Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Prompt 1

Samantha Call

Seminar in Composition

Dr. Adam Johns

October 29, 2014


Cancer Kills and Cures


Cancer is bad.  Cancer only leads to heartache and death.  Cancer is useless.  Most people tend think along these lines due to the grief that comes along when one is diagnosed with or dies from cancer.  What is to say that cancer is all bad though?  The Oankali challenge the way humans look at cancer in the novel Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler.  Instead of seeing it at face value as simply a means of death, the Oankali expand their definition to include other aspects of cancer that are not negative.  By challenging human institutions and what humans consider conventional wisdom, the Oankali show a deeper understanding of how the world works and are therefore on a better track to become prosperous and successful.

                Lilith is not at all surprised when she is told by Jdahya that a cancer had been growing inside of her and had been removed, but is extremely taken aback when Jdahya mentions that cancer is of great interest to the Oankali because of its “abilities” (Butler, 40).  The Oankali do not see cancer as a purely destructive force, but as an interesting phenomenon that can help in the furthering of their own race.  Unlimited by social pressure, much more research can be done and other ways of dealing with cancer can be found.  While humans set out to eradicate cancer, the Oankali set out to observe and utilize it.  They see the possibilities it has for the “’regeneration of lost limbs’” and “’increased longevity’” (Butler, 41).  Instead of using human wisdom and ideas circulated through the human hierarchy that say cancer is a killer, the Oankali turn it around and say cancer can be a savior, both of limbs and lives.

                The Oankali have opened the door to scientific research that goes beyond the confines of normal human investigation that has been shaped by social institutions.  This is due to the lack of a hierarchical system among the Oankalis.  Lewontin says that “money, energy, and public consciousness” (Lewontin 52) all hinder advances in science because scientists are no longer working for the good of society, they are working for the good of specific companies or individuals.  They no longer want to serve the public, they want to serve themselves.  The absence of a hierarchy in the Oankali culture keeps them from the kind of bias that would hinder advances, and thus makes their discoveries more credible.  Human scientists are pressured by hospitals and companies that want to make money off of the destruction of cancer, so they simply ignore the fact that cancer could be useful in some way.  Since the Oankali don’t have a hierarchy that would put pressure on them not to expand their research, they are more open and able to investigate other aspects of things such as cancer.  They are to be better trusted in developing methods of treating people because they aren’t so heavily influenced by a hierarchy.  This is a system that should be implemented by anyone serious about furthering the human race as a whole.  Humans should be more like the Oankali because we would have more opportunities for researching cancer and its abilities other than killing people.

The treatment of cancer that comes from the Oankali is far more useful, as well, than our treatment of cancer as humans.  While humans are constantly seeking to learn just enough about cancer to get rid of it, the Oankali are seeking to learn everything there is to know about it so they can find uses for it.  It is far more productive to have a goal in mind, like the Oankalis do, then to be searching aimlessly within human genes to perhaps one day stumble upon an answer to a question that doesn’t need to be answered.  Asking the correct question is the key, and that is what the Oankali are doing.  Why destroy something that could be useful?  Humans are stuck looking at science from one perspective, which hinders us.  As Lewontin mentions in “Biology as Ideology,” we must know the difference “between correlation and identity” (Lewontin, 34).  Humans see only the correlation that cancer has with death and pain, so they overlook the identity of cancer.  Its identity, which is what the Oankali are studying, encompasses all aspects of cancer instead of just its destruction.  By doing this, they are refusing to limit the potential of cancer.  Yes, they realize it is harmful, so they take it out of those who have it, but they also realize that not everything can be taken at face value.  While humans waste time trying to discover how to destroy cancer so they can go on living life as they always have, the Oankali use their time more efficiently, trying to discover how they can use cancer to increase their own quality of life and live in a way that is better than how they were living before.  The Oankali are looking forward into the future, thinking of how to regrow their limbs and make themselves a more durable race.  Humans, on the other hand, are not looking to become better, only to go on as they have.  Eventually, according the theory of evolution, as stated by Darwin, that won’t work forever because humans will be unable to adapt to changing conditions.  Progress is what keeps a species from going extinct, and the Oankali have realized that.

Commonly, humans are stuck in the mindset of “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”  People say this without realizing that although we may be fine now, what we’re doing cannot last forever.  Destroying cancer may seem like good thing now, but what happens in the future when we could use the ability to “regenerate limbs” but can’t figure out how to do it because we didn’t use our resource, cancer, in the right way?  We will be stuck, confined by our own social structure and mindsets to slowly become less and less adapted to our environment.  The Oankali have learned to adapt, unlike humans, which is why they are healthier and live longer.  Their stance on cancer is the reason for their longevity and success, so if humans value those things in ourselves, we should follow their lead.



Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.

Lewontin, R. Biology as ideology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.


  1. The fact that you got really small is the best part of this essay. You took one small characteristic and expanded it into a realm of thought that considers Cancer from all sides. You ask very useful questions. The way the essay could be expanded is more discussion upon what this difference in cancer means ideologically. You have great scientific discussion on what the different understanding of cancer means physically. What you could address is why dangerous things (Cancer) is interesting to the Oankali instead of the way humans see dangerous things. Overall it's a very good essay with good insights and useful and concise ideas and quotes.

  2. I have no one else to comment on, so I'll comment on yours.

    All in all, pretty great, really solid. The argument's well-thought out, and it doesn't wander. One thing I liked in particular was how you tied Lewontin to help explain the current human mindset, and its flaws. A point you could expand or explain is the part about evolution and humans. It's just a part thrown out there, but you could elaborate on that, because for now, it doesn't have too much support. How does our unwillingness to utilize cancer spell out doom for us? And so on.

  3. You start out well. Part of me wants a more streamlined thesis, something about how cancer can have other meanings than what we think it has, but your approach has merit as it stands, too. I especially like this line: “Unlimited by social pressure, much more research can be done and other ways of dealing with cancer can be found. “ You already have some ideas about how culture, research, and meaning differ (with all three being connected) between the Oankali and humanity.

    I liked your third paragraph. One thing I’d be tempted to add is an analysis of how hierarchical thinking is oriented toward conflict - hence our persistent metaphor of cancer as warfare. The Oankali, not being hierarchical, don’t see it that way, and can therefore interrogate its other meanings.

    Your final two paragraphs are pretty outstanding. Lewontin is hard and Butler isn’t so easy, but your’e able to make a deep connection between them, a connection which is distinctly your own. Not as a complaint, then, but as an idea, let me ask a big question here. Is the idea that cancer has an identity which can be put to use meant (maybe by Butler, but especially by you) as a serious question? I admire your approach, but for it to work as well as it could, that’s a question you need to engage with, since that’s where everything ultimately leads here. What is the inner truth of cancer, waiting to be understood and put to work?


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