One of the major conflicts in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is the rivalry between ethics and corporate profit. As business becomes technologically more advanced and carries more power in society, the public is frequently asking where the boundaries will develop to protect humanity. As in many science fiction novels, the destruction of civilization in Oryx and Crake comes about when one group makes decisions that ultimately result in annihilation. Atwood’s world shows what happens when corporate greed for capital is allowed to operate without being forced to do so ethically. While some of the science discussed in the book is present or on the horizon, much of it is not. This does not preclude the discussion of corporate profit crossing ethical lines. As business corporations become more wealthy and powerful, they will have the ability to mandate the state of humanity and restrictions are necessary to control their actions.
The Plot of Orxy and Crake
The three primary characters of the novel are Jimmy (aka Snowman), Crake, and Oryx (Quimbaya). Jimmy is the main focus as the ultimate representative of the non-scientific portion of society, Crake is the evil corporate scientist, and Oryx is the female portion of civilization. Jimmy’s father was a geneticist who felt his son was doomed to a life of failure due to his lack of desirable corporate skills. However, Jimmy’s friend Crake is highly gifted in the areas needed for corporate ventures.
Jimmy’s mother disapproves of the genetic splicing his father is doing to bioengineer food sources. One day, she takes a genetically altered pet of Jimmy’s and leaves. This is the initial presentation of the conflict between corporate goals and morality: Jimmy and his mother see the test animals as living creatures while Jimmy’s father views them as collections of protein.
It is about this time that Oryx is introduced to the storyline. While surfing child pornography sites, Jimmy and his friend Crake come upon her eight-year-old image and print a copy to save. Jimmy and Crake drift apart after school, and Jimmy goes to work for a marketing firm while Crake becomes involved in advanced genetic engineering projects for a corporation. Jimmy’s father, tormented by his part in a pharmaceutical conspiracy, commits suicide. After several years, Jimmy finds that his mother has been executed for her disapproval of the activities to restructure food sources and he becomes deeply depressed. Crake gives him a job where Jimmy connects with Oryx in person. When she discovers a pandemic outbreak occurs wherever she sells her products, Crake slits her throat in front of Jimmy; Jimmy then shots Crake. The story ends with Jimmy surviving in a depleted world peopled with genetically altered humanoids and then finding he is not the only remaining human.
Corporate Responsibility and Technology
Corporate responsibility for the environment and society are consistent topics today as technology and resulting restrictions increase in the face of companies attempting to attain higher and higher profit margins. Oryx and Crake puts forward the premise that business views nature not as a necessity for human survival, but rather as a commodity to be consumed (Galbreath). Global society is drifting toward the one depicted in Atwood’s novel, where science and wealth separates the “haves” from the “have nots”. Corporations already provide the majority of products used by consumers at all levels of society; this places them in a position of power that is understood rather than stated. Operating worldwide with little regard for geographic boundaries, international corporations function almost as sub-governments due to the influence they hold over the citizens of the countries in which they are present.
Although agencies place restrictions and regulations on corporate processes in an attempt to modify any negative impact on the environment and societies in which the companies operate, transparency is an issue as much today as it will be in the future. This lack of openness to the public practically makes these companies countries unto themselves. Continued growth and increasingly efficient methods of creating products that are competitive and profitable far outweigh the importance of ethics to multinational corporations. It is entirely possible that a powerful company with billions of dollars in assets can make its own rules. A technological culture believes it can affect nature any way it wants without consequences.
The ethics of corporate responsibility lies in reminding stakeholders that humans are not different from other life forms. The environment affects all living beings, but human beings are considered (by themselves) to be the dominant one based on technology. When governments partner with corporations to alter nature and the societies that dwell in it, the possible impact is a domino effect that might end in partial or complete destruction of existing society. In essence, humans shape the environment and the environment shapes humans. Ethical or unethical treatment of one influences the other. In the corporate world, feminine views on ethics are considered soft while masculine views consider how to perform only enough corporate responsibility activities to meet regulations. The corporate agenda focuses on profit with only an afterthought to ethical responsibilities (Dunning).
Oryx demonstrates the loss of respect corporations have for femininity and the positive attributes that accompany it. In a sense, Jimmy is also a softer version with his compassion for the altered animals, his preference for art over science, and his longing for a relationship with Oryx. Crake represents masculine science and power while Jimmy aligns himself with the feminine domain of expressive language; Crake wants the biological fulfillment of sex while Jimmy desires the challenges of love. With Onyx’s death, Crake shows that society no longer wants or needs empathy (Pearson). He creates a creature he believes imbibes all the positive traits of humans and animals. His plan is to destroy the population of homo sapiens that places impossible demands on the environment and replace it with a race that will lives in harmony with the planet. Ironically, the race he creates is the majority of the survivors after the plague engineered by Crake and the humanoids demonstrate none of the masculine traits he used to maintain his corporate position of power (Dunning).
Many women working in corporate positions attempt to mold themselves into a masculine presentation in order to obtain positions of power. Softness and femininity are not desirable attributes in the business world. When a company is given regulations with which to comply concerning corporate social or environmental responsibilities, it gives first priority to how the required modifications will affect the company’s profits. A desire to maintain environmental sustainability is compromised by how much money the corporation is expected to make.
Ethics has always been an important part of any society and are defined by different cultures at different time in different ways. As in all aspects of society, ethics that are accepted change; what one generation considers unethical may be thought to be fine by the next. Atwood writes of a world where it is ethically acceptable to change animals genetically for the purpose of meeting the needs of the human race to the point where they only vaguely resemble the original creature. In the end, it is the radically divergent ethics of Crake that allows the obliteration of mankind and its technology for a world he considered would be better.
Oryx and Crake is a cautionary novel directed at “maybe” and “might” possibilities. The connection to present-day discussions is clear: Business corporations are becoming more powerful as they gather increasing amounts of wealth and many of them have the ability to impact civilization and the environment. It is crucial that national governments mandate restrictions and controls, including corporate transparency, in order to regulate potentially dangerous activity that could affect mankind globally.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx And Crake. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003. Print.
Quimbaya, Illiana. Wang, Bella ed. "Oryx and Crake Summary". GradeSaver, 19 August 2011
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Dunning, Stephen. “The Terror Of The Therapeutic”. Books and Culture. N.p., 2003. Web. 20
Galbreath, Martha. “A Consuming Read: The Ethics of Food in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and
Crake”. 2010. Presentation.
Moore, Lorrie. “Bioperversity”. The New Yorker 2003. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
Pearson, Cheryl. “Casebook - Oryx And Crake”. Performance.millikin.edu. N.p., 2006. Web. 20