English 165LB: Literature & Biotechnology (W11)

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Oryx and Crake discussion thread

Posted by rraley on February 17, 2011

Discussion thread for Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake….


21 Responses to “Oryx and Crake discussion thread”

  1. Rebecca Podesta said

    Adding to the discussion on medicine we were having during Thursday’s lecture, my mom had brain surgery for a leaking aneurysm 3 years ago and is still battling towards getting off of pain killers. My mom also has diabetes and the result is a giant handful of medication every single morning. I’ve witnessed the addiction and complications of prescription medication we were discussing in class, and I wonder every day what recovery would have been like if she had just stayed away from medication. She was wearing pain patches and her body became entirely dependent on them, she truly couldn’t function without them. She would change them every three days and by the third day you could she would hardly get off the couch because she was so drained. Interesting how medication made my mom “my mom” since without them she was a zombie. She had to switch off the patches and is taking a new medication now however, because the patches were becoming toxic to her body. Introducing these pain medications into her life more than likely means she will be taking them until the day she dies?

  2. Laura Hodge said

    Though there were many passages in Oryx and Crake that I found unsettling, challenging, and even disturbing, the introduction of the “ChickieNobs” organisms during Jimmy’s tour of the Watson-Crick EduCompound stood out as a particularly upsetting moment. Considering the general profusion of biotechnological horrors throughout the text, I was surprised by how uniquely revolting I found these “large bulblike object[s]” with their “stippled whitish-yellow skin” and “thick fleshy tubes” (Atwood 202). The idea that people could eat the products of these “chicken hookworm[s]” was almost as sickening as the concept of creating them in the first place – yet Jimmy frequently snacks on ChickieNobs “Nubbins” later in the novel, apparently forgetting (or at least ignoring) his initial disgust regarding their production (203).

    The more I thought about this apparent contradiction, the more I found myself reflecting on how startlingly disconnected the average American consumer has already become from the source of his or her food – not just in the sense that we often fail to ask where it has come from or how it has been made, but also through the fact that much of our food has been so completely ‘processed’ by the time it gets to us that it bears little resemblance to the organism from which is was originally derived. Instead of buying a grapefruit we can buy a clear plastic cup of ‘peeled grapefruit sections in artificially sweetened water, no sugar added!’; if we don’t want to bother with the trouble of preparing our own vegetables we can purchase them already cleaned, sliced, and neatly stacked in a zip-top bag. This trend is especially evident in the packaging and sale of meat products – we can (and frequently do) buy not just a whole chicken that has been cleaned and prepared for us but even a package of just breasts, just wings, just the parts of the creature most relevant to our immediate cooking needs. A personal anecdote comes to mind. Last summer, my younger sister spent a few weeks living with a family in a rural community in El Salvador. On the final Sunday of her stay Angela’s “host mother” caught, killed, and prepared one of the chickens from their yard. My sister, who – like many of us in this class, I am sure – had never actually seen someone kill and prepare their own livestock for dinner, was fascinated by the process and had dozens of questions for her host mother. Though the woman was happy to answer them, she found Angela’s level of interest to be bizarre and generally hilarious – after all, hadn’t she eaten chicken plenty of times in America? Angela found herself struggling to explain how we purchase raw chicken meat already cut and cleaned at the local grocery store without ever having to keep, care for, slaughter, or even encounter an actual chicken. To the host mother, our own mother’s weekly trip to Costco to stock up on proteins seemed just about as far-fetched and unnatural as the Watson-Crick EduCompound’s production of ChickieNobs seemed to me; her surprise and confusion served to highlight how emotionally disengaged and experientially ignorant we as a society have already become regarding the animal sources of our food.

