advanced, and because of their perfect memory retain much more knowledge than we could ever hope to store. In all these ways they are superior and we are inferior.  With this in mind we would like to assume that the Oankali are also superior to us in the moral sense, but what would that mean? 

The first question I think we need to answer is what morals the Oankali have and how they respond to them. If humanity is the moral problem for the superior Oankali than we need to first know they have morals. This will help us to see if the Oankali see humanity as a moral problem or obligation. Morals are defined as “principles of behaviour in accordance with standards of right and wrong” according to the Collins English Dictionary.  Over the books we have not seen any Oankali trials or violence and no laws seem to be present so we must figure out their morals from their behavior which is a bit more complicated. We know Oankali see life itself “as a thing of inexpressible value.” (Butler 470) This is why they initially refuse to let humanity breed with itself wishing to prevent future death.  However, they seem to have no problem leaving a society and thus life to destruction if helping does not suit their needs. We know the Oankali chose humanity not because of a moral compulsion due to our destruction but because of our unique genetic material.  Likewise, the Oankali allow humans to kill each other on earth and will only step in and remove a human if an Oankali family member is hurt in the crossfire. This suggests that while the Oankali have a love of life they either have morals which restrict their will to control others and prevent death, which seems unlikely because of how they drug and rape the humans, or their moral stance on the value of life only has to do with members of their species and future generations. This is really the only moral the Olankali make known and that we can be sure about besides perhaps consensus. 

 The Oankali’s belief in consensus is what allows them to be such a peaceful society and what appears to be a perfect democracy. In Oankali society everyone who can vote seems to get a vote, everyone old enough to speak on a subject may do so for the benefit of the consensus, and then the will is followed.  Oankali chose at times to go against consensus in certain ways, such as continuing to look for Akin, but events like these seem rare. By and large the consensus and thus the community is put above the individual.  So life and community are at the head of the Oankali morals, but in both cases the Oankali act in contradictions. They will take away the ability to procreate one of the most sacred rights in our culture but will let the humans build guns.  I doubt that without an Oankali mind or that of Octavia Butler I will ever understand.

Another subject we know the Oankali value is their history. For good or ill the Oankali removed what history they could to start human civilization anew. “’You'll begin again. We'll put you in areas that are free of radioactivity and history. You will become something other than you were.’ ‘And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?’ ‘No. Only different.’” (Butler, 34) This is what the Oankali believe is right. It is almost a necessity for them to change and not to grow stagnant and this is a survival instinct they foist onto the humans. The Oankali want us to hold onto nothing and become something new, something closer to their superior being, help us in our evolution and as Wilson suggests. “guide …mental evolution to the human level”(Wilson 51) or in this case Oankali level.  This destruction of Human culture could demonstrate that the Oankali feel a need to teach and improve the humans as a species but may also just show a will to be accepted by the humans.  The say they do not want to make us better and we have learned that Oankali generally do not lie.  So the only reason I see left to remove our history is to make room for the Oankali in our culture and our history.

By removing our culture and our ability to reproduce they take away our bloody history and our traditions. They may be removing some of our reasons for blood-shed but they are also clearly placing humanity in an inferior position to themselves by denying humans access to their own knowledge. The Oakali retain their memories of every merger genetically locked away showing they place a value on their own past.  This shows the Oankali’s true view of us as something not unlike our view perhaps of a “savage”, perhaps from the days of the Inca or a child.  If a “savage” was grabbed from South America for some reason and brought to Europe, people might find him fascinating but they would also want him to discount his culture for their own.  They would ask him to speak and act like they act and if he did not he would be seen like a someone who was stupid and even if he could learn and agree to everything to everything appropriately he probably would not be taken seriously, he does not share our blood or our culture or in the case of a child he is too young to understand he may be pretty and helpful but not smart enough as to be able to understand our advanced theories.

In this way the Oankali, takes in humanity and trys to gentrify them, but do not respect their words, taking them as inferiors.  However, this same signs of taking away our books and teaching us the new food shows that they do at least feel concern for the humans if not a moral push to help them.  They will let humanity kill each other like the animals that we are but like feral pets or the mentally handicapped they have us spayed and neutered to spare future generations the same hardship of inferiority.  As demonic as this seems, it does seem in line with what humanity would try to do with a younger brother species.  We have done the same thing with different groups of people over the years, basically every country the west colonized if the colonialists were not full of torture tried to refine at least the educated and make them more like and like us. Groups like the Nazis and even states in the US have practiced eugenics to clean and make a better generation.  “Eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in "colonies,"” (Black)

            Another way we can see Lilith’s Brood as a response to Wilson’s prompt is in how the Oankali seem to have a similar belief system to that of Wilson. They have a natural ability to reengineer the basic foundations of life, our genes, and feel compelled to do so with themselves and others to spread and change their genes. Although Wilson lacks the ability to change our genes himself, this is also the goal he believes we should explore and improve ourselves through. He, like the Oankali, delve into the possibility of guiding and engineering the evolution of another species as the Oankali do to us,“ Should we divide the world, guide their mental evolution to the human level...?”(Wilson, p.51) Wilson’s writing suggests to me that he would like to be the Oankali of our species understanding us, manipulating our genes and perhaps feels compelled to do so for us to make a better world.  In this way Butler put Wilson into the position as the world’s new Homo superbus and let us explore what Wilson and sociobiologists might do if they were given the power. If Wilson believed it was best I do not doubt he too would wish to improve are DNA with the DNA of other species as the Oankali do.

