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.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Lewontin, R. Biology as ideology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.