Lesson 10: The Biological Imperative

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify ways in which science fiction in the twenty-first century is exploring the biological, rather than the chemical and physical, sciences.
  • Describe thematic approaches to human evolution in Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and in Octavia Butler’s Dawn.

Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear
Dawn, by Octavia Butler


Science fiction in the nineteenth century focused on chemistry. Science fiction in the twentieth century drew its major inspirations from physics, led by Einstein’s paradigm-shifting revelations. The twenty-first century is likely to be about biology, drawing upon the unveiling of DNA and the deciphering of the genome.

Within this century, scientists are likely to develop the ability to change the outward and inward nature of life forms, including humans. This kind of godlike ability has clear dangers: mistakes or miscalculations (perhaps like Creation?) may be even greater than experiments in physics or chemistry, so resistance from the more conservative elements of society is likely, as well as from the usually progressive elements who see greater danger than promise.

Opposition to any new technology, however, tends to diminish with the passage of time. In Iian M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas (discussed in Lesson 12), the Culture views making biological transformations as proper a focus of human decision as making physical changes. One consideration, however, is whether uncorrectable errors will destroy humanity first, or opposition will result in violence that could drive civilization below the level necessary for this kind of scientific activity.

Greg Bear began his career in science fiction as a fan. His first work was as an artist, but he achieved his greatest renown as an author. He has written about many different aspects of science and speculation, and is generally considered a hard science-fiction writer (he has been called a “cyberpunk” writer but has denied it). The imprint of biology was evident early in his career when his novella “Blood Music,” a narrative of a biological computer, won the 1984 Nebula Award. It was expanded into a novel two years later. Darwin’s Radio, published in 1999, also won the Nebula Award. A sequel, Darwin’s Children, was published in 2003.

Darwin’s Radio proposes a radical leap forward in human evolution, sparked by the reactivation of dormant sections of the human DNA. Like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (considered in Lesson 1), it is a novel of societal upheaval, political unrest, and broad-scale social responses to evolutionary change.

By comparison, Dawn is a novel of limited social scope. For most of the book, the only human character is Lilith Iyapo, an African-American woman who lost her family in a car accident shortly before a worldwide war wiped out most of humanity. (The name Lilith is a reference to the apocryphal first wife of the biblical Adam. She was cast out of Eden for refusing to “lie beneath” Adam and later gave birth to numerous demonic children.)

Octavia Butler was one of the first female African-American science fiction writers, renowned as much for her literate explorations of character and her social criticism as for her extrapolations of science and technology. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant.

In Butler’s Dawn, Lilith is charged with preparing a small band of human survivors for their reintroduction to a reborn Earth. Along the way, her ooloi partner, Nikanj, implants into her several superhuman characteristics—quicker healing, greater strength, the ability to manipulate the Oankali’s biological technology—that she receives, perhaps, at the expense of her own humanity.

Indeed, the novel is in large part an exploration of how the Oankali challenge Lilith’s humanity, often through sexual violation. At first, Lilith perceives herself to be violated when the Oankali—without her permission—enter her body to remove a cancerous growth. As the story progresses, she succumbs—sometimes voluntarily—to greater and greater violations: the loss, via ooloi manipulation, of her human ability to forget; a sexual relationship with an Oankali family. When she finally has contact with a human male, Paul Titus, even that relationship devolves into the threat of rape.

Lilith often thinks of herself as a Judas goat, betraying humanity by leading it to its extinction (at least in its present stage of evolution). For Lilith, her evolution is an infringement on personal liberty rather than, as it seems to the Oankali, an opportunity for growth.

Writing Assignment
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • Darwin’s Radio deals with biology, specifically evolution and the possibility of an evolutionary advance in the human species and the reactions of other humans. Can you think of other novels that deal with biology? With human evolution?
  • Darwin’s Radio is unlike many other novels that also focus on biology and evolution in that it is about biological scientists and the way science is done. In that sense it resembles Timescape. How are they alike? How are they different?
  • This novel seems far more like a mainstream novel than others on the reading list. What are the characteristics that resemble mainstream treatment? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of this approach.
  • What are the virtues of the novel? What do you think was the origin of the idea?
  • In Octavia Butler’s Dawn, does it matter that the Oankali arrive just after humans had destroyed themselves and most other living things? What if they had arrived, like Clarke's Overlords, before nuclear destruction?
  • The Oankali refer to two human flaws; what are they? Why is being hierarchical one of them? Is there something inconsistent with the Oankali criticizing human hierarchical traits and expecting Lilith to become the "leader" of Awakened humans?
  • How would you describe Lilith's response to her captivity? To Jdahya? If you accept her behavior as justified, would your answer be the same if she were male? Similarly, would the possibility of improving human genes, even at the psychological cost of combining them with Oankali genes, be just as repugnant to a man? Is this mixture of genes a metaphor for a slave owner mating with slaves?
  • Why does Lilith demonstrate persistent curiosity about Oankali sexual organs?
  • How would you characterize what makes Dawn different? Lilith becomes annoyed and even angered easily—or else the author tells us more than is usual in science fiction about her emotional condition. Is this gender related? Is it more like the romance genre? In male-oriented science fiction, does one find less concern for feelings and more concern for changing the situation? Is an unwillingness or inability to adjust—or to imagine and accept difference—gender related? Or are Lilith's emotional responses a plot device to keep the story going?
  • Do you find credible the responses of the Awakened humans? Is the conflict that is anticipated (Lilith expects to be killed) a credible portrayal of human behavior in these circumstances, or is it a way to keep the plot suspenseful? On page 178 of the Warner Books edition, Lilith refers to "human fear, suspicion, and stubbornness." Are these the dominant characteristics of human behavior?
  • Lilith is apparently black. Why do none of the Awakened mention this? Other characteristics are raised as reasons for suspicion or dislike, but not this one. The dust jacket of the Warner Books edition shows two Caucasian women. Why?
  • Is human revulsion at the Oankali excessive? Is this, like the revulsion at genetic change and Oankali merging preparation for Lilith's later change—her "learning better"?

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