Friday, November 14, 2014

Revision 2: something something Transhumanism

Samuel Li
Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
9 November 2014
To be Human
For some, being “human” is a sore spot, yet for the majority of the human race, it’s a source of pride. We judge others and the value of their lives based on how human they are: to be “inhuman” is to be “lesser”. It’s a term we use to describe the evil, the inferior, the hideous. As an extension, we also judge based on how close it is to nature, where we tend prefer the “natural” over the “unnatural”. Generally, humans tend to prefer a lack of change, where things stay in their original state. It is justified, in a way, because change forces us to adapt. It forces us to deal with the unknown, rather than the familiar. It forces us out of our comfort zones, and can be observed everywhere, from not wanting to try something new at a restaurant, to a refusal to accept a type of new media, to changing the foundations of our society and beliefs. It presents humanity and the natural and the status quo as sacred. The Oankali challenge this.
In Lilith’s Brood, Lilith acts as the audience surrogate. We see what she sees, and everything new to us, is new to her. Thus, our concerns and doubts are hers as well. It’s no surprise, then, when she voices her fear and indignation when the Oankali casually talk about their plans with humanity, or more specifically, their plans to engineer and alter us. She, obviously, opposes this, on the grounds of fear of what they will become: “Medusa children. Snakes for hair. Nests of night crawlers for eyes and ears.” (Butler 43) Something unfamiliar, inhuman. Notably, her reason for this fear is not for humanity’s survival, seeing as how the Oankali’s solution would ensure it, but humanity’s identity as human. The Oankali provide another perspective on this matter, highlighting its flaws.
They’re steadfast on their goal for humanity: to change it “for the better”, and in this case, it means so that they can survive, live to their full potential. This is accomplished through an equivalent of genetic engineering, where humanity would eventually become “not quite like you. A little like (the Oankali).” (Butler 42) In a sense, there’s a trade-off: if they want to live longer, improve themselves and their bodies, they have to change their very natures, become something unnatural. In this day and age, where this prospect becomes less and less of a fantasy, this conflict becomes increasingly relevant. Stem cells and genetically modified organisms, for example, have been proposed as solutions to the problems we face: poverty and starvation, cancerous diseases, and so on. The idea of “transhumanism” centers around this, about changing human nature for the better. “Human nature is flexible. What prevails today, systems and subjects, will not prevail in the future.” (Lilley 13) Yet many people reject these prospect futures, because of these things we hold sacred, because, “When God fashioned man and woman, he called his creation very good. Transhumanists say that, by manipulating our bodies with microscopic tools, we can do better.” (Lilley 13) Because this ideal deviates from the familiar and tradition, we meet it with fear and suspicion.
This theme of the conflict between advancement versus tradition escalates, once other humans who aren’t as accepting of the Oankali come into play. Lilith, who has seen the accelerated healing, the augmented strength, the perfect memory, the advantages of the Oankali’s manipulation, grudgingly accepts the Oankali’s interference. She’s alone in this. Everyone else, who has yet to see or experience the “benefits” of the Oankali manipulation rejects it. They distrust the Oankali, and Lilith by proxy, “ and your animals.” (Butler 227) Notably, Curt, the speaker in that scene, insults them with the word “animals”, something distinct from “human”.  They fear for their humanity, and fear the that which isn’t human. Even Lilith, the only real ally of the inhuman Oankali, fears that their children “...won’t be human. That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters.” (Butler 248)
As illustrated, humans tend to value the very concept of humanity sacred, and thus view the “desanctifying” of human life as deeply offensive, almost sacrilege. Issues such as abortion and stem cells, in which human life or something that resembles it is not protected at all costs, are touchy, nearly explosive. Genetic engineering and GMO food is viewed as toying with the natural order, spitting in the face of our traditions and values. It doesn’t help, that “Corporations and the military, mainly interested in profit and weapons, sponsor much research and development. Technological disasters occur and fixes backfire. Why place humanity in greater jeopardy?” (Lilley 2) The viewpoint of the Oankali raises a point, questions what we should value. It makes the point clear, that putting these ideals first and foremost put our necks on the line. But then, would it be better to die as ourselves, or live as something else, something that’s not “us”?
While the example in the book is somewhat quite extreme, in the end, we will have to change who we are if we are to survive and thrive. As the environment changes, we must adapt. That’s been a rule of nature since the dawn of life. And the environment does change, constantly. “We face interminable war, food and water shortages, global warming, economic instability, senseless violence, and many of us have little faith that current social institutions can handle these problems.” (Lilley 2) As the population increases exponentially, resources will dwindle, and we’ll have to play catch-up.  Of course, while cross-breeding with aliens is probably an outlandish solution for us, there are the same fears regarding how far we’ll go to survive, that “there will be as little in common between posthumans with evolved intelligence and standard humans as there is between bacteria and Homo sapiens.” (Lilley 15) Yet, the concern of humanity having to change in order to survive is a pointless one. We’ve done it before, and we will continue to do so as long as we exist. Hunters and gatherers needed more food, and so humanity created agriculture. Communities needed to be protected, and so humanity created city-states. We changed, inventing new concepts and technologies over time, to better our lives and ensure our survival. The advancements happening now are nothing new, nor are they much to be alarmed. Things have always been this way, and humanity has always moved away from the truly natural to progress
Of course, this raises another issue: Why should we go along with this change, if it only happens because that’s the way things are? Wouldn’t that be contradictory? Well, there’s a difference here. The point of this is that, even if people cry foul, and fear the idea of humanity becoming something different, that’s already been happening. Change is nothing new. Of course, that doesn’t make it something good or bad, but something that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The reason for changing ourselves doesn’t come from whether or not change is good or bad, but a necessity, because it’s do or die.
In the end, we have a choice. The environmental conditions are unfavorable right now, and the population growth doesn’t help. We’re plagued by poverty, pollution, and overcrowding, and things can only get worse should nothing be done. So, a choice. If we want to keep our population growth as is, then we’ll have to adapt. It’ll change who we are, but that’s inevitable, if that’s how we do it. Or, we can do nothing, and let nature run its course. These things that plague us won’t go away. Maybe it’ll take its toll, and the population will decrease, lightening the burden of overpopulation. It’s an uncertain fate, and an unnecessary one at that. To refuse change for the sake of some transient pride isn’t admirable or courageous. It’s simply pointless.

