What does it mean to be “human?”

After finishing Clay’s Ark, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be “human.”

The entire novel seems to grapple with the question: are those infected by the nameless disease human? After all, they are hosts to millions (or perhaps even billions) of alien microbes. When Blake samples Meda’s blood, he comes to the conclusion that the alien microbes have “left her no longer human” (Butler, 498). Their condition is repeatedly referred to as a “disease” but I am not sure that is the correct way to describe their illness. Interestingly enough, the alien microbes are also referred to as “symbionts” (Butler, 481). Although the alien organisms live in symbiosis with their human hosts, I think that they are really parasites. Even though the humans who become infected enjoy some benefits such as extreme strength, night vision, incredible hearing, and an increased sense of smell, it seems that they are hurt more than they are helped. For instance, they lose much of their self-control and are compelled to infect others. We see this in the opening pages of the novel when Eli, Ingraham, and Meda kidnap Blake and his family. We see this again in an even more terrifying way when Blake tries to rape his daughter, Keira. He uncharacteristically yells at Keira and Rane, calling them “sluts and whores and slugs and sewage” (Butler, 589). Even worse, Blake loses his memory of his outburst completely and is horrified at the thought of potentially raping his daughter without any memory of it (Butler, 589-590). As a result of this compulsion to procreate with quite literally anyone of the opposite sex and the unstoppable drive to infect others, Eli and his family claim that the alien organisms are making them lose their humanity. For example, Meda tells Blake, “Eli says we’re holding on to our humanity by our fingernails. I’m not sure we’re holding onto it at all” (Butler, 497). However, during the same conversation, when Blake expresses his fear that his daughters will be raped, Meda tells him “we have ethics. We aren’t animals” (Butler, 488).

So what is it then? Are humans like Eli and Meda who are infected with the alien organisms not human anymore? Are they alien? And what about children like Jacob and Zera, who are described as more feline than human? Are they animals?

Despite the awful things the alien microbes makes those who are infected perform, I agree with Eli – they do not lose all sense of their humanity. Instead, I think that the microbes force them to do what their personalities and consciousness would never allow them to do otherwise. For example, when Rane starts showing symptoms of the disease, she finds herself sexually attracted to the first man she sees. She describes him as “repulsive” and “ape-like” (Butler, 599). Although she is clearly utterly repulsed by his appearance, Rane realizes that the “disease organisms were pushing her toward [him] and she was yielding to them mindlessly” (Butler, 599). Eventually, she ends up having sex with him. It seems that the human hosts have to constantly battle the aliens to maintain who they are; the aliens compel them to act in ways they otherwise never would. After all, Blake loves his daughters and would never harm them intentionally. And yet, he tries to rape one of them. Rane is a fierce, strong young woman who would never give herself to a man that she thinks is repulsive. And yet, she has sex with a terrible man.

But what about the characters who are not compelled by some mysterious alien organism? What’s their excuse? The car people do some extremely horrific acts to innocent women and children. They gang rape women and abuse very young children (Butler, 601). The environment of the ranch house is sickening and deeply disturbing. I understand now why Dr. McCoy warned us several times that the final pages of the novel included extremely violent scenes. But as I was reading about the car people and the terrible things they do to innocent people, I could not help but realize something annoyingly obvious. Although most members of the car family are initially infected with the disease, none of them show any symptoms before their death. Much of the torture they are subjecting their captives to seems to have been going on way before Blake and his family are captured by them. I thought to myself: what does this say about the car people, human beings who are committing the sort of crimes Blake was always afraid of? Aren’t these the very people that Meda told Blake she and her family weren’t? And yet, the car people have a human genome, not an alien one.

So what does it mean to be human when human beings are capable of committing unthinkable atrocities? Are those who commit these crimes against humanity not human? Or do we have to accept that human beings are capable of doing things we do not want to associate with the human race?

I have many questions, and little answers. I think that what makes us human isn’t so obvious. To me, Eli and his family act more human than the car family does. Perhaps being human isn’t what is in our cells. Our humanity is instead encoded in the choices we make, the intentions we have, in the way we treat others, and how we act when we know no one is watching.

 

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