Mutualism and Parasitism

Mutualism and Parasitism


“Bloodchild,” by Octavia Butler, imagines a dystopian future where humans, named Terrans in the short story, have abandoned Earth and inhabit a new planet dominated by the Tlics, a large insect-like species. According to Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, the Terran-Tlic relationship would classify as a symbiosis or an “intimate association between two or more species.”1 At the very pith of their relationship, the Tlics allow the Terrans to inhabit their planet while the Terrans bear the Tlic grubs through implantation. Gan, the Terran protagonist, who is chosen to bear the offspring of T’Gatoi, his Tlic, is manipulated by T’Gatoi into believing the Terran-Tlic dynamic is more mutualistic than it actually is. In fact, Gan is raised brainwashed by T’Gatoi’s manipulation, blindly accepting the parasitic aspects of their relationship as norms. While there is evidence to support that the Terran-Tlic relationship is parasitic, the classification of this symbiosis is not possible to conclude: the social factors between the Tlics and Terrans complicate the question and fluster the objectivism of science, preluding formal classification. 

The Terran-Tlic symbiosis does not fully meet Wilson’s definition of mutualism. While the Terrans and Tlics do share “an intimate coexistence of two species benefiting both,”2 the organisms are not biologically “mutually dependent.”3 The Terrans do benefit from “prolonged life, prolonged vigor”4 from the Tlic eggs; however, prolonged life is not essential to Terran survival. The Terran-Tlic relationship differs from the true mutualism exemplified by mycorrhiza, in which “plants deprived of their fungi grow slowly; many die,”5 and without the plants, the fungi do not have a “shelter and a supply of carbohydrates.”6 Because longevity is not integral to survival like shelter and nutrients are, to label the Terran-Tlic relationship as mutualistic would be a misclassification.

The very foundation of the Terran-Tlic symbiosis appears to be rooted in parasitism: the Tlics are the parasites that use Terrans as hosts to bear their offspring. This dynamic aligns with Wilson’s definition of parasitism: “the first, the symbiont is dependent on the host and harms but does not kill it.”7 The harm experienced by the Terrans in the pregnancy process is clear, as in a scene where the Tlic grubs exit the body of a Terran named Lomas “excreting the poisons that had both sickened and alerted Lomas.”8 Gan witnesses the gruesome birth: “And [T’Gatoi] opened him. His body convulsed with the first cut . . . I had never heard such sounds come from anything human. T’Gatoi seemed to pay no attention as she lengthened and deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood.” 9After watching this eye-opening event, Gan realizes “The whole procedure was wrong, alien.”10 Birthing the grubs is undoubtedly a torturous process for the host and more than satisfies the criteria for parasitism. Additionally, how does prolonged life benefit a Terran, when it means more cycles of this painful fate? 

Unfortunately for the Terrans, physical suffering is not the extent of the harm: the symbiosis also disrupts the Terran family structure. For one, Gan was torn away from his mother “only three minutes after [his] birth.”11 Perhaps as a result he feels he cannot share intimacy with his own mother: “I would like to have touched my mother, shared that moment with her . . . But tomorrow, she would remember all this as humiliation.” 12 The shame associated with familial intimacy denotes a peculiar social norm preventing Gan from connecting with his mother, perhaps an outcome of the pervasive Terran-Tlic dynamic. While the Tlics benefit from the Terrans being stripped away from their families to live their life for the sole purpose of implantation, the Terrans are being compensated with disruption to their family structure and a disturbance to their nature. There is obvious detriments involved, arguably with the negative consequences falling only on the Terran.

On top of the physical and psychological harm that the Terrans experience as a result of the symbiosis is the social restriction the Tlics impose on them. Gan delineates the objectification of Terrans: “She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people.”13 The Terrans are treated as items that are “parceled” and “sold.” While Gan attempts to compensate for the degradation of Terrans by claiming Terrans are “an independent people,” his justification is unconvincing. Next to “necessities” and “status symbols,” “independent people” seems out of place and forced, as if it were something Gan was taught to believe. In addition to being treated as objects, Terrans possess fewer rights compared to Tlics. Only Tlics are allowed to drive while “Terrans were forbidden motorized vehicles,”14 and “firearms were illegal”15 for Terrans, but lega for Tlics. The difference in privileges suggests that the Terrans are politically and socially inferior to the Tlics. While this is not indicative of direct physical harm, oppression can still be debilitating and certainly does not illustrate harmonious mutualism. 

