“Humanity as History, Not Science” academic essay by Ainslie Fowler

Humanity as History, Not Science:

The Reconstruction of Culture through Crake’s Misanthropy in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

essay by Ainslie Fowler


Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake oscillates between the post-apocalyptic world of Snowman and the Crakers and the disparate communities of the Compounds and the Pleeblands. Atwood’s pre-apocalyptic setting is an extreme marriage of science and capitalism.  This dystopian narrative addresses the consequences that occur when a community’s fixations on science and control over nature displace an engagement in a cultural memory, canon and history. I will first demonstrate how Crake embodies this capitalist and science-driven world, a position which starkly contrasts with Jimmy’s culturally-entrenched disposition. I will then explain how the Compounds lack a genuine engagement with and continuity in human history and culture, and instead exhibit an extremity that even undercuts familial relations, an idea which is most evident in the execution of Jimmy and Crake’s parents by CorpSeCorps. Then, I argue that Crake’s misanthropy is not directed towards the human attitudes presented in the video game Blood and Roses, but is towards the humanity that is disconnected from its historical and cultural canon – the culturally devoid, science-driven communities in the Compounds. An outlier like Crake’s father or Jimmy’s mother could not survive in the pre-apocalyptic reality. Thus, my central argument is that Crake’s motivation for Jimmy’s survival is to redeem Jimmy’s version of humanity through his relationship with the Crakers. Crake recognizes Jimmy as an untapped beacon of knowledge and a repository of culture. Thus, because of Crake’s engineered genocide, Jimmy, unlike Crake’s father, is free to rebuild what was lost in the Compounds.

The protagonist’s best friend, Crake, is detached, science-driven and devoid of emotion, which suggests that he is not only a product of Compound life, but also an embodiment of Atwood’s dystopian society. Science and consumerism epitomize this economically disparate world. Products and animals created in the Compounds are sold in the Pleeblands. Humans execute ultimate control over nature. Creations such as pigoons are bioengineered pigs that are used to grow and harvest human organs, and ChickieNobs are genetically modified headless chicken breasts. These items become part of a fast food chain, exposing this community’s overpowering need for utility. Each Compound adopts scientific approaches, whether it be OrganInc Farms, Helthwyzer, or RejuvenEssence. The Pleedblands, in contrast, only perform the “buying and selling. . .there [is] no life of the mind” (Atwood 239). When Jimmy meets Crake for the first time in the Helthwyzer Compound school, Crake’s clothes are “dark in tone, devoid of logos. . . a no-name look” and he “volunteer[s] no information about himself. . .[except] that the Chemlab was a dump” (Atwood 86-87). The passage visually illustrates Crake as culturally and socially detached — his clothes and personality offer no affiliation to a culture, even Compound culture. Crake’s emotional detachment correlates to his scientifically driven disposition, for he reduces Jimmy’s comment about their attractive teacher (“you think he’s got his hand on her ass?”) to a “geometrical problem” involving steps and calculations (89). Crake’s investment in technology and science alters his perception of reality. When Jimmy and Crake are playing chess “back to back” on computers (93), Jimmy asks to play “on a real set,” but Crake replies with: “this is a real set” (93). Jimmy judges the iconic game to be less authentic if it is digitalized, but for Crake, its digitization is utterly normal.

Furthermore, Jimmy and Crake’s childhood fixation on video games and internet media reveals how this age’s media is debased, whether it be the 24-hour surveillance of Anna K, the assisted suicide site, or the child pornography site HottTotts. When the pair watch the site that airs assisted-suicides for “big bucks,” Crake “grin[s] a lot while watching,” making Jimmy feel like a coward for having empathy (100). Thus, Crake emblematizes the desensitized viewers of sordid media. For Snowman (Jimmy’s name in the post-apocalyptic world), Crake is now a mythic figure for the Crakers who “was never born” (127). Although this assertion is one of Snowman’s myths for the docile and curious Crakers, it nonetheless suggests that Crake’s science-driven personality makes him appear inhuman. One of Jimmy’s lovers from his past recalls Crake as being “okay, he’s just from another planet” (235). However, Crake’s odd personality, combined with his genius and aptitude for science, represent the general population in the Compounds. When Jimmy remarks on his own mediocre grades, he justifies them because the “Compounds’ schools were awash in brilliant genes.” Even in this competitive environment, Crake was the “top of his class” (212-213). Watson-Crick, the well-renowned bioengineering institution that fights with other schools for Crake’s enrollment, asserts that “pair-bonding at this stage is not encouraged. . .[for students are] supposed to be focusing on [their] work” (251). Thus, Crake’s science-driven persona presents him as emotionally detached, a product and extreme embodiment of the Compound’s obsession with science. In turn, these elements foreshadow Crake’s ultimate scientific endeavour and ultimate act of misanthropy: The Crakers and the Blysspluss genocide.

