Seminar in Composition
November 14th, 2014
Self-Importance Obstructs Survival
People like to look at humanity as a complex system of motives, thought processes, and relationships. There are countless sciences dedicated solely to studying the human body and mind. Why is that? Everyone is sure of the fact and that we have a duty to uncover every one of the human body’s magnificent secrets, but everyone is also sure that it is so complex that we will never be able to do so. What is it, then, that makes us think we are so smart that we could only be made up of incomprehensible parts, but that we are not smart enough to understand just how smart we are? This paradox comes close to being solved in Octavia Butler’s Dawn. The alien species, the Oankali, suggest that the reason humans act the way they do is because of a mixture of their intelligence and hierarchical structure. While a hierarchical structure is a significant aspect of the human lifestyle, there is a missing component here that plays a major role in the way humans think and the way they function within that hierarchy. Ego is that driving force that enables humans to recognize their own intelligence and renders them useless in putting their intelligence to efficient use.
Almost all humans have an inflated sense of ego, which means that they think their importance is larger than it is. When we look at ourselves in a world full of more than seven billion people, most of us still aspire to be remembered by people for something. With a world so large, there is hardly any way to become important if you do not move up the hierarchy. The problem is that everyone wants to move up the hierarchy and everyone thinks that they are intelligent enough to deserve to move up that hierarchy. While the mind may be capable of doing fantastic things, humans are so hell-bent on moving up or changing their position in the hierarchy that they misplace their intelligence. This idea is iterated by R.C. Lewontin in “Biology as Ideology.” Instead of focusing on their specific place in society, people strive to be somewhere that satisfies their ego. While people are focused on becoming important through hierarchical mobility, they could be becoming important by using their intelligence. The ego gets in the way of progress and in order for the human race to succeed for a long period of time, it is important that ego gets put to the side, at least by some individuals.
An example of human ego hindering progress is in scientific research. In Butler’s Dawn, 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, stemming from their lack of ego. 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. Instead of trying to find answers to important scientific questions, scientists are staying within borders to please those above them in the hierarchy. If they please their bosses, they will move up the hierarchy and temporarily feed their ego. The absence of a hierarchy in the Oankali culture keeps them from the kind of bias that would hinder advances in science, 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. If human’s followed the example of the Oankali, we would have more opportunities for researching cancer and its abilities other than killing people. 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 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 ego of humans keeps us from seeing past our own predispositions and seeing other possibilities the world holds.
Another risk that stems from humans’ inability to look past out own self-importance is in the assumption that we are able to overcome every obstacle that is placed in our way through force rather than cooperation. Such is the case with the humans who have been Awakened by Lilith in Dawn. The people constantly put Lilith down for being “not human enough” (Butler, 180), but even she herself demonstrates an overwhelming bias toward the human race, saying, “’We stay human. We treat each other like people, and we get through this like people’” (Butler, 178). Despite the power Lilith has seen within the Oankali, she refuses to believe that there is some state of being out there that is better than being human. This mistake is shown when the humans think that they are able to overcome the Oankali and begin to fight against them in the forest. During the fight, two humans charged an ooloi and “A second ooloi stung them both from behind. As they fell, the injured olio got up” (Butler, 230). This shows the strength of the Oankali compared to the strength of the humans. The humans were foolish enough to believe that their intelligence and brute strength were enough to overcome anything. Their ego misled them to believe their abilities exceeded that of the Oankali, which caused the death of two of the humans. If human beings are to continue overestimating their abilities and underestimating the abilities of others, then we will continue engaging in conflicts that we will not win. The human race depends on the ability to overcome our egos long enough to be realistic about how we fit into the Universe. Survival depends on how well we know our own limits.
How is it possible to look beyond something as deeply embedded in our minds as our own sense of self-importance, though? In their article “Intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility: an evolutionary-epistemological account,” P. Aiden Gregg and Nikhila Mahadevan suggest a remedy for the issue. They suggest that “intellectual arrogance” can be replaced by “intellectual humility” through thought process changes which can be developed on one’s own or taught to them by their parents or guardians. Gregg and Mahadevan suggest that intellectual humility can only occur in the absence of a large ego. To get rid of that enlarged ego, one must learn how to separate themselves from ideas. The individual separates themselves from their ego when, in their mind, “beliefs are critically evaluated entirely independently of whether or not they are one’s own or someone else’s” (Gregg and Mahadevan). One cannot assume that their ideas are correct simply because they are their own ideas. This assertion means that although it is easy to develop a large ego in our society, it is possible to change that habit. If someone is exposed to this more open kind of thinking from an early age, they will be less disposed to overestimating their own abilities and, therefore, will be less concerned with moving up the hierarchy. Focus, then, can be placed on things other than one’s own mobility in society.
There is no question that humans are making advances in the world, but the question is whether they are the right advances that will help us, as a race, survive. With the lens that our own oversized egos put over our thoughts and actions, the answer is resoundingly no. We are staying within a thin scope of possibilities that is furthered by our sense of importance and facilitated by our human hierarchy. In order to survive and thrive, we must look beyond what will serve our egos, and look toward what will serve our society. The Oankali in Dawn did this, which is why they managed to survive in the face of conflict like the one they had with the human race. By putting aside our own ideas of overinflated self-worth, we will be able to adapt and live on for much longer, just as the Oankali have done.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Gregg, P. Aiden, and Nikhila Mahadevan. "Intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility: an evolutionary-epistemological account." Journal of Psychology and Theology 42.1 (2014): 7+. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
Lewontin, R. Biology as ideology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.