    Ultimately, then, the ChickieNobs are really just a biotechnological realization of a fantasy that we as consumers already engage in with respect to meat products: that it is possible (and ordinary) to purchase and prepare 30 chicken breasts without ever coming into contact with (or mentally acknowledging) the actual organisms from which these parts have been taken. By extending this concept to the genetic engineering of chickens that “specialize” in breasts or drumsticks to the exclusion of such ‘unneeded’ features as “eyes or beak[s] or anything,” from which all “brain functions that ha[ve] nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth” have been “removed,” Atwood calls attention to the startling degree to which the average consumer already conceives of livestock more as collections of useful product-parts than as living creatures possessing value and significance beyond their potential to fulfill to our dietary needs (202-203).

    As the application of genetic engineering and related technologies to food production continues to expand, the production of “ChickieNobs” or something like them is rapidly becoming a very real possibility. Backed by PETA grants, scientists in South Carolina are currently working to bioengineer “‘cultured’ meat” – that is, to grow “animal skeletal muscle tissue” in a petri dish. Though they have yet to succeed in replicating that “juicy, meaty quality” (the total lack of fat and vascular tissue leaves a lot to be desired with regard to flavor and texture) they hope to someday be able to bypass animals altogether in the production of meat – doing Watson-Crick one better, as it were. They envision lab-grown meat as “functional, natural, designed food” that could provide a cheaper, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more humane alternative to the use of livestock. For now, though, I have to admit that I’m pretty ‘weirded out’ by the idea… check out the following link if you’re interested in reading more: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/30/us-food-meat-laboratory-feature-idUSTRE70T1WZ20110130?pageNumber=1.

    • Katherine Courtney said

      This is really interesting and it reminds of a commercial by Carl’s Jr. I could only find a “Hardee’s” commercial, I’m assuming it is owned by Carl’s Jr. The chicken is walking around and the commentator asks, “Can you find the nuggets on this chicken? Neither can we.” I know it’s random but I think it is a funny tie in. Here’s the video, hope it works.

      Also, I find the study that PETA is backing a bit hypocritical. Being vegetarian is not eating animal products and vegan is not eating animal by-products. Doesn’t that count as an animal? I’m interested in what people think. I’m vegan and I don’t think I would eat this. As you said, “I’m pretty weirded out about the idea.” Me, too! Thanks for sharing.

      • Elizabeth Powers said

        My own personal feelings about PETA aside, I could see why they would be backing studies like this. The treatment of livestock in factory farms is what PETA objects to. If people aren’t going to go vegetarian or vegan, then I guess PETA sees this as the next best option, since animals do not have to be raised and slaughtered in “inhumane” ways in this scenario. No idea if I agree with it or not, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if they could somehow create meat that doesn’t have the “guilt” associated with consuming another human being dragged along behind it.

      • Alejandro Miranda said


      • Alejandro Miranda said

        The article link I posted above points to research going into just the concept of “guilt free meat.” Personally, I have no ethical obligation to the consumption of animals or animal byproduct. However, this article made some very good points in that the issue is larger than “inhumane” treatment of animals; the raising of livestock effects humanity negatively in a more direct manner. As the population increases, so does demand for dairy and meat. As livestock represent a large part of the methane gas responsible for the green house effect (through their flatulence,) the more livestock, the more green house gases. I’m fairly certain you’re all familiar with the effects of the green house gases but I will summarize it anyway: Green house gases trap heat->polar ice caps melt-> …Al Gore makes a movie. In the end if eating less “real” meat helps make the planet inhabitable, I think I’d be willing to cooperate, hey maybe Taco Bell is doing us a favor in the long run

  3. Elizabeth Rogers said

    I thought the issue of intelligence in Jimmy and Crake’s world was extremely interesting. Perhaps it’s because we’re told the novel from Jimmy’s point of view (well, sort of), but his own assertions about his own intelligence, and the remarks others make, don’t really seem to mesh together. On one hand, we have Jimmy as an articulate, observant young man with the survival skills necessary to outlive the apocalypse. On the other, we have Jimmy’s constant assertions that he is only of average intelligence, and may even have been somewhat of a disappointment to his parents.

    This is bearing in mind that Jimmy managed to, at a very young age (wasn’t he around six or so?) reprogram a clock that played different bird songs for the hour so that the songs were re-routed. This doesn’t sound like something someone with only ‘average’ intelligence could do, and certainly not something a young child who was only middling would be capable of.

