When reading Dawn, I was both disturbed and fascinated by a conversation Lilith had with Jdahya on page 16:
“…it has been several million years since we dared to interfere in another people’s act of self-destruction. Many of us disputed the wisdom of doing it this time. We thought… that there had been a consensus among you, that you had agreed to die.”
“No species would do that!”
“Yes. Some have. And a few of those who have have taken whole ships of our people with them. We’ve learned. Mass suicide is one of the few things we usually let alone.”
I was with Lilith at first, in complete disagreement that any species would ever come to a self-driven extinction. After all, how could any species survive that didn’t have a strong self-preservation instinct? Evolution would have weeded out any species whose first priority wasn’t to keep itself alive.
So I was left with a few questions: Is it possible in our universe (outside of Butler’s fiction) for any species to commit a mass suicide? Is it possible for humanity to do this? What would ever drive us to intentional extinction? And why does the idea of it bother me so much?
With my fairly limited knowledge of biology, I can’t imagine this being possible. Of course, this is only based on what I know of biology in our world, and maybe that’s a trap I’m meant to fall into – there’s no way of knowing about alien species’ evolution, and assuming that the knowledge that holds true on our earth also holds true in other galaxies is a very human over-generalization. Still, the only way that I can imagine this would happen is if a species was acting because of outside forces (e.g. if there was a plague that had interstellar capabilities, and the species was keeping it contained through killings itself).
This made me think of an episode in the fourth season of the show Doctor Who (the 2005 reboot). An alien species called the Daleks have an extreme self preservation instinct (and inherent racism), in a way that their sole purpose in life is to rid the galaxy of all creatures and things that aren’t Dalek or Dalek-made. In the fourth season finale, they steal planets and moons, and arrange them in a field that has the pressure capabilities of destroying atoms, and they call it the “reality bomb.” Earth is one of the stolen planets, and the humans will either all be killed or enslaved by the Daleks. Then the audience learns of the Osterhagen Project, a project that placed nuclear warheads around the Earth to destroy it, if the alternative was worse. One of the Doctor’s friends, Martha, has the Osterhagen key, which could set off the bombs and destroy the Earth, thus saving the humans from the Daleks by destroying them, and also eradicating the reality bomb by removing their planet from the equation.
Jumping to the next question I mentioned: is humanity capable of self-driven extinction? Because of the way we’re built it seems like we, as a species, wouldn’t be able to do this. Not to mention, if there ever was an intentional self extinction, the people who decided it would happen, could never be able to ascertain that this was a consensus of all the people who would become casualties of that decision. In a way, we’re already dealing with this: big companies and/or governments slowly poisoning the earth, when millions of people who are countries away can’t avoid the effects of global warming. (Side note: something unrelated yet interesting to consider is that the Doctor’s companion Martha is a black female – a person who usually would not have the power of destruction this great, as it would be left to the white male leaders.) It’s terrifying to think that greed and selfishness – and maybe our hierarchical ways – are strong enough urges that, at least in Butler’s novels, they overpower the urge for self preservation. After all, the nuclear war that precedes Lilith’s Brood is just an extension of the game of nuclear “chicken” we’re already in; all sides are waiting to see who will pull the trigger first, too absorbed in their power posturing to think of the outcomes. In Doctor Who, the characters are faced with the options of mass suicide, or destruction of all reality. Before they get the chance to choose, however, the Daleks steal the Osterhagen key. Weirdly enough, when I started reading Dawn, that’s what I imagined happening in the nuclear war, the humans having killed themselves for some universe-saving reason that only a select few knew of, and their plan had failed. (This likely comes from both my faith in humanity, and my investment in science fiction shows.)
Why I automatically rejected the idea of humanity killing itself could be my own overwhelming need for us to continue on, even hypothetically in Dawn. For Lilith, all she has left in that moment is her wary faith in humanity, her need for other humans in the face of someone incredibly not human. Maybe this is also why my first theory was that humanity had acted out of martyrdom, and not stupidity in the war before Dawn; because the only familiar thing Lilith – and the reader – has left to believe in, is humanity.
I’m definitely struggling with the idea of a mass suicide of a species (as Butler probably intended!) and would love to hear others’ thoughts on that possibility, whether humanity’s greed is more powerful than its self preservation instinct, and/or Doctor Who!
(P.S. For those of you wondering, the Doctor and his companions end up saving the universe, as per usual, and the Osterhagen is completely destroyed.)