Friday, August 27, 2010

Ask a Geneticist 2

Once again, I have a short essay posted for the "Ask a Geneticist" feature.

This one has given me no end of trouble, to be perfectly honest. I hemmed and hawed and obsessed and worried over it. I wrote three outlines and as many rough drafts that were binned before I sent them to the person editing it (who still insists on suggestions along the lines of "What I'm going to do for the rest of this essay is..." which still make my skin crawl). I procrastinated and I made jokes and I wrote several snarky introductions that I knew could never, ever, ever see the light of day.

All of that was a coping mechanism because I had trouble imagining the kind of person who would write in with that question. "I want my kids to look like me. How can I use science to do that?" There were just so many mental hiccups in the asking that I couldn't see where the person was coming from, that I couldn't identify with them, and that I couldn't write an essay explaining all the problems with the question.

I mean, first of all, on a certain level -- every kid looks like their parents. But who doesn't get that? Who wouldn't know that, or have noticed that? So it seemed to me that it was patently impossible that the question-writer simply wanted the all-around-family resemblance that every kid shares with their parents. It defied belief that someone would actually write into a museum asking about that.

Which makes me think, well, obviously the question is about making your kids look more like you - not a family resemblance but perhaps certain traits, or an eerie, clone-like resemblance. (Only one of these two is technically feasible with current technology.) And that, in turn, really freaked me out. In part because of how easily such technology could be misused ("Study finds blond-haired, blue-eyed children less likely to be bullied!") and in part because of how, well, narcissistic someone would have to be to not only think that the best appearance for a kid is one's own, but to desire to do something to ensure that outcome.

And then I thought, well, would I have felt better if my grandparents had cooed over how much of a Finn I looked, rather than doing that for my brother and my male cousins and conspiciously leaving me out? Do I feel some sense of connected-ness deriving itself from the fact that I look like my mother (albeit on a relatively smaller scale) and her sisters did at my age? Or that I have the body-shape of my Great Aunt? Or is my sense of belonging in my family mostly mediated by other things -- a shared love for Aristotle and Shakespeare, a perverse combination of dedication and stubbornness, a sense of strict justice, or the tendency to hold grudges? Those things seem to me to be at least as much mediated by how you raise a child as they are which genes you pass on (although certain components of personality are undoubtedly genetic in nature). And if the latter, how can I justify that in light of the fact that few of my more distant relatives share those features (although they might share my diminutive stature, or have the same brown eyes and small widow's peak).

On the other hand, the question was not "can I make sure my kid fits in with his extended family" but rather "can I make sure my kid looks like me" -- in which case perhaps only the comparison among my nuclear relatives is crucial. And so, to oversimplify greatly, do I identify with my mother because of our shared love of biochemistry or our shared facial structure? Do I identify with my father because of our shared memory for detail or our shared stature? Do I see myself in my brother because he has my hair color or because we are both intelligent, driven young people with a tendency towards worry and overanalysis? Or do I identify with these people because they are human, and because I know them well; because I love them and we are all more alike than different?

In the end, my essay for the Tech museum couldn't include philosophical ruminations. It wasn't - and isn't - the right forum for that. I gave a technical answer. (Your kids will probably look like you, because they're your kids. You could possibly choose a few simple traits like eye color, hair color, and gender, but to do that would be ethically dubious and you might have a hard time finding a doctor to help you. Anything else isn't possible yet and probably shouldn't be developed.) But I was dissatisfied with my response, because I felt like I didn't address what I read as the real concern -- a parent wanting to make sure his or her children to fit in, without knowing how best to do that.

Which is a question I am completely unqualified to answer.

Hopefully my dissatisfaction didn't come out in the essay. I can't help worrying that it did.


Ayn said...

I had many of the same questions as you did upon reading the question, and I think the answer you gave was perfect for the given forum. Good work!

And appreciated reading your breakdown of the philosophical questions here.

Embly said...

I thought your article was excellent! I also really enjoyed your ruminations about it here.

John said...

"You might have to screen hundreds of embryos to find a blue eyed, fair skinned boy with red hair."

Indeed. Perhaps more if you, like the poster, were an undergraduate from Nigeria :-)