Giving Wilson’s beliefs to the Oankali simultaneously makes the ideas of genetic modification and design more appealing and much more perverse. The Oankali make genetic engineering appealing because the beings are our saviors and their way of life if strange seems harmonious. While not our ways, their ways seem to peaceful and virtuous; they do not eat meat, and while they argue we do not see them coming to blows. On the other hand their manipulation of the genes makes what they do to humans inhuman. It was not decided on by humans and thus humans cannot use it to define our own evolution. It was done to us without choice. Our future has been taken away from us. Like the australopitecine of Wilson’s example (Wilson, 51) we are but the lower species for a higher to manipulate and care for.

I then see most of Butler’s work as a hashing out of On Human Nature with the Oankali taking the place of Wilson, scientist,  or simply dominant species a role humanity has been able to claim for  our memorable history  and the humans, Lilith and those she awakens are humanity responding to what Wilson has shown us. “’We pair off!’ Curt bellowed, drowning her out. ‘One man, one woman, Nobody has the right to hold you. It just causes trouble.’” (Butler, 176) This is how we tend to think we are supposed to be, paired. But we would like it to be by choice. Marriage is one of the “characteristics that have been recorded in every culture known to history and ethnography” (Wilson, 21) And females as the weaker sex, become home bound with the creation of agriculture and then something to be traded or taken. In this world of 43 humans everyone has been raised in civilization and yet we still revert to this need for a mate and, aggression which goes along with Wilson’s “crowding in the environment” is present and we revert to cave men.

The Oankali will take care of us like we may watch an animal, just enough to keep it from killing itself out right. They can help us to succeed, help us to overcome what we are at our basic core, but at the cost of being the dominant form of life on this planet. We are given a species who wants to mix with us and in some ways deprive and some ways help us. If we were to have a little brother species I doubt we would offer them as much as the Oankali do humanity. The real question now is should we adapt or try to survive on our own.  A nice way to change the disgust we may see the Oankali with is to reverse the roles and see how very human what they do to us is and how without the Oankali’s democracy and drugs much more evil could have occurred.  This dream of genetic improvement is what we ask and fear of the future; and as we can see ourselves both as the better or subjugated species in the Oankali human relationship we should analyze all of the sides before we make any such decisions. Lilith despite the benefits for her children believes that humanity matters not the benefits but could we really turn down the possibility to grow limbs? To stop cancer and disease in our children? By using another species Butler is able to dramatize Wilsons dream into something we can either fear or dream of.

"moral." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. 1. Dialog Press, 2003. Print.


  1. I appreciate that the essay moves fast, especially at the start. I feel like the last paragraph in the 2nd paragraph is your real focus, although I'm a little unsure. If so, excellent choice, if somewhat unclearly presented.

    You argue in the third paragraph, I think, that we need to figure out Oankali values from their behavior. But through that paragraph, you don't do very much of that. In that paragraph, you make a series of claims about Oankali behavior (re: them leaving other species to die, re: rape, re: love of life, re: genetic value) that don't really address their behavior, or attempt to reconcile the apparent contradictions.

    For instance, here's a crucial mistake. "the Oankalai allow humans to kill each other on earth and will only step in and remove a human if an Oankali family member is hurt in the crossfire." You're ignoring the crucial fact that "Oankali family member" here includes any humans who have joined the Oankali; to put it another way, the Oankali do not intervene to stop violence among human beings who have willfully separated themselves from the Oankali."

    To me, this seems like a flawed attempt to maintain a degree of independence for people who have claimed they want to be independent; it's the halfway point to independence which makes the Mars colony conceivable.

    I'm not saying every detail in this paragraph is important; what I'm saying is that you say that Oankali behavior is what counts, but then generalize about it, rather than investigating it.

    I think one thing that your'e circling around is that Oankali must mean something different when they say that they value life than you do when you say that you value life. Here's how I'd put their moral code: "An Oankali must not kill except out of dire necessity. An Oankali must collect and catalogue all forms of life. An Oankali must, if possible, move toward breeding with any form of intelligent life which can be convinced into breeding." That's a crude first attempt, but I hope you can see the benefits already of trying to be clear about what the Oankali are: when they say they value life, they are saying that they value collecting it, and that they refuse to destroy it, not that they will intervene to stop any and all destruction. But because they abhor violence does not mean that they abhor all coercion: you and I might see drugging someone as a form of violence. They don't. That doesn't mean their system is internally inconsistent, though.

    Re: history, one might argue that the Oankali are concerned with history insofar as it points toward the future. A history concerned only with death is no history at all. That's just my take on it - I'm fine with everything you had to say on the subject, but I don't really get how it fits into your essay.

    When you argue that the Oankali see humans as a colonizer would have seen a "savage", I think you've hit on something specific which is worthy of a much longer discussion (the conquistadors destroyed almost all Mayan literature, and hence most of their understanding of their history, in a way which bears some resemblance to what the Oankali do). I would have been interested in a whole essay on this subject. Many colonizers, after all, have found it important to represent themselves as helpers or saviors...

  2. [continued]

    The discussion of eugenics is good. Your mention of "brother species" also makes me think of human treatment of apes of all kinds, along with the slowly gathering momentum to grant at least some apes a degree of legal rights.

    The last several paragraphs return to Wilson in a way that I struggle to follow. The flaw throughout this essay is that you try to do far too much, rather than doing a few (or one!) things well. I like the colonialism argument; I like the argument you begin at the end about role reversal, where you seem to push the Oankali back from evil more into ambivalence (I think); I like the relationship with eugenics. But you can't do it all! Simply setting yourself the task of figuring out what Oankali morals actually are (based on their behavior), then, e.g., condemning them by way of analogy to similar behavior and rhetoric from, say, the conquistadors would have been more than enough. It would probably take at least 30 pages to actually *do* everything you've sketched out here. Next time, do more with fewer good ideas!