In order to maintain and hide this power imbalance, T’Gatoi manipulates Gan into believing that the relationship between the two species embodies mutualism. T’Gatoi is an incredibly skillful manipulator, almost frighteningly so. When Gan demands, “What are we to you?”16 T’Gatoi deceptively reassures Gan that the Tlics “use almost no host animals these days,”17 then plants that statement into Gan’s mind, stating, “You know that.”18 When Gan fights her attempts to manipulate him, rebutting, “You use us,”19 T’Gatoi cleverly responds, “We do,”20 reaffirming his belief, making him believe she is in agreement. Doing so tricks Gan into believing they are in the same boat, so that T’Gatoi can slyly steer him away from his doubts. She plays the role of being on his side, to gain his trust, so that she can more easily force him to join her thinking, since she already has joined his. T’Gatoi continues coaxing, “We wait long years for you and teach you and join our families to yours”21 to imply earnest effort from the Tlics. Stating, “join our families to yours,” implies that the Tlics are not at all disrupting the Terrans’ family structure, that the union is a peaceful process. T’Gatoi’s careful word choice is not the extent of her manipulation, of course. At one point, she even plays the victim. When Gan demands T’Gatoi to allow him to make the decision for his own fate, she responds, “‘For my children’s lives?’” in which Gan exposes, “She would say something like that. She knew how to manipulate people, Terran and Tlic. But not this time.”22 T’Gatoi’s manipulative behavior grew out of the need to keep Gan in subservience and is being used to secure her dictatorial authority, a clear sign that the balance of power is unequal.

Despite the evidence that presents the symbiosis as parasitic and the conclusion that Terran-Tlic relationship does not meet the criteria of mutualism, the symbiosis still possesses mutualistic aspects and therefore defies the black-and-white nature of categorization. For instance, the dynamic between Lomas and his Tlic, T’Khotgif Teh, appears to be one that is more mutually intimate, as Gan observes after the birthing scene: “‘Lomas?’ [T’Khotgif Teh] said harshly. I liked her for the question and concern in her voice when she asked it. The last coherent thing he had said was her name.”23 T’Khotgif Teh appears to have more affection toward Lomas, as she called his name before inquiring about the new-born grubs. Lomas is also dependent on his Tlic for pain-relieving stings, a job that T’Gatoi cannot fulfill for Gan. This specificity may suggest a more intimate and personal bond, and also a greater dependency. Perhaps T’Gatoi and Gan’s relationship is not a fair representation of the Terran-Tlic relationship in general. Moreover, certain moments in the text depict a melding of the two species. For example, when Gan describes T’Gatoi’s “probing changed subtly [and] became a series of caresses,”where insect-like motions slowly transform into a more intimate and human gesture. Similarly, T’Gatoi says, “‘Thank you, Gan’ . . . with courtesy more Terran than Tlic,” 24which can be interpreted as the exchange and the acceptance of the species’ cultures. A more physical kind of melding can be cited in the implantation process, where the grubs grow inside the Terrans. This phenomenon aligns with Wilson’s comment on mutualism: “to attain the highest level of intimacy, the partners are melded into a single organism.” 25

Ultimately, deducing the classification of the symbiosis between the Terrans and Tlics could entail no definitive answer. Because the interaction between the two species is not solely biological, but also includes social and political elements, a clear categorization is even more challenging. Another hurdle lies in the definitions themselves. As Steve Woolgar argues in Science: The Very Idea, science is not “something special and distinct from other forms of cultural and social activity.”26 Instead, Woolgar presents that “variations in knowledge are thus associated with differences in class background, religious affiliation, ‘social being,’ social context, social groups, society, culture, race and so on.”27 Because the social context bears great weight on knowledge, the interpretation of Wilson’s definitions on each symbiosis can become a subjective process. If parasitism is when the “symbiont is dependent on the host and harms but does not kill it,”28 to what extent is dependent; to what extent is harmful? If mutualism is “an intimate coexistence of two species benefiting both,”29 to what extent is intimate; to what extent is beneficial? According to Woolgar, because even the understanding of words can vary by person depending on their social context, objectivism in science is a myth. Therefore, although to analyze the symbiosis of the Terran-Tlic dynamic is to look at “Bloodchild” through a scientific lens, there may not be the definitive answer one may expect from science.

In conclusion, social context makes it difficult to clearly identify the symbiosis shared between the Tlics and Terrans in “Bloodchild.” According to Wilson’s definitions, the organisms’ lack of complete mutual dependency as well as the physically, socially, and politically harmful influences of the Tlics on the Terrans point to a parasitic relationship. Moreover, the presence and need of T’Gatoi’s manipulation proves the inequalities in the relationship, accentuating the parasitic nature of the dynamic. However, a clear conclusion cannot be drawn as there is still evidence to label certain aspects of the relationship as mutualistic. The duality of the answer to this question may suggest that many truths are more accurate living in uncertainty. Perhaps the question of the Terran-Tlic relationship must continue to live in uncertainty, muddled by varying social contexts, as both mutualistic and parasitic, not yet fully determined, where it can maintain the integrity of all its complexity. Perhaps uncertainty is closest to truth and is at the heart of all things.

  1. Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2010) 176.
  2. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
  3. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
  4. Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild,” Bloodchild and Other Stories (Open Road Media, 2012), 3.
  5. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
  6. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
  7. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 176.
  8. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 15.
  9. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 15.
  10. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 17.
  11. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 8.
  12. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 7.
  13. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 5.
  14. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 17.
  15. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 12.
  16. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  17. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  18. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  19. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  20. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  21. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  22. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 24.
  23. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 18.
  24. Butler, “Bloodchild,” 14.
  25. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
  26. Steve Woolgar, Science: The Very Idea (Ellis Horwood, 1988), 26.
  27. Woolgar, Science, 22.
  28. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 176.
  29. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 178.
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