The Compounds are science-driven, which is exemplified in Crake; as well, they are disconnected from a cultural memory, canon, and history. This idea is most evident in my analysis of Jimmy as an outlier, or as Crake’s “neurotypical” friend (Atwood 236). Cultural memory is defined by Jan Assman in his article “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity” as “a collected concept for all knowledge that directs behavior and experience” (126). For Assman, this concept allows humans to understand their “nature consistently through generations” (126). People engage in cultural memory through “repeated societal practice and initiation,” but cultural memory itself is a “fixed point; its horizon does not change with the passing of time” (129). The world of the Compounds/Pleeblands has lost this horizon of cultural memory, because, although Jimmy may engage daily in a cultural memory, there is no “objectivized culture” (Assman 129) or backdrop for him to situate his cultural engagement in an atemporal horizon. For example, Crake explains that he does not play music even though his name is Glenn with “two n’s,” which is an allusion to pianist Glenn Gould (Atwood 85). Jimmy probes Crake for the cultural significance of such an allusion if Crake does not play the piano, but he is undercut by Crake’s response that “not everything has a point” (85).

Disintegrating cultural memory is a perverse result of the failing social structure. In “Character in a Post-National World: Neomedievalism in Atwood’s Oryx and Crake,” Michael Spiegal argues that Atwood’s setting is an “increasingly post-national world” (121) due to the “simultaneous globalization and fragmentation [of] the nationstate” (120). Jimmy recalls his parent’s generation reminiscing about a time when “you could drive anywhere. . .when everyone lived in pleeblands. . .New York [before it] was New New York. . .when voting mattered” (Atwood 75). If national or even local identity, such as New York, is lost, then localized culture can become subsumed into a global culture based upon capitalism. The video game Blood and Roses exemplifies this deterioration of culture because, although Jimmy and Crake can learn about historical works and monumental human advances such as Crime and Punishment or the theory of relativity, the game’s primary objective is to “loot the human achievement” (95). Players must understand the “exchange rate” of cultural emblems to win the game. For example, “one Mona Lisa equal[s] Bergen-Belsen” (96). As Spiegal articulates, this game represents the “absolute commodification of culture” (124).Human engagement with atrocities such as the concentration camps and artistic masterpieces are degraded to economic terms in a superficial game. Philip Cerny furthers this definition of post-nationalism by attributing it to “historical discontinuity” (qtd. in Spiegal 126). Jimmy is first introduced to “Shakespeare through reality TV star Anna K.’s rendition of Macbeth. . . She was a terrible ham, but Snowman has always been grateful to her because she’d been a doorway of sorts” (103). This doorway is into a history of literature, for the Shakespeare canon represents what Assman describes as an “objectivized culture” which is preserved for individual participation in cultural memory (128). But Jimmy’s present social situation undermines this engagement, for Crake demands a “channel change!” when it comes on (Atwood 103). Later, when the pair are in university, Crake considers “how much misery. . .has been caused by a series of biological mismatches” (202), to which Jimmy responds, “[despair is] an inspiration. . .think of all the poetry – think Petrarch, think John Donne” (203), revealing Jimmy’s investment in art and the human emotions that inspire such work. Nonetheless, Crake reduces art to a kind of mating dance for male animals, and even goes so far as to argue that “female artists are biologically confused” (205). Jimmy appreciates art and literature and attempts to engage in the cultural memory of the past, but such an engagement is undermined by the science and capitalist-driven Compound society, which Crake represents.