    It sort of brings to mind our discussion in class last Thursday. In the world of Oryx and Crake, it’s very evident that knowledge that’s geared more towards the hard sciences is more highly valued, while a more literary intelligence puts one at a disadvantage. While Crake was capable of reading the same works that Jimmy read, we never get the sense that he would have the same innate flair for writing and marketing that moved Jimmy up in the world. The same applies the other way around- Jimmy was certainly not able to replicate Crake’s own experiments.

    I don’t think Atwood is arguing in favor of either ‘type’ of intelligence, but perhaps adding her own opinion of a multi-faceted liberal arts education, and the dangers of labeling one child as ‘gifted’ and another as ‘slow’? Just some food for thought.


    Atwood’s text is a clear critique of the socioeconomic inequality and injustice that particular segments of society endure due to their vulnerability against corporate/governmental deliberate abuses. The extreme differences between the corporate “compounds” in which Oryx, Crake and Jimmy live in and the “Pleeblands” are representations that depict the contemporary “ghettos” and slums the underprivileged live in. But what’s most interesting about Atwood’s work is how it demonstrates the type of socioeconomic structure/system created by the economically and scientifically elite target these populations in order either exploit their already low resources (economic) and/or use them as scientific experimental targets.

    The scene in which Crake takes Jimmy to the “‘Pleeblands” Jimmy asks Crake “Bud don’t they [corporations] keep discovering new diseases? ‘Not discovering,’ said Crake. ‘They’re creating them.’ ‘Who is?’ said Jimmy…’HealthWyzer,’ said Crake. ‘They’ve been doing it for years…'”(Atwood 211).

    Here are a couple of articles highlighting some “theories” on parallel events to that of Atwood’s text:



    • Alexis Gibson said

      I absolutely agree with your interpretation of Atwood’s use of the “compounds” and the “Pleeblands” as a metaphorical representation of experimental exploitation along socioeconomic lines. While I also think that the articles you posted are good examples of Atwood’s ideas, I think that the perceptions in the articles deserve to be explored.

      Interestingly, the ecology and evolution class I have taken this quarter (EEMB 2) has covered material that can be used to refute the idea of HIV as a human-made disease. Dr. Kalambuka (in the first article posted above) suggests that “HIV is a man-made germ warfare to destroy the undesirables, developed between 1969 and 1972 and first released in Africa by WHO in 1975 with laced doses of the smallpox vaccine, and in the US in 1978 — laced with doses of Hepatitis B vaccine distributed by the Centers for Disease Control.” The text book used for EEMB 2 (Life by May Berenbaum, et al) explains on page 474 that scientists have reconstructed the phylogeny (evolutionary history) of the two forms of the HIV virus by looking at mutations in the viral RNA and have determined that the human disease evolved from two separate primate immunodeficiency viruses (one from sooty mangabeys and one from chimpanzees). The book suggests “the viruses entered human populations through hunters who cut themselves while skinning chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys”. Furthermore, scientists have been able to use knowledge of the average rate of genetic mutation to trace back the timeline of the emergence of HIV. The textbook states “Extrapolation suggests a date of origin for this group of viruses of about 1930. Although AIDS was unknown to Western medicine until the 1980s, this analysis shows that HIV-1 was present (probably at very low frequency) in human populations in Africa for at least a half-century before its emergence as a global pandemic.” Thus, scientific data indicates a path for evolution of the disease from a natural source and indicates that the disease was already present in humans before the late 1960s when Dr. Kalambuka suggests it was “developed”.

