Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
14 November 2014
The Unobserved Hierarchical Structure
Hierarchies are visible constantly in daily life, whether within jobs, classes, or society. There are always factors that lead to competition, and it is this competitive edge that drives human capacities for learning and understanding evermore into the depths of the unknown and unexplored. However, the Oankali within Octavia Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood” disagree wholeheartedly with this rationale. Although incorrect and hypocritical, they argue that the very hierarchical structure that defines everything that humans know is actually the greatest reason for the downfall of their society.
According to the Oankali, the two fatal flaws of humans are intelligence and the hierarchies that are so natural and present in the environment. One alone, they say, could be useful and possibly even successful, but the two genetic characteristics combined are a terrible mixture. This all comes down to the fact that both lead to further competition between peoples. Intelligence allows a person to perceive when he or she is being cheated by belonging to a lesser hierarchy, and therefore stimulates that person and gives he or she the desire to climb the ladder of society and go as high as possible. Through intelligence, people are given the ability to ignore the flaws in the structural hierarchy. This could possibly be the most dangerous aspect of the structure because it prevents individuals from seeing the seemingly equal inequalities that are the results of a hierarchy, as will be seen in the Oankali society. On the surface level, everything seems to be the same, but through a deeper search it is found to be that differences lead to categorization and eventually causes a hierarchy. Furthermore, by always providing people with a dream of being more successful, those very same people will then compete for better jobs, therefore impacting their friendships and relationships with other people. These two characteristics only lead to more strife between people and factions. In this way, it is almost like the Oankali view humans to be the perfect species to kill themselves because the society is always trying to one-up its competitors. By constantly attempting to out-do one another, tensions can rise and lead to conflict due to the downtrodden being kept stationary for too long.
The views of the Oankali are presented through a message of warning conveyed in the shape of simple observations. This cautioning information advises to tread carefully where intelligence and hierarchies are mixed, as it can lead to the destruction of human society and humanity as a whole. However, this is simply not true. The Oankali are extremely biased due to their inability to relate to humans. They believe it to be a downfall to humanity if intelligence and hierarchies are intertwined. Contrary to what they think, intelligence and hierarchies are the foundation to every major change in human history. There are certainly downsides to both aspects of the characteristics, but without them, people would neither have the desire to progress, nor the ability to do so. Intelligence gives people the chance to climb the social ladder while the hierarchical structure makes them realize where they are and gives them the drive to get to where they need to be. In its essence, this is what the Oankali are opposed to, simply because they do not fully understand the concept of a combination of intelligence and hierarchy since they cannot recognize it within their own society.
The Oankali are hypocritical because they themselves intertwine intelligence and hierarchy. This is due to their inability to prevent the transfer of specie’s downfalls when they genetically engineer themselves by mixing their genes with those of a new race. They are analytical enough to recognize what they believe to be the “Achilles Heel” of the human race, but what they fail to comprehend is that by identifying the problems with humanity, they are actually pointing out their own defects. These defects are within their own society, and by distinguishing these flaws, they pinpoint their inability to identify the problems within their unique culture, but are quick to place the blame on humanity. This is seen through the Ooloi who seem to lead the society, and because of this, their ability to determine the species with which to trade genetic information begins a hierarchical dilemma that the Oankali are so unobservantly deft about. The hierarchy starts with the Ooloi at the top, followed together by the male and female Oankali. This is because both genders of the Oankali refuse to give certain information to the humans until such a time that they deem necessary. This ascertaining and division of power by the Oankali over the humans, as well as the fact that the Oankali listen to and follow the directions of the Ooloi, sets up the perfect structure for a hierarchical society.
The Oankali are undoubtedly intelligent, but this intelligence causes them to overlook the fact that there is a hierarchy within their society, which gives them a mentality that is seemingly jaded. Therefore, the Oankali race unknowingly incorporates hierarchical structures into their culture when they trade with humans. They think that they have escaped humanity’s downfall because they do not live in a hierarchical society, but this is simply not true. As they say, intelligence and hierarchy separately could be advantageous, but they create a destructive force when combined together. This is seen when Jdahya says, “The Ooloi are intensely interested in [cancer]. It suggests abilities we have never been able to trade for successfully before … the Ooloi see great potential in it” (Butler 40). Part of the Oankali’s problem about the unnoticed hierarchy is that although they perceive themselves to be the same and equal, there are defining the key differences between the Oankali and the Ooloi. For example, the Ooloi have an organelle that allows them to “perceive DNA and manipulate it precisely”, which sets them apart from the Oankali. Differences such as these only highlight the already ingratiated hierarchy within their culture. The Oankali race believes that each section of its current society (including humans) has a specific job, but it is this specificity that sheds light on their harsh judgments about humanity, and ultimately, their ignored hypocrisy. “The Oankali fall rigidly into these roles” (Johns 383), and it is this separation that divides the race into a hierarchy. Although they may purposefully “not seek or acquire status”, the Oankali cannot help but to be “hierarchical in their structure” (Johns 382). This is due to their ingrained drive to further promote the advancement of their race, which forces them to be inadvertently biased in their judgments, as well as rash in their analysis about the humans with which they are trading genetic information.
Although the Oankali believe that the two genetic characteristics of hierarchy and intelligence are fatal when put together, they are simply incorrect. Without these two features of humanity driving each other, progress could never have been made. Conflict may arise, but the overall benefits of a competitive environment are necessary to further that growth and development, and therefore outweigh the potential dangers. This is something the Oankali do not understand. Since they are incapable of recognizing it within their own society, let alone the society and culture of another race. Through their internal drive to genetically trade their DNA, to the definitive lines in the hierarchical structure that is clearly present in their society, the Oankali inadvertently allow their intelligence to avert their eyes from seeing the real situation. By mixing genes with other races, there is no foolproof way to avoid the flaws of that species. Simply put, more than the just the beneficial aspects of that race will be inherited as well, including some flaws that might not be positive. In this way, the limitations of a hierarchy and intelligence are not accepted, but ignored.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Johns, J. Adam. "Becoming Medusa: Octavia Butler's "Lilith's Brood" and Sociobiology." Science Fiction Studies 37.3 (2010): 382-400. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25746440>.