Although Crake consistently berates art and exalts his scientific and rational vision of the world, Crake’s father and Jimmy’s mother, who exemplify morally and historically conscious citizens, complicate Crake’s attitude towards humanity. Jimmy and Crake both have parents who are assassinated for discovering morally objectionable projects in their respective Compounds. Jimmy’s mother, like her son, pines for a past that is subsumed into the apparently perfect Compound life: “it’s just artificial, it was just a theme park and you could never bring the old ways back” (34). Similarly, Crake’s father not only pined for but was engaged in cultural memory because he taught his son chess before his death. Crake remembers this fondly, for it is a true example of harmonious familial relations; the inheritance of skills for such an iconic game exemplifies Jan Assman’s idea of cultural memory engagement through “societal practice” (126). Both parents stood for a way of life that had been corrupted in the Compounds and died in trying to save it. However, Jimmy’s function in the novel as a repository of culture, albeit unknowingly, links him to these parents. The last words of Jimmy’s mother were: “Goodbye. Remember Killer. I love you. Don’t let me down” (313), which reveal that Jimmy’s mother expects him to resist the corrupt system and advocate for a life that is more than just the capitalist-driven science that provokes ethically objectionable experimentation. The ability to remember Killer, Jimmy’s childhood pet, reveals Jimmy’s still-potent capacity for empathy, a potential that Crake capitalizes on, for Crake’s scientists and even Oryx “wouldn’t have the empathy to deal with the Paradice Models” (385). The execution of parents trigger Crake’s misanthropy because their deaths represent the Compound’s complete submission to commercialized science whereby morals and even familial relations are the victims of systematic violence for the sake of commercial means. However, these parents, unbeknownst to Jimmy, evoke a similar connection to the past that Jimmy engages in. Thus, Crake’s engineered genocide can be read as an act of revenge for the deaths of the social outliers such as Jimmy’s mother and Crake’s father, but their murders are avenged in leaving Jimmy behind for the Crakers.

Therefore, Crake’s misanthropy is not towards a humanity drawn from the past – one which engaged in culture and history through art and literature – but towards the humanity he quintessentially represents – the science-driven, culturally eroded Compound society. Considering both the model of his Crakers, and his decision to leave Jimmy behind (by secretly giving him an antidote to the Bysspluss genocide), Crake’s misanthropy can be read as directed towards the humanity he wipes out. Since Crake embodies the Compound science-driven society, his misanthropy also reveals why he must necessarily die as well. In leaving Snowman behind to care for the Crakers, Crake provides Jimmy the stage on which he can perform a role similar to the executed parents, a role which Jimmy’s mother and Crake both impose on him except now without fear of the CorpSeCorps. Crake models the Crakers as docile, vegetarian creatures who have no sense of racism, hierarchy, property, marriage, sexual torment or harmful symbolisms, such as gods. Denying any creative design for his Crakers, Crake instead defines their adaptation based on other animals, such as purring that heals wounds, peeing barriers that protect against predators, and mating initiated merely by the colour of genitalia. Crake also edits out the most perverse aspects of his current reality, such as the extreme power dynamics which led to the disparate and post-national social structure of the Compounds and Pleeblands, the suffocation of nature by what Jimmy’s mother calls “sacrilegious” science (Atwood 67), and the fixation on commercialism and money. Crake’s genocide obliterates most of the world’s population, but as Raymond Malewitz argues in his essay “Regeneration through Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture,” it also “clears away the preexistent framework of social relationships that make an object a commodity” (538). Therefore, the Crakers and Snowman are able to have an “authentic encounter with the [object]. . .[through Snowman’s] remythologiz[ing]” (539). It can be argued, therefore, that Crake cannot live to see the outcome of his creation because he wants it to naturally evolve under the care of Snowman. Crake and, indeed, Oryx, are both products of the exploitative society, Crake in his “tampering in biotechnology” and “unnatural” evolution (Malewitz 457), and Oryx in her distanced, emotionless memory of her sexual abuse.

Nonetheless, as Snowman cares for the Crakers, Crake’s excision of religion appears to be unsuccessful. A female Craker implies a kind of prayer in her assertion that “tonight we will apologize to Oryx [for hurting an animal]. . .[but] Crake thought he had done away with all that, eliminated what he called the G-spot in the brain. God is a cluster of neurons” (Atwood 192). Andrew Hoogheem’s article entitled “Secular Apocalypses: Darwinian Criticism and Atwoodian Floods” discusses the issue of religion in the novel. He argues that humans have a “proclivity for storytelling, and for art in general. . .[It] is an adaptation, an evolutionary extension of animal’s play that enables us. . .to make sense of the world around us” (55). Hoogheem furthers his claim that religion is the “outgrowth” of art and storytelling (58), an idea which aligns with Snowman’s mythical way of narrating the world and its objects to the Crakers, and how they acquire a natural tendency to idolize Crake, and even, by the end, perform rituals around an icon of Snowman. Snowman observes that the Crakers eagerly partake in storytelling rituals, such as repeating “In the beginning” (Atwood 124); they are “fond of repetition, they learn things by heart.” Thus, they ask Snowman to retell the story of Crake, which resembles the beginnings of an oral tradition and history. Although Jimmy believes Crake would have been “disgusted by the spectacle of his own deification” (125), it appears that story and myth, facilitated by Snowman, naturally evolve into a kind of religion. Thus, Crake never intended Crakers to be completely void of the God-spot in the brain; he modeled them to evolve naturally aligned with Jimmy’s vision of the world.