  5. Chayanm Garcia said

    I know we discussed this specific event earlier in the course so here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12688797

  6. Nicole Rogers said

    It is interesting, in light of our discussion in class and the novel, the receding funding to humanities departments in our present-day “University Budget Crisis”. On the UCSB level, we see the English, Linguistics, and Writing Program all crammed into South Hall 3432 while a new building for Ocean Science is announced. The recent budget crisis has loosened the veil that once stressed the importance of a broad spectrum of education. When reading the description of Martha Graham as mildew-y and falling to pieces, I thought of some of my own humanities courses. In addition, an assistant news editor from UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, Traci Kawaguchi, reported the budget cuts in the humanities departments only:

    “Robert Holub, dean of the undergraduate division of the college, said that the notice of the cuts caught him off-guard, as the department he heads, the interdisciplinary studies department, has been on the upswing financially.
    The department, which is not a part of the college’s arts and humanities program, is in the process of restoring honors courses and sections for courses such as mass communications and cognitive science, Holub said.”

    Some universities are not so subtle in their prioritization of science over humanities. In The State University of New York, Albany (SUNY), French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Programs were cut. In an article by Stephen Kershnar, a philosophy professor at Fredonia State University, he writes in favor of these humanities cuts:

    “Columbia University professor John McWhorter suggests that some of the money spent on humanities could be better spent on vocational tracks. One way to understand this is that the citizens of a state would get more economic benefit from young people with skills in plumbing and electrical equipment than in French and playing the bassoon…
    The humanities are fun, rewarding, and important, but this is no reason to hide them from the budget ax.”

    However, Stanley Fish in the New York Times writes in defense of keeping the humanities. Like Jimmy, he agrees with not trying to economically justify them, but instead he believes the humanities to be cultural elements worth saving, and the job of universities leaders is to defend them.

    “traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements…But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means (and distribution requirements are a form of coercion) is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering.”

  7. Alexis Gibson said

    I think that Atwood’s “BlyssPluss Pill” can be read as a representation of the birth control pill. As in many other parts of the novel, Atwood seems to use exaggeration of an actual invention or social problem to shock the reader into realizations about the role of biotechnology in the present. The reader expects to encounter entirely fictional imaginings of the future, but Atwood intermingles fantasy and truth, shocking the reader when she realizes that bits of Atwood’s world are already a part of our reality.

    When I was reading the chapter “BlyssPluss” in Oryx and Crake, I did not initially recognize the parallels with the birth control pill. I thought of “BlyssPluss” as a fantastical hyperbole related to the themes of experimentation, consent, and the role of biotechnology in society. I finished the chapter and was on page 304 before I realized that Atwood’s fantastical vision was in truth firmly rooted in the present reality. On page 304, Atwood refers to “BlyssPluss” as “The Pill”, what I see as a direct reference to the parallels between “BlyssPluss” and the oral contraceptives commonly called “The Pill”. After realizing this, I did more research into the history of the birth control pill and found startling information I was not fully aware of before which I believe Atwood is referencing in her creation of “BlyssPluss”. The similarities between the two versions of “The Pill” lie in the social ramifications, experimentation, and side effects of the medications.

    In the way that Atwood’s “BlyssPluss” promises resounding social effects as an extremely effective form of contraceptive, the birth control pill is often lauded as a significant factor in the rise of the feminist movement and the growing equality of women in the 1970s. Atwood writes that BlyssPluss “would confer large-scale benefits, not only on the individual users—although it had to appeal to these or it would be a failure in the marketplace—but on society as a whole; and not only on society, but on the planet.” The link to the PBS article below connects to a timeline of the invention of the birth control pill. At 1980 the timeline states, “The Pill’s impact on women in the work force is significant. With highly effective birth control now at their disposal, 60% of women of reproductive age are employed in America.” Like “BlyssPluss”, the birth control pill has had effects not only for individual users, but has dramatically altered “society as a whole”.


