Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
6 December 2014
On Hierarchical Structures in Oankali Society
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 unknowingly 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 human 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.
Fernando Tesón describes how Rawl says that a group must meet certain criteria in order to be considered a hierarchical society. “First, it must be peaceful, not aggressive” (Tesón 19). The Oankali are not violent. They only use force in times of defense, but they try to help the human race as a whole, although for ‘selfish’ reasons, such reasons, such as continuing their own evolution at the price of the other race. This is seen further in Rawl’s second condition. A hierarchical society is informed by a conception of the common good” (Tesón 19). The Oankali are extremely non-violent. They help the species they encounter and enter into a mutual symbiotic relationship between the two races.
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. This is seen when Jdahya says, “We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were” (Butler 41). His specie’s utter and blatant denial of that the Oankali have the basic structure of a hierarchy originates from the fact that they’re extremely intelligent, as seen in the fact that they can manipulate genes. While explaining the Oankali logic behind what factors led to the destruction of the human race, Jdahya unearths the true reason as to why his species cannot comprehend that they have the basic structure of a hierarchy. By trying to prove to Lilith the reasons, he inadvertently admits to the fact that they are hypocritical, no matter how unknowing they are. This is depicted when he says to Lilith, “Intelligence does enable you to deny facts you dislike. But your denial doesn’t matter. A cancer in someone’s body will go on growing in spite of denial” (Butler 39). In this way, the Oankali are doing exactly what they say not to. They deny the fact that they have the basic structure of a hierarchy, and this stems from their intelligence that allows them to overlook the obvious. The Oankali believe it to be a downfall to humanity if intelligence and hierarchies are intertwined, but they have their own similar combination of the two.
Contrary to what the Oankali 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. They believe that because a hierarchical system was in place in the early evolutionary stages of the human race, along with that of human ancestors that it is a basic form of primitiveness that has lingered around, even within an advanced form of humanity. This is seen when Jdahya also says:
“[Humans] are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it 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 … that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing” (Butler 39).
The Oankali people persuade themselves that they are not like the human race, but by showing pointing out what caused the destruction of the human race, they point out their own hypocrisy and flaws 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, due to their ability to determine the species with which to trade genetic information, and because of this, their skills begin to provide a basis of 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 “listen to the Ooloi” in order to “find out what [the] next generations will be like” (Butler 41), as well as refuse to give certain information to the humans until such a time that they deem necessary. This ascertainment 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.
This perfect structure comes from the differences that separate the Ooloi from the Oankali, and ultimately, the alien race from the humans, since they are now apart of the Oankali society. This is seen when Peter Sands quotes Rebecca Holden by saying “Oankali are attracted to difference and need to include it within themselves” (Sands 2). On page 329 of “Lilith’s Brood”, this quote can be further explained. On this page, Lilith’s son Akin recounts how she told him that “Human beings fear difference … Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need it to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization” (Butler 329). These differences take form in the constant drive to differentiate themselves with new species, as well as the subtle yet important differences between the Ooloi and the Oankali. There is no disputing that the Oankali do not believe themselves to be hierarchical, but their collective differences that they search for only provide stronger basis for a hierarchy within their society. Sands later talks about Jenny Wolmark, who says that Butler’s “reworking of the opposition between human and alien … recalls the narratives of slavery, and the power relations inherent in those narratives remain … disturbing” (Sands 3). This again only shows how the alien race has a hierarchy, and since the inclusion of the humans within their society, it has become a three-tiered hierarchy. Further evidence of these differences are presented through the fact that there is a lack of similar language and mutual understanding between the two species. This puts the humans at a disadvantage because it shows how they are at the bottom of the hierarchical chain, since they know nothing about the society of the Oankali. Therefore, they are put at the lowest standings of the civilization. This hierarchy is also depicted simply through the fact that the Oankali could be considered to be the human’s teachers, and in society, students are thought to be lesser than teachers.
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). This shows their intelligence and ability to manipulate genes. 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). However, what they do seek to acquire is new life. To “seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it” (Butler 41). 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. By seeking “new life from which it can absorb new genetic material”, the Oankali race can “continually change its own nature” (Sands 5). This being said, the Oankali will also inherit the human’s inherent nature of hierarchies, therefore strengthening the hierarchical systems already in place, however rudimentary and basic they appear to be.
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. These include some flaws that might not be positive. In this way the limitations and possibilities of a hierarchical structure in society, combined with 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>.
Tesón, Fernando. “Some Observations on John Rawl's 'The Law of Peoples’”, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law). Vol. 88 (1994): 18-22. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25658788>.
Sands, Peter. "Octavia Butler's Chiastic Cannibalistics." Utopian Studies 14.1 (2003): 1-14. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20718543>.