Works Cited
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood (Dawn). New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000. Print.
Lilley, S. (2013). Transhumanism and society: The social debate over human enhancement. Dordrecht; New York: Springer.

1 comment:

  1. You are good on the subject of the challenge presented by the Oankali. But what does this challenge mean to you? Why does it matter? Your introduction of transhumanism implies a direction and an interest, but I’d like for it to be clarified. What is Butler’s relationship to transhumanism, and what is your relationship to both? You might navigate those questions implicitly, but more likely than not making it all explicit would be better. For instance, you might have foregrounded this very question, and made clear what your own relationship with the question is: “But then, would it be better to die as ourselves, or live as something else, something that’s not “us”?” It’s a good question, deeply connected with the reasons that make Butler relevant and interesting - but it’s important that it not remain as just a question.

    What are you up to here: “Things have always been this way, and humanity has always moved away from the truly natural to progress”? My tendency here is to see you as arguing that we’ve been steadily (and often deliberately) becoming unnatural since we first banged two rocks together? If so, why not focus more directly upon that very interesting argument and why it matters? What I’m trying to do is identify the most interesting *potential* here.

    You end, tentatively, on what I’ll call an embrace of anti-nature. That’s fine - it’s a good, clear direction - but you might have done a lot more. For instance, are you marking yourself, maybe with a little ambivalence, as a transhumanist? To put it another way, are you vehemently pro-Oankali, within the context of the book?

    I think you ask good questions and have a good handle on the book, but I would have liked to see you develop and articulate your own views a little more clearly.


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