    In addition to the paralleled social ramifications of “BlyssPluss” and oral contraceptives, the methods of experimentation with the two pills are disturbingly similar. On the issue of informed consent, Jimmy says to Crake, “’So basically you’re going to sterilize people without them knowing it under the guise of giving them the ultra in orgies?’” to which Crake replies, “That’s a crude way of putting it.”” The link below goes to a PBS report on the “first human trials” of the birth control pill conducted by Gregory Pincus. The trials were conducted in Massachusetts “under the guise of fertility research”. Of the group of “50 infertility patients”, some women volunteered while others “were given the experimental drug without their direct consent”. The article goes on to say, “The Pill team also tested the oral contraceptive on 12 female and 16 male psychiatric patients at Worcester State Hospital. The study’s goal was to test the long-term effects of the drug on the reproductive system. It provided useful information during the early stages of the Pill trials. While Pincus did receive permission from the patient’s relatives, and the trials did conform to medical standards of the day, under today’s standards for human drug trials the tests would be considered unethical.” As unimaginable as it seems, the doctors were in fact temporarily “sterilizing people without them knowing it”.


    When Jimmy asks Crake where he will find subjects for the clinical trials of “BlyssPluss”, Crake responds, “’From the poorer countries. Pay then a few dollars, they don’t even know what they’re taking. Sex clinics, of course—they’re happy to help. Whorehouses. Prisons. And from the ranks of the desperate, as usual.’” The link below is to a PBS article on the clinical trials of the birth control pill conducted in Puerto Rico. To win FDA approval for the birth control pill, the researchers needed to conduct large-scale human trials. Due to “the strong legal, cultural and religious opposition to birth control in America in the 1950s” the researchers decided to conduct the clinical trials in Puerto Rico. The island was considered an ideal testing ground due to “the extensive network of birth control clinics already in place on the island” as well as the lack of education and financial resources of the subjects (remarkably similar to Crake’s testing grounds for “BlyssPluss”).

    The PBS article goes on to say that the researchers ignored the advice of Puerto Rican Dr. Edris Rice-Wray that there were “too many side reactions” for the pill to be considered “generally acceptable”, and did not investigate the deaths of three young women who were participating in the trials. Similarly, Crake pushes forward with the testing of “BlyssPluss” despite terrible side effects like “priapism and split dicks” and “a big genital wart all over (the) epidermis”.


    In creating a fictional world, Atwood reveals the startling truth about our present reality. Being drawn into the world of fantasy allows the reader to look at her world from the outside in, bringing to the light subjects that are intended to stay in the dark. Atwood’s “BlyssPluss” draws the history of the birth control pill out of the shadows by creating an imagined caricature of the medication that is too terrible to be false.

  8. Alexis Gibson said

    Working off of my response to Chayanm’s post, I realized that despite the convincing scientific evidence outlined in my post, it is easy to imagine an individual in a country greatly affected by HIV continuing to refute the evidence as it is backed by the same organizations that are suggested to have “developed” a “man-made germ warfare”. Here, perhaps, is the most significant aspect of the division of the global community into under-educated experimental subjects and scientific elites. As parts of the world cannot readily access scientific knowledge due to lack of education and resources, they are rendered incapable of understanding biotechnology despite the fact that it is inevitably affecting their lives. This lack of knowledge not only prevents informed consent when undereducated populations are sought as experimental subjects, but also perpetuates conspiracy theories, superstitions, and misunderstandings even when biotechnology could be owned and used for their own purposes. A lack of education sometimes leads to wholesale rejection of biotechnology on the basis of misunderstanding scientific aid as a Western attempt at “destroying undesirables”

    In my EEMB 2 class this quarter, Professor Bill Rice outlined one such case in lecture on January 13. Professor Rice stated, “In 2003 Nigerian politicians cancelled its polio vaccine program because of the rumor that it was a Western plot to sterilize Muslims”. The type of polio vaccine being used in Nigeria was the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV). Professor Rice explained that OPV was developed by passing the human poliovirus through animal cells to allow it to “microevolve” into a form not dangerous for humans. Thus, OPV contains active viral particles that are able to infect the human gut, but cannot infect the nervous system (where polio causes damage in humans). Thus, people infected with the attenuated form of the virus become immune to infection by the form of the virus that can cause damage. The advantage of OPV is that passive immunity is spread to other members of the community in which a vaccinated person lives. In areas with poor sanitation (like Nigeria) a vaccinated person can shed the virus into the water system through feces where other individuals can contract it (polio is spread by the fecal-oral route).

