Oct. 29, 2014
Deoxyribonucleic acid and polymerase chain reaction, hydrogen peroxidase and bioreactors, standard solutions and volumetric flasks; the ways humans manipulate chemicals and biomolecules are external, disconnected from our biological system and sensory organs. Quantitative chemistry occurs in a lab with external measurements and pH meters. Reactions occur in beakers and experiments with protein or cells occur in petri dishes. Not so with the Oankali. Lilith asks Nikanj on page 85 of Dawn by Octavia Butler, “‘Nikanj, do you ever build machinery? Tamper with metal and plastic instead of living things?’” to which the ooloi Oankali Nikanj replies, “‘We do that when we have to. We...don’t like it. There’s no trade,’” and as the novel progresses, it seems the Oankali never “‘have to.’” Machines are almost totally vacant in the Oankali landscape. On that same page Lilith and Nikanj ride on a living car-like platform traveling on slime. The ship “eats” whatever is left behind. Oankali are able to alter DNA in vivo, within complex humans or themselves, and with little to no incision at all. The Oankali are able to change any biological trait. They are able to cure cancer without radiation or fear. In fact, they actually play with cancer because it interests them, and the long-sought human stem cell research derived from their play is discovered relatively soon after the Oankali discover humans. There is both a biochemical and moral difference between humans and Oankali that is acute in practice, but divergent in each species.
The Oankali have mastered the intrinsic manipulation of chemical signals, which allows for their walls to rearrange at the touch for example. They can also chemically manipulate species all within the bodies of certain members of the Oankali, sometimes the male and female genders, but mostly in the neutral ooloi sex of the Oankali. This intrinsic manipulation of cellular signals, DNA, and other biomolecules is only a dream for humans, who must analyse all chemical processes outside their bodies. What is so significant about the quote on page 85 of Dawn mentioned above is that it embodies this difference in humans and Oankali. The Oankali never had to clumsily feel around with inadequate mechanical sensors, human error, or any of the whirring boxes hominid science and lives are currently filled with. All the experimentation, all the hypotheses, all the conclusions and results can be conducted and drawn within one Oankali. Each Oankali is a laboratory of biological manipulation that can perform the scientific process infinitely faster than humans can. All an Oankali must do to change itself, counteract poison, change the environment, or interact occurs on an organismal genetic and signal-based level.
Humans are the opposite of the Oankali physiological control of chemicals. Sure, chemistry happens within humans, but even that chemistry is taken from the human body for study and these experiments are performed in vitro in a lab. Humanity still does not know even half the ways to fix what goes wrong in human bodies. Humanity is still discovering internal principles of biology. because we “‘tamper with metal and plastic,’” we are infinitely slower at understanding ourselves (Butler 85). The Oankali take how humans analyse chemistry outside themselves, and ingest it into themselves. If any chemistry is performed at all within a living organism in humanity it is not tested in humans primarily but rather it is tested in vivo in a lesser species such as rats. Humans do not possess the ability to counter poisons or change their own DNA at a whim. They cannot eliminate cancer intrinsically. Nor can we “trade” like the Oankali do. Humanity is grossly lacking chemical stability, long-term homeostasis, and intrinsic elasticity of biochemical manipulation.
Though the Oankali are able to live longer and have an elastic intrinsic biochemical physiology, and humans lack this inherent ability, the Oankali lack the very basis of nature and natural selection that makes a species unique and alive in the natural intended way. The chemical independence Oankali have which is proven by their actions and embodied in the page 85 quote lead to moral degeneracy. There is no natural Oankali. No Oankali have kept away from manipulating themselves or trading with any number of species. The DNA of Oankali gene pools is erratic and different from the first Oankali. Though human genome variations do occur, they are not changing every moment with the whims of the organism. They are changing over many generations very slowly. Nature does not exist in Oankali, there is no natural Oankali phenotype. Therefore, none of them can be naturally selected as having the superior traits to live on when in struggle. If an Oankali is “selected against” in natural selection’s terms (say they get cancer), they simply change themselves biologically, and put themselves (or they cure their own cancerous tumor) in the “selected for” group, the survivors.
In this way there is no Oankali, there is no race of aliens period, they do not exist within human biology. This is just a set of living biological trait collecting and correcting individuals bent on creating themselves to be better each time they encounter difficulty. The Oankali lack identity, while humans conserve it in their chemical flaws and fixedness. This eliminates the struggle of life, what it means to be human, to cast out a shot at eternity in the naked darkness of oblivion. The strive for greatness, even with the knowledge that the attempt is weak and time need only brush it aside is what creates humanity the idea, and the chemical fixedness of humans is the foundation of this idea of humanity. And it is in this identity of flaws and disease that natural selection, the way nature and creation meant the world to be, exists and rightfully functions. The Oankali are living, humans are alive, the Oankali are extant, humans exist, the Oankali are sentinel, humanity is sentient.
Butler, O. (1997). Family. In Dawn (2nd ed., Vol. 1, p. 85). New York: Aspect/Warner Books.