Friday, April 28, 2023

"A Genetic Conflict?"

 I've recently completed reading Octavia Butler's trilogy "Lilith's Brood."  The story line is set post nuclear winter when the earth has become unliveable for humans.  Any survivors of the war are sterile and afflicted with all kinds of deadly ailments post radiation.  An alien force known as the Oankali seek to heal both the earth and humankind through interbreeding and management of DNA.  The series narrates the fear and resistance that human beings experience when the nonhierarchical, nonviolent opportunities for change and healing are offered.

Butler postulates an intriguing idea throughout the three novels - - that humankind is in the grip of a major genetic conflict: they are species of high intelligence and they are hierarchical. 

The Oankali offer the possiblity of a new human colony on Mars where humans, healed of their infertility, can live in freedom - although they will never be fully able to replicate "earth" as they knew it.  There is uncertainty about how long the human species might survive in a new world before they once again find a way to destroy themselves. 

From the second book in the trilogy, Adulthood Rites, an Oankali speaks with a human: Your people are intelligent, and that’s good.  The Oankali say you are potentially one of the most intelligent species they have found.  But you are also hierarchical - you and you nearest animal relatives and your most distant animal ancestors.  Intelligence is relatively new to life on Earth, but your hierarchical tendencies are ancient.  The new was too often put in the service of the old.  It will be again.  You’re bright enough to learn to live on your new world, but you’re so hierarchical you’ll destroy yourselves trying to dominate it and each other.  You might last a long time, but in the end, you’ll destroy yourselves.”

The words keep reverberating as I read the headlines. The struggle for dominance of one human way of being over another way of being seems inescapable.  The level of intelligence committed to this need to dominate is impressive.  When I read about the Ivy League creds behind a DeSantis or a Kavanaugh and witness the many very intelligent, university trained minds that populate the House of Representatives and the Senate and the Supreme Court, not to mention the many governors' offices and state legislatures around the country, I wonder if Butler's dystopic conclusion is right.  

The need to dominate is incredibly ancient in our genetic make-up - - the survival of the fittest and all that.  When paired with the  more recent development of intelligence in our evolutionary process, it has become increasing destructive and deadly.  Witness the armaments that are now stored in even the most benign looking households, owned by families with young children, or by individuals whose mental and emotional balance are more governed by fear and the need to dominate than by confidence and lovingkindness, or by militias whose minds can only see threat and danger that needs to be dominated and destroyed.  Witness the conflict over control over the judiciary in Israel.  Witness the terrible terror in Sudan.

The idea of a "genetic conflict" or contradiction poses a real dilemma for the spiritual path.  Something to ponder in the daily endeavor to enter life in a way that causes no harm and, indeed, helps to alleviate suffering, without exercising dominion over the will of another.   It represents a "knotty" problem - one that doesn't lend itself easily to unraveling.

In a recent dharma talk, a Buddhist teacher offered some thoughts about how to approach the "knotty problems."   He suggested that a first step is to develop some sense of ease or a "pulling back" from the problem to gain a broader perspective - - to become a little more comfortable with not knowing how to address the issue.  A second step would be to let go of the need to judge and to fix blame and, instead, to cultivate curiosity and interest in the problem - - to witness it - - perhaps even to recognize who we are being in the midst of the problem.  And a third step, to allow ourselves to recognize any way in which we are able to "move the lever" - - to see where, even in the smallest way, we might initiate action that moves toward the unraveling of the knot - to take action that arises out of not knowing and witnessing. 

I came away from the dharma talk feeling more empowered for life where I live it, realizing that I, too, embody the Butlerian "genetic conflict" or contradiction, but through mindfulness I can at least moderate it and make choices arising out of a different way of being.

 Jewish mystical tradition affirms that a Divine Spark resides in all aspects of creation.  It also challenges humankind to be about the work of "raising the sparks" - - uncovering and revealing the holiness of all life in all its diversity in the service of the Wholeness of Life.  This work demands that we relinquish the need to dominate and control and "rule over." The work demands that we  cultivate a healthy curiosity and freedom to follow a life of liberation and creativity - to reverse the order - and permit intelligence in the service of life instead of hierarchy and dominance.

In her dystopic fiction, Octavia Butler's work seems often to posit this possiblity for humankind on another planet - in some new world.  But eventually I  come to the conclusion that we humans have to wake up and make THIS world the place of wholeness and well being if we are going to survive our own self destructive tendency.   We have the intelligence, but the need for hierarchies of control and dominance has to go.

Vicky Hanjian

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