    OPV works well to confer immunity to a population so long as most individuals are granted immunity by vaccination and a small number of people are granted secondary immunity from passive routes. If, however, a large percentage of the population is susceptible to passive infection by the attenuated form of the virus (as happened in Nigeria when the politicians stopped the vaccination program), it raises the likelihood that the virus will have a host in which to evolve back to the wild type virus. Professor Rice stated that the reverse evolution rate was 1/750,000, a figure low enough to be insignificant in a population largely comprised of people granted immunity by vaccination, but that there are 1.2 million people in Nigeria and when vaccinations stopped, the attenuated virus had a vast pool of people to pass through and evolve in back to the wild form of the virus capable of infecting the nervous system. Thus, Nigeria and 20 surrounding countries have experienced a new polio epidemic that scientists are able to trace back to the vaccine.

    This tragically ironic case is an example of how isolation from (or rejection of) scientific knowledge can lead to grave misinterpretations. While the Nigerian government had the opportunity to utilize a form of biotechnology for its own purposes, lack of understanding led to a tragic fate. While suspicion of Western governments by the Nigerian officials is entirely understandable, this example serves as a cautionary tale against the rejection of biotechnology. As we discussed in lecture, biotechnology is already so deeply ingrained in society that rejection is not an option. Thus, the prevalence of biotechnology necessitates an education in science to be able to act as an informed subject in such cases. Even if rejection is ultimately desired, knowledge and understanding of biotechnology are needed to truly understand the ramifications of such actions.

  9. Anna Shusterman said

    The chickie nobs in Oryx and Crake definitely hit home with me, especially because of the recent Taco Bell scandal. Of course all rational human beings can logically summarize that fast food is basically made out of low quality, cheap ingredients that have been filled with chemicals, but it’s still alarming to learn that a massive chain like Taco Bell can made products that are only 30% actual meat and have made billions. Even after this scandal, they will probably continue to rake in inordinate sums of money. This is an example of how the scenarios described in Oryx and Crake are not as far off and fantastical as they may seem. Upon first reading this book many of the situations felt unrealistic to me, but once I had a chance to really sit and think, I realized that there are a lot of similarities between what is happening in Oryx and Crake and what is happening in the real world. For instance, Snowman describes the increase in terrible natural disasters, which again is connected to something happening right now, and of course I mean the earthquake and tsunami in japan! The death toll in Japan keeps rising, and the infrastructure hasn’t been in this bad of a state since WWII. All of these connections made me think of what actually caused the end of civilization in Oryx and Crake. This was the advent of drug companies distributing new diseases in their own pills so that they could keep people consuming their products. Eventually one radical (Crake) decided that he had had enough of this civilization, and in hopes of a new species doing things better, Crake distributed these disease filled pills with no intention of providing a cure. Now I’ve begun to think about the possibility of drug companies doing something like this today. What if some of our huge corporations are trying to poison us to keep us from getting well? is that really so hard to believe?

  10. MaryTenderLOS said

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  12. Chloe said

    Something that, as far as I have understood, many of us have found rather shocking were the so-called “ChickieNobs”.
    Whilst reading the novel, I frequently had to think of different things we have learned in class.

    I think it is interesting to know that “Gene Pharming” already exists. Humans are gaining proteins from different animals, These proteins are taken from animals that were genetically altered to serve their specific need and, thus, are able to produce more of whatever protein is needed. The proteins could then be used to create different specific drugs that could cure different diseases. That question is, how many steps away are we from the ChickieNobs? None of the Gene Farming techniques are being used in the market yet (as far as I am aware / the public eye is aware), though they are being tested. Still, the prospect is very scary. If you are looking for more information, see the link below. This has already been done on a sheep called Tracy.


    Furthermore, because of the increasing lack of organ donors, another branch has started to become prominent: Xenotransplantations. In the near future, animals like pigs could grow organs for those of us who need them, They still need to find a way to alter the animals genetically in a way that the human body will accept the “donated” organs. Alsom very horrible.

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