Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Parable of the Sower

Towards Day 14 of Evolving Systems course

Garrett Walker, The Sower

I. coursekeeping

* before Tuesday's class, a posting is due, reflecting on our discussion of Butler's work: how is it expanding our understanding of evolutionary change and continuity?

*checking in re: problems with putting up links??

* next Wednesday: a paper is
due about cultural evolution which includes a future (could be a continuation of what you've already written; could be a meditation on Butler's novel...go where you are interested and can learn/teach something)

* prodded by HilaryG's posting to think about this course as a "culture": We took ourselves out of our comfortable, cozy classroom and temporarily tried to integrate into the other section's class dynamics. We found this to be difficult .... Then we came back to our room and .. our usual, familiar dynamic was back

might we define a culture as a pattern of shared expectations? of predictable behavior?? might it be possible (via co-constructed dialogue ???) to create a culture that is less predictable ????

II. Parable of the Sower
go round w/ initial reactions -- and connections
to earlier discussions re: cultural change

from your postings about the novel:
I strongly believe that people were born to be evil and then modified by the ... circumstances they live in—education, morality and social influences ... scarcity of all kinds of resources in the world determines that no everyone gets what they want .... people first need to satisfy their own needs by competing with others .... new born babies are ... not born to be willing to share; but gradually the circumstances teach them to do so .... We need; then we have .... civilization weakening the ­­importance of biological and physical effects ....

[from the primatologist Frans De Waal, via Aimee]: Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us?... religion is ... an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality .... In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable .... our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate .... We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions .... we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals .... I take these hints of community concern [among other primates] as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity ....

SoundsLikeBanana: I love Bingqing's question, "Were people born to be evil or naïve?" .... Luckily we don’t have an answer. Parabole of the Sower does a great job implying this question, through the world it has portrayed and the people living within it. Are those people outside of the walls evil, or just desperate? What is the difference between the people within the walls and outside of them? They are both just trying to survive to the best of their ability....

Kirsten: I really enjoy this question because it makes me reconsider what I thought of the outside world .... I never stopped to consider how desperate those evil-doers were .... But does desperation serve as an excuse for committing these crimes? ... i think not, but would i feel the same way if I was in as situation comparable to the environment in Parable of the Sower? I do not know .... this is very difficult to answer. 

Short and honest, I didn't like the book.... the author is almost trying to scare us into thinking that this is what the world would be like if we don't start making change. Really?

nina44: how could society go from what it is now to what it is in the novel in such a short time period .... Does cultural evolution occur faster than nature can change?

Aimee: Although Earthseed evolved from Buddhism, Taoism, and Lauren's own experiences, I felt that it was a dead end .... I  had the sense that Earthseed could not be taken seriously .... I could not accept a religion that was completely made up.   

let's talk some more about continuity, in cultural change....

schu: What we can do is to learn the language we are interested in ... the torch bearers who keep the fire of language culture stable and bright .... Languages conceal the cultural treasures kept in history, just like the DNA we own carrying information from pre-history .... Don’t abandon language programs ....

III. what is the parable referenced in the novel's title? what difference does it make, knowing that source?

IV. notes from my introduction of Butler
in Thomas Great Hall, November 2002:

McArthur fellowship for "unique synthesis of science fiction, mysticism, mythology and African American spiritualism"

her self-description eschews "unique synthesis" for "emulsification": "comfortably asocial, a hermit in a city, a pessimist if she's not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist"

oil and water a good image for the way her fiction works:
on the one hand, a realist--detailed social criticism,
yet also hopeful
: offers us a future, pours oil on troubled waters she warns us of

my students then found Parable of the Sower a prescient and acute description of the world we all occupy: "Olimina's world is the world of the Palestinians, the world in places like El Salvador, is the world in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is our world."

follows current trends to logical--extreme--conclusions:
close extrapolation of increased gap between classes in this country, our fear of crime, of spread of chaos through cities, suburbs: walled communities, high rate of illiteracy, global warming

"we are either going to continue to play the same record until it shatters, or we are going to do something else. The best way  to do that, would be to go someplace else, where the demands on us would be different...and we would be forced to change."

@ the end of Parable of the Talents, this change involves space travel: 'the space program was part of the general hopefulness of the '60s; that sense of possibility was present during the decade of her adolescence" (and mine); but arriving in and adapting to a different world, she warns, "could be better, could be worse. There's no insurance policy."

in the first 2 books of the Parable series, Butler gives us real women, caught in impossible situations; strong empathetic female characters carrying unfair burdens: independent, stubborn, difficult, insistent on trying to control their own lives: "You do what you have to do. You make the best use of whatever power you have."

her rendition of these women is itself powerful; in their contradictions, their grief in trying to make the lives of their children better, sacrificing personal freedom to do so (Dorothy Allison said their attitude--the things they do to protect and nurture their children--drives her crazy)

Butler emphasizes the importance of family and of reproduction but also interrogates kind, genre and gender in her post-nuclear, post-slavery survival literature (per Donna Harraway:) "the monstrous fear and hope that the child will not, after all, be like the parent"; she is writing, in other words, about our ambivalent attitudes towards the possibility of change

writing an essay for a possible UN Racism conference some years ago, Butler said she was trying to get some mileage out of the idea of a civilization in which people somehow felt/shared all the pain and all the pleasure they caused one another; they would accept differences, since any act of resentment would be punished immediately, personally, inevitably (they would have to consider the consequences of their behavior)

but, having conducted that thought experiment, having, in all of her books, taken a benign attitude towards racial and sexual variation, she concluded that nothing will make us more tolerant, that the unfortunate satisfaction we take in feeling superior to others, our hierarchical tendencies, are OLDER than our intelligence, and often drive it; tolerance is forever a work in progress, never completed, never abandoned

Butler spent time researching developments in biology, the physical sciences, genetics; she knew that our behavior is controlled to some extent by biological forces, but she also believes that "sometimes we can work around our programming, if we understand it"

"what a reader brings to the work is as important as what I put into it," she said; "so i don't mind attempts to interpret my fiction. I just like telling a good story.

Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little.... Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself..."