Hierarchy and intelligence alone cannot explain the problems of man

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Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy is excellent–and if you haven’t read it, you should go do so now. It is helpfully collected into one volume, Lilith’s Brood. Better yet, be sure to finish it before the planned TV show comes out…

Without giving too much away, the basic plot is that humanity has finally fought World War III and has used nuclear weapons to destroy civilization/most human life on Earth. The handful of survivors (mostly in the Southern Hemisphere) are starving in a nuclear winter when the alien Oankali race arrives. The Oankali rescue the survivors and begin the ‘trade,’ where they take genetic material from human beings and mix it with their next generation. In exchange, they give their own genetic material to humans for their next generation–effectively bringing and end to the human race. (Though to be fair, had the Oankali not arrived, the human race would have ended anyway.) The question of whether humanity will survive/adapt to the work of the Oankali is the main tension of the book.

Hopefully that’s enough to whet your appetite but not enough to spoil any endings–I can tell you that Octavia Butler is an excellent writer. And although I disagree with many of the things she believes in (see especially Fledgling), her books are still a delight to read and should be enjoyed.

I plan to do a couple of posts on this particular series (time and opportunity permitting), starting here with a few thoughts on her claim that the basic problem with mankind is that we are at the same time hierarchical and intelligent. Specifically, the Oankali argue that this ‘human contradiction’ is the source of our self-destructive tendencies. We divide ourselves into hierarchical categories, and we are simultaneously intelligent. Either of these alone would be benign enough–maybe even useful, as we see in the animal kingdom. And yet, together they mean that we will inevitably destroy ourselves. Our tendency to stratification combined with our ability to reason (particularly to create instruments of destruction) mean that it is just a matter of time before we wipe each other out.

Now, to be fair, I think I understand where Butler is coming from. Certainly terrible things have been done in the name of some people keeping others in their place–a brief survey of human history should confirm that easily enough. And no doubt human intelligence has greatly contributed to these terrible things.

And yet, at the end of the day I’m not sold on her analysis of the ‘human contradiction.’ If in fact one or the other of these characteristics are not themselves inherently bad, it is hard to see how two positive characteristics can make one negative one. (That said–I suspect that Butler does think one of these characteristics is bad. Specifically, she doesn’t think much of hierarchy. More on that in the next post, if I ever get around to it.) For that matter, for either of these characteristics to be used badly at all (assuming, with the Oankali but not with Butler, that neither characteristic is inherently flawed), there must be a problem with man underlying them both.

That, of course, is where the Christian doctrine of original sin comes in. We brutalize each other not because we are hierarchical (though that gives us an excuse to do so), and not because we are intelligent (though that makes us more efficient at doing so). Rather, we brutalize each other because we are at our very core wicked.

Interestingly, there is a parallel between the solution used by Butler’s Oankali and the solution found in the Bible: we need a new nature. For the Oankali, this new nature comes through genetic manipulation and the creation of a new people. For the Christian, this new nature comes through regeneration, repentance, and forgiveness; all accomplished by Christ on the cross. This too results in a new people. And like the Oankali’s constructed race, in this life we still have problems and difficulties, but they are problems and difficulties that are headed towards a promised glorious resolution rather than towards the inevitable self-destruction built into our sinful human natures.

So go and read Octavia Butler and benefit from her engaging prose, her intriguing plot, and her thoughtful engaging of difficult questions. But don’t look to outer space for the solution to our problems–look instead to the place where God became man and died for us.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. He is definitely NOT an alien construct…

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