“We acquire new life- seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell- a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies… One of the meanings of Oankali is gene trader. Another is that organelle- the essence of ourselves, the origin of ourselves. Because of that organelle, the ooloi can perceive DNA and manipulate it precisely” (41).
With these few sentences, Jdahya explains to Lilith what drives the Oankali. The question that pervades the early chapters of Dawn is simple: Why did the Oankali save us? Lilith asks it early on, and doesn’t seem to get a clear answer. Here, Jdahya is explaining to Lilith the Oankali’s driving spirirt: an acquisitive nature that makes them look above and beyond what they already have. Every action the Oankali take in Dawn can thus be attributed to this innate desire to “acquire new life” and “manipulate it” to their advantage. After Jdahya tells Lilith about this drive within all Oankali, he explains what the ooloi are doing with human cancer cells: they are testing it for all kinds of crazy possibilities like regeneration, controlled malleability, increased longevity, etc. This explanation of the Oankali’s activities colored everything they did throughout the rest of the book. As I read the book I was constantly reminded that what pushed the novel forward- what motivated every Oankali action- were the possibilities available through genetic manipulation.
Whereas Lilith and the other humans saw a trade with the Oankali that would create mixed species children as the ultimate loss of humanity, the Oankali recognized the possibilities such a trade could have to benefit both their descendants. In all honesty, I didn’t understand Lilith’s desperation to escape from merging with the Oankali. I get that she had gone through the most traumatic war ever, and that she very much wanted things to go back to the way they were. However, at the same time I recognize the benefits that would emerge by joining with the Oankali; during some portions of the novel I felt like the “old” humanity, if given another chance, would only destroy themselves again. With the Oankali genetic modifications, we might actually stand a chance of surviving.
That’s a pretty pessimistic reading of the novel, but I can’t help thinking that the genetic modifications the Oankali shared with the humans were beneficial and could definitely help us survive in the future. While we wouldn’t be surviving as pure-bred humans, I think we’d have a better chance to survive (and thrive) as “half-breeds.”