Friday, November 14, 2014

How The Oankali Define the Morality of Humanity

Joe Weidman
Revision #2

Aliens are mysterious, humanity is accessible, aliens are macabre, humanity is familiar, aliens are complex in origin, humanity exists upon earth. All of these connotations are blurred in Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn; the aliens can interact and manipulate humans and familiar life, they are bipedal and share some very basic ideas and advancements, they still have diverse opinions, and their ship is now humanity’s home. But overall, there is a biochemical difference between the two organisms that leads to a major difference in the identities of the races and individuals.Though the Oankali are able to live longer and have an elastic intrinsic biochemical identity, and humans lack this inherent ability, the Oankali lack the very basis of natural selection and morality that makes a species unique and alive. The chemical independence the Oankali have leads to moral degeneracy.
Intrinsic biological traits greatly affect identity and thus the moral and immoral character of  both humans and Oankali. The Oankali have tentacle telekinesis, chemical and genetic alteration, and antidote manufacturing abilities inside them, and therefore they have mastered them and been changed by them. The humans on the other hand, have tried these methods, but from the outside of their bodies, which is a great hinderance, and is not as influential as other inherent human traits. The Oankali never had to clumsily feel around with inadequate mechanical sensors, human error, or any of the whirring boxes hominid science is 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. The built in features of each biological race determines their identity and behavior within that identity.
There are specific ways the built in biological features of each race determine identity. All an Oankali must do to change biological identity is use, as Jdahya says, “that organelle–the essence of ourselves, the origin of ourselves” (Butler 41). This organelle, the Oankali, is within all the cells of an Oankali and, “the ooloi can perceive DNA and manipulate it precisely,” using it (Butler 41). This organelle fits into human definition of an organelle, which is, “a specialized cellular part that is analogous to an organ” (Organelle 1). This organelle presents a direct connection in the Oankali between behavior and biology, as well as a look into the biological difference between humans and the Oankali. The identity of Oankali parts, its cells, is within the Oankali organelle as Jdahya says, and the organelle itself can be defined as alive by the Oankali and human standards. Human cells are different, especially in lacking the Oankali organelle. Man’s exergonic and endergonic processes to create energy occur in, “the mitochondrion,” the powerhouse of all animal cells which, according to evolutionary biology,  “were themselves once free-living (prokaryotic) cells” (Sagan 1). The idea that humanity has what was once a protist inside of all its cells, doing a cellular job, means humanity could also have a sort of Oankali organelle model within them. This may seem to make the aliens minutely similar to humans in that way, but a mitochondrion is used to make energy, the Oankali to manipulate DNA. Mitochondria are used in humans for energy production to survive and dominate over the earth and others, the Oankali is used to change genetic traits to be like others and survive conformationally with the others of its race. One organelle creates an identity designed for changes in energy leading to competitive survival, the other organelle creates an identity designed for changing identity leading to collective survival. And the Oankali collective survival and improvement is paramount to anything else, blinding them in their actions. This is another way the different biological structures provide the foundation for difference in identity in the two races.
Many of the built in differences that are beneficial exist in the Oankali. But the ability to shut off light senses, to close the eyes, is unique to humans, and the existence of this biological ability in humans gives them a different sense of self. The Oankali cannot shut their eyes because they do not have any, they can only sense with tentacles. Jdahya says, “I can see whether I seem to notice or not. I can’t  not see,” which determines much of the Oankali behavior (Butler 18). Telling the truth is no longer an option to be considered but a default all Oankali must communally accept because lying is now immediately discoverable. They cannot close their eyes and be alone in thought without visual stimulation or perception of the world. The Oankali cannot stop collecting and seeing, giving them no space for introversion, for collection of analysed stimuli into self. This biological difference is small, it only takes a second to start to “not see” for humans, but the concept of shutting off the ocular information stream, even when asleep, is foreign to the Oankali.
It could be argued that humanity could change its biological makeup using drugs, and therefore is immorally changing itself. This may be true for small changes in physiology like getting rid of a cold, healing small wounds slowly, or medicating against certain allergens. A few diseases have been cured and there are hundreds of thousands of medical and biological studies and papers done that found holistically life-altering information or drugs. Hospitals and medicine have come a long way. But for the most part, humanity is plagued by many diseases that cannot be cured, many wounds that cannot be healed, and many fatal allergens. Antibiotic production has slowed in recent decades and viruses are becoming more and more mutated beyond what previous drugs could kill. The small amount of control humanity has over its body’s chemical make up is just that, small. The drugs or cures that humanity has created offer minescule control over very specific circumstances compared to the omnipotent Oankali medicine. We are, as Nikanj says, “horror and beauty in rare combination” because each being is susceptible to certain environments and diseases, and human drugs cannot help this, yet humans still possess immaterial intricacies (Butler 153). The fact that humans cannot change what they are biologically is one way humans are defined as humans, it is one way humanity is still respectable.
The Oankali are not respectable because there is no identity in the Oankali, and if there is no identity, there is no race. In this way there is no race of aliens, they do not exist within 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. Man’s flaws make him more noble than the always perfecting and freakishly changing Oankali. This lack of fixedness which conserves identity eliminates the struggle of life, is what it means to be human, to cast out a shot at eternity in the constancy of time. 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 can function.
There is no conservative, virtuous, selected against Oankali because the Oankali have forsaken identity. 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. Humanity is genetically and chemically unchangeable in composition. Conservation does not exist in Oankali, there is no original Oankali phenotype. Therefore, none of them can be naturally selected as having the superior traits to live on when in struggle. There is effectively, no struggle, period. 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. It is unnatural selection, selection that leads to a lack of Oankali identity altogether.
Humanity could be considered immoral because of all its heinous actions. Humanity could be considered insanely immoral for building nuclear weapons and even threatening mutually assured destruction, let alone acting upon those threats. But humans are immoral only in their actions at certain times as individuals, not as an entire race collectively and simultaneously, as the Oankali are. Although the fixed chemical form of human organisms has just almost killed itself off in the novel, almost total extinction or extinction itself is more honorable than centuries of manipulation, interbreeding, induced mutation, and bodily add-ons the Oankali have wallowed in. To be selected against in natural selection, even if natural selection has brought about nuclear demise, is better than childishly tossing away the deep-rooted theory altogether. The whole Oankali race is acting as practically and thus as immorally as possible, trading, changing, and rearranging their culture without glancing at the huge ideological consequences.
The differences between the races that is both related to identity and biology makes humanity moral and the Oankali immoral. There is no discretion in the Oankali, there is no original existence, there is no diversity, therefore there is no, “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing : oneness,” or identity (Identity 1). To simply subsist, create unreal pleasures, and survive at a whim is not moral and requires constant change and creation of new identity. Humanity is virtuous in this fixed identity, because a certain constraint of fixed form is a moral to uphold. The Oankali are unemotional, practical change while humanity is fixed and burning with feeling. The Oankali are objective analysis while humanity uses analysis to create an idea of self or identity. The Oankali decide and use traits that will ensure survival while the trait any human can possess creating the highest survival rate is independent and persistent thought. The Oankali are alive, humans live, the Oankali identify, humans have identity, the Oankali are sentinel, humanity is sentient.