Crake recognizes Snowman as a repository of culture and as a chance for a new beginning, a chance his father and Jimmy’s mother were unable to experience. Jimmy desperately retains memories of history, literature, language and culture. Hoogheem interprets this care for human history as the “tender feeling towards. . .words as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them” (65-66). Snowman’s tenderness towards culture of the past mirrors his affection for the Crakers who make him “feel mushy: nothing breaks him up like the generosity of these people” (Atwood 197). His understanding of his responsibility for remembering human history is evident when he imagines future people encountering the “Taj Mahal, the Louvre, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. . .[they would] need an explanation. . .they’ll want to know the truth” (269). As emblems of human achievement and history, these monuments are meaningless without someone to share their historical significance. Snowman recognizes the absurdity of holding onto language if “any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past” (48); however, human achievement in language and architecture informs his understanding of the world as a place rich with meaning and culture. Thus, Crake takes advantage of Snowman’s vision of the world – his empathy, engagement in culture, mythology, and storytelling. Crake leaves Jimmy behind because of his empathy. However, Snowman’s empathy is twofold: not only does he care about human history by holding onto obsolete words, he genuinely cares for the Crakers. In making Snowman the Crakers’ caretaker, therefore, Crake has ensured that they do not end up like himself and the Compound society. Overall, Crake’s model for his human-like creatures and his abandonment of Jimmy after the mass genocide reveal that he intended the Crakers to engage in culture, albeit a new culture, language, and mythology. These developments are natural progressions in the Crakers’ learning, and, guided by Snowman, will become nothing like the exploitative society Crake obliterated.

To conclude, I have presented Crake as an embodiment of the dystopian world of the Compounds and Jimmy as a culturally entrenched outlier who, unlike the executed parents, can rebuild a new humanity in the post-apocalyptic world. Jimmy requires a clean slate for the future of Crake’s species. Although Crake, as an extreme product of his society, has to die in his genocide, he nevertheless illustrates a version of humanity: the Crakers, whom he created to be beautiful, are his art and “science is [his] religion (Hoogheem 68), However, his version of humanity is unsustainable. Thus, Crake is a kind of martyr for his Crakers and leaves Jimmy behind to freely rebuild culture. However, Snowman’s deteriorating physical and mental state in the post-apocalyptic world complicates this interpretation because the actual living conditions are horrendous. Nonetheless, just like Jimmy’s mother, Crake is “counting on [him]” (Atwood 394). Snowman’s ignorance of his role as a repository of culture and as an empathetic person makes the novel all the more human: he is fallible, lonely and angry in his role as a prophet, all of which are very human characteristics. In the final moment of the novel, Snowman avoids communicating with people from the former Compounds and Pleeblands world, and instead evokes Crake’s vision for humanity when he states “Zero hour. . .Time to go” (443). An allusion to the last line of Waiting for Godot (Beckett 109), Snowman’s final line reveals his unwavering engagement in history and culture, and his recognition of the absurdity of his blank world; however, it also evokes hope, for he has chosen to accept his position and rebuild humanity and culture with the Crakers at time zero.

Works Cited

Assman, Jan and John Czaplicka. “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German

Critique 65 (1995): 125-133. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Toronto: Seal Books, 2004. Print.

Class Lectures (English 474A/001). U of British Columbia. Oct. 17 to 22 2012.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot.  New York: Grove P, 1982. Print.

Hoogheem, Andrew. “Secular Apocalypses: Darwinian Criticism and Atwoodian Floods.”

Mosaic 45:2 (2012): 55-71. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 10 Nov. 2012

Malewitz, Raymond. “Regeneration through Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary

American Culture.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

127.3 (2012): 526-541. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.

Spiegel, Michael. “Character in a Post-National World: Neomedievalism in Atwood’s Oryx and

Crake Mosaic 43.3 (2010): 119-134. Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. Web. 21

Oct. 2012.