Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hierarchy and Intelligence: Partners in Crime

Meaghan Duffy
English Comp
Dr. Adam Johns

“We’re not hierarchical, you see.  We never were.  But we are powerfully acquisitive.  We acquire new life- seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it.  We carry the drive to do this in a miniscule cell…Do you understand me (Butler, 41)?”  The Oankali people have a deep desire to constantly and consistently renew themselves, enabling them to evolve and survive as a species.  They choose to change rather than to fall into, “extinction or stagnation (Butler, 40).”  Jdahya strives to explain to Lilith the obvious flaws of mankind explaining that, “If they had been able to perceive and solve their problems, they might have been able to avoid destruction (Butler, 38).”  The mere existence of war as a concept, where humans kill and destroy life to somehow enhance other life, is a clear absurdity and nonsense idea that only a highly flawed species could ever believe is proper and sufficient. 

With the complete destruction of human civilization as it existed after the war, the Oankali people decided this would be a perfect opportunity to revamp human society, altering their motives and conceptions allowing them to make a more efficient use of their abilities and magnificent Earth.  The Oankali species blame humankind’s downfall on, “two incompatible characteristics.”  Jdahya says, “You are intelligent… You are hierarchical.  When human intelligence served [hierarchy] instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all… (Butler, 39),” that’s when it became obvious that the two worked against each other rather than with each other. 

While focusing on the flaws of humans, Butler gears his reasoning toward a problem in genetics.  Early on in Jdahya’s interaction with Lilith he speaks about the ooloi saying, “It knows everything that can be learned about you from your genes.  And by now, it knows…a great deal about the way you think (Butler, 22).”  Tying in past readings, Lewontin spends much of his time in Biology as Ideology critiquing other scientific views, speaking about how much of the science world, especially recently, believes that genes create not only existence but dictate the life choices humans make.  Butler qualifies Lewontin’s observation by reassuring that human flaws aren’t simple to understand or fix.  He says, “…it isn’t a gene or two.  It’s many- the result of a tangled combination of factors that only begins with genes (Butler, 39).” 

The Oankali are interested in a trade, a symbiotic swap that will be co-beneficial for humans as well as their own native species.  “We trade the essence of ourselves.  Our genetic material for yours (Butler, 40).”  The Oankali have saved the human survivors from starvation, disease and a brutal prolonged death, and in return they seek human cancer.  They say cancerous cells, “suggests abilities [they] have never been able to trade for successfully before (Butler, 41).”  Lilith has much trouble trusting and understanding the goals of the Oankali people because living in a hierarchal society where everyone is out for personal gain and completely unconcerned with the consequences, she is unable to relate to mutuality.  She is flabbergasted by the phenomenon where one species can receive positive consequences while the other species does as well.  The Oankali simply want to advance their species’ knowledge for the success of future generations while fixing the disabling flaws of humans, such as preventing cancerous tendencies in genes and altering the predisposed thoughts and notions young humans are taught from birth.  Will Lilith, a human with an almost identical upbringing and identical genes to the individuals who started the war, ever be able to break her humanistic habits through conditioning, or will she be forever plagued by her genes and predisposed notions? 

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

Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.


  1. I found your thesis to be the last sentence in your first paragraph, but I don't think that thats the point you argued about. By reading what I believed to be the best sentence for your thesis, I thought you would talk more about the specific flaws that led to war being a concept that separated the Oankali and humans, not just mention what they were. To me, the essay was going to be about how intelligence and hierarchy affected each other, and why their interactions in human society led to the war (which leads to the Oankali's intervention), especially when you said that the two flaws seemed to work "against each other rather than with each other". I think there's a lot of potential in this essay, but I don't quite see the full extent of it. However, I think the flow of the essay was good because you connected ideas, even if I was surprised where the ideas were headed. Good job.

  2. Your introduction could have a clearer thesis. The general topic - of Oankali adaptation and how it relates to human problems like war - is a perfectly good one. I just want to understand what specifically you’re going to be doing with it. You have an excellent understanding of how we *might* use Lewontin to understand Butler, or vice versa, with a good example in mind, but since I’m not totally sure of what you’re trying to do, exactly, it’s hard to say whether your understanding of how the two authors relate really buys you anything here.

    “The Oankali are interested in a trade, a symbiotic swap that will be co-beneficial” -- that’s a clever line. It’s a clever line and a good idea, but again, a good idea isn’t yet an argument. That’s your problem here. You understand how you can relate Lewontin to Butler; you understand how pivotal this idea of co-beneficiality & symbiosis is. But ending with a question is revealing -you have some good ideas, but you don’t really have an approach of your own yet.


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