Works Cited:
Butler, O. (1997). Family. In Dawn (2nd ed., Vol. 1, p. 85). New York: Aspect/Warner Books.
Identity. (2014, January 1). Retrieved November 11, 2014, from
Organelle. (2014, January 1). Retrieved November 13, 2014, from

Sagan, L. (1967). On the origin of mitosing cells. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 14(3), 225-274. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from


  1. Your intro is vastly improved - it brings focus to a delicious stew of ideas.

    Your second paragraph might have been better split into a couple paragraphs, and could have used some minor edits. Nonetheless, it is intellectually complex and well-written: you nail the complexity of Butler’s ideas, while adding your own sophisticated interpretation.

    Does the Oankali mode of seeing impact their identity, and the more particular issue of individual vs. collective survival? I feel like there was plenty of room to develop this idea farther.

    If you’re going to argue for the moral value of disease and suffering, I think you should be a little more direct about it.

    You’ve said some smart things about how the Oankali identity differs from ours. But it’s a bit of a leap to go from a different identity to the claim that they have no identity - this is an incomplete argument, or maybe a poorly ordered one. If you want to argue that the relative stability of the human genotype, and even greater stability in the human phenotype, lead to a clear identity and moral strength, you need to actually argue that and not just imply that.

    The argument that the Oankali are *collectively* immoral is a great idea, but would have been best off developed in more detail through a detailed reading of the text. It’s a big, important claim and needed some attention if it’s critical to your argument (and if this is the important part, probably some other material could have been trimmed - less science, more Butler, as some of your peers suggested).

    Overall: This is fun and very smart, and has already greatly improved from the earlier draft. It could still use more focus. It might be that even tackling Oankali identity and Oankali morality all in the same essay is too much. I like everything here, and it’s *more* focused than the first draft, but it’s not as focused as its ideal self would be.

  2. This is the comment about what my editors said:

    My editors didn't like the car analogy and thought the science of the essay was too bulky. I tried to trim that down. The editors liked the ending sentence, but were confused on what my thesis was. I tried to make my main argument a little less subtle while still keeping the nuanced readings. I restructured the middle paragraphs and added an entirely new first paragraph and cut the old one. Overall I tried to narrow the essay on morality while getting rid of nature in the essay.


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