Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Biological Determinism and the Oankali

Jonathan Lee
Prof. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
October 29, 2014

Prompt:  Focusing on single passages from both texts (the one you researched and Lilith's Brood) argue how and why we should read Butler differently with sociobiology in mind.  We might argue, for instance, that part of what Butler is doing is showing how the consequences of evolution are always with us, or she might be showing the limits of an evolutionary explanation of humanity.

            In his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, American biologist E.O. Wilson attempts to merge biology with the social sciences.  He argues that all can be understood within the context of our genes.  In Lilith’s Brood, this debate is central.  The Oankali have to ability to sense the genetic code via certain organelles that they possess in every one of their cells.  They are able to insert genes to correct the ailments of humans and make alterations at will.  Naturally, it seems that the Oankali, especially the ooloi, the genderless genetic specialists, are guilty of the same assumptions and generalizations as the adherents of sociobiology.  Lilith’s Brood does a lot to point out the shortcomings of such a worldview, and therefore offers a particular criticism of the doctrine of biological determinism.
            To begin, let us flesh out Wilson’s idea of sociobiology.  Paul Naour, writing of Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, says, “Ultimately, Wilson aspired to ‘reformulate the foundations of the social sciences in a way that draws them into the Modern Synthesis,’ and he is meticulous in systematically developing the case that sociobiology completes the Modern Synthesis by drawing social science into evolutionary biology” (E.O. Wilson and B.F. Skinner).  This aspiration is a reductionist one, serving as a foundation for biological determinism.  Wilson envisions a world in which our society and culture flow seamlessly from our DNA.  He acknowledges environmental factors, even epigenetics, but maintains that by using our genetic code we can explain everything human. 
“What is human nature? It is not the genes, which prescribe it, or culture, its ultimate product. Rather, human nature is something else for which we have only begun to find ready expression. It is the epigenetic rules, the hereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to another, and thus connect the genes to culture.”
(E.O. Wilson, 1998) E.O. Wilson and B.F. Skinner
Although factors other than our genetic makeup are considered, Wilson proposes that we look at all social institutions through the framework of genetics.  According to Wilson, genes determine human nature, and human nature is the basis of all social science. 
            The Oankali of Lilith’s Brood exhibit the same frame of mind.  With their Oankali organelles, they can detect and understand human genetics instantly.  This is how they cured Lilith’s cancer, making her immune by inserting proper genes to patch up defects.  Jdahya, the first Oankali that Lilith encounters, explains that humanity’s doom lies in their genetics.  He tells her that humans exhibit two contradicting qualities.  The first quality is that humans are intelligent.  The second is that they are hierarchical.  “…it isn’t a gene or two.  It’s many—the result of a tangled combination of factors that only begins with genes” (39).  Jdahya claims that these qualities, although in part determined by environmental and historical factors, are rooted in genes.  Such an assertion clearly stems from the biologically deterministic mindset of the Oankali.  It falls in line with Wilson’s view, as both views, while acknowledging the roles of environmental and historical factors, maintain that everything within the realm of the social sciences can be attributed to our genetic code.  However, Kahguyaht, the household ooloi, admits the shortcomings of her assumptions.  From the onset of the relationship, Kahguyaht rejects Lilith, thinking that she would be inadequate for the training of Nikanj.  Kahguyaht concedes that she had underestimated Lilith, and that she in fact was the perfect candidate.  Lilith’s genetics had been assessed by Kahguyaht’s Oankali organelles, and had been misjudged.  This highlights the miscalculations that can result from biological determinism, and a fixation on one’s genetic code.


1 comment:

  1. “ In his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, American biologist E.O. Wilson attempts to merge biology with the social sciences.” -- that’s kind of technically true, although really it’s a small part of an enormous, complex book. Setting that quibble aside, it’s a good introduction.

    Your citation to explain Wilson’s views is effective. The only danger here is of collapsing his views on humanity into his views on insects (from which his views on humanity emerged) - and you need to read the primary sources to understand his views on insects better.

    The majority of your essay is devoted to simply explaining Wilson’s views. Especially considering the fact that you didn’t get into any primary sources, I think you spent more effort on this than was necessary. Hence, your conclusion really contains your argument, which is that Butler is critical of sociobiology. But this argument is rushed and rather simplistic. The case you want to make *can* be made, but to suggest that because the Oankali make an error therefore the error is an error Butler has identified in sociobiology - you just need to work a little harder to make that point convincing. It can’t all fit in one paragraph, even if the fundamental approach is valid.


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