If I am walking along Main Street and I notice a puppy, immediately, and frankly without much thought, I recognize the puppy as a being separate from the human species. I see it’s shaggy fur, wagging tail, long ears and pink tongue and am able to assess that, yes, this is a puppy. For human beings, our vision is a key sensory technique that aids in our survival and continuation as a species. This skill allows us to differentiate ourselves from environmental world deciphering between the human and- generally termed- nonhuman. Once classification has been established our bodies then move on to calculate how to react to this nonhuman factor, “should I pet the puppy?”. But if we dig a bit deeper our train of thought might yield some interesting questions, like, “when it comes down to it how different am I from the puppy?”. Taken in more holistic terms, “what separates us from the nonhuman?”. And lastly, in reference to Octavia Butler, “if it is to be thoroughly considered, how are humans different from the Tlich, from the enclave on Clay’s Ark, from the Ina, from the Oankali?”
Genetically speaking no human beings are the exact same, however, 99.5% of the DNA sequence in one human being is similar to the sequence of any other randomly chosen human being. Meaning that a startling 0.5% of our genetic code is what accounts for our looking differently. It is even more terrifying that realize that this small portion of our DNA has played such an essential role in the societal understandings of what it means to be human throughout the course of history. This number- in relation to the previously addressed questions- seems to account for our understandings and interpretations of nonhumans as ‘the others’ throughout Butler’s work. It’s safe to conclude that the humans within (and outside of) Butler’s work, Lilith’s Brood, rely heavily on perception as a means of survival and relationships to one another especially to the Oankali. Readers are made aware of their unusual and seemingly alien physiology and this plays an essential role in humans acclimating to the Oankali’s existence. Not to mention that now that a nonhuman subject has been introduced it becomes even easier to point blame for a situation that humans put themselves in, to begin with. But I digress.
Akin recognizes the severe dependency humans have on appearance and worries amidst the end of his metamorphosis that he will lose the trust he’s been aiming to solidify since his introduction to the people in Phoenix. When asked if he’s truly bothered by his body changing he responds, “Of course I mind. Oh, god. How many resisters will trust me now? How many will even believe I’m a construct?” (500). Akin understood the significance in looking human and how this related to having a voice, it didn’t matter much that he was partially human, or that he cared for their continuity as a species. To most humans in the work when Akin’s appearance changed, apparently, so did his morals. Something even more striking than this revelation is Yori’s response to Akin’s fears, “It doesn’t matter. How many of them trust each other? And they know they’re human.” (500). Here, Yori sheds light not only on the human tendency of exaggeration in terms of the visual, but also the impulse to assign conclusions of the nonhuman’s character based not on fact but is seen. The visual slowly becomes less of a survival technique and more of an excuse to justify or validate discriminatory actions.
In essence a mental trend is established where looking different equates to being different, and we all know that anything that differs from humanity must be innately heinous because we’re innately….. good. Right? As readers we must avoid following this pattern. If the Oankali’s intentions are to be put into question so must the decisions of every human. This tip might seem to be a given but to repeat the questions I was asked after venting my frustrations to a friend, “Would you be as upset at the Oankali if they looked like cute, shaggy puppies?”