April 2nd, 2007

desperately looking

on the origin of the species

who made who, who made you
if you made them and they made you
who pick up the bill and who made who?
-- AC/DC, "Who Made Who?"

Well, I mean, did they begat in much the same way as folks get themselves begat today?
-- Henry Drummond, played by Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind"

"Everybodys's got p..p..parents..."
"okay... HOW MANY?"
-- The Hudsucker Proxy

Occasionally I get myself wrapped up in the psychodrama that is my biological family. My mother's current obsession is to be fleshing out bits and pieces of our family tree. Clearly, any hobby can be taken to its extreme, but there's a lot of motivations for this kind of activity.

When you think about it, when you think about logic and what you know, the majority of people purport to have met both their parents, and even if you haven't, it's reasonable to believe that everybody has a biological mother and father. You can watch every step happen. It's something that most people feel is certain. You can look at pictures of your parents and see a little bit of either one in your mirror- it's not sound reasoning, but it is reasonable to think it so. You did not spring forth from your father's head, or from virgin birth, or from the clay of the earth.

A greater number of people may have never met their biological grandparents, but it's also reasonable to assume that since you had two parents, it is also likely that each of your parents had two parents. If you've met them, and are fairly certain they are who they say they are, you're offered the beginning of a series which begins to stretch backward in time. Each of them had two parents, and so on, in geometric progression.

Think about how far you'd have to go back in time, to get to the point where you have as many "great" grandparents as, say, LJ friends, or aquaintances, or classmates. Keep going back.

Now, think about what you've learned about evolution and population. Every year, it seems there are more and more people on the planet. Everybody's been begat in much the same way. At some point, you go back on your tree and you begin to notice that eventually, there's more people on that hypothetical tree then there are people to go around. Not everyone's having children, either. So, some of these branches backward begin to merge, and different points on the tree, they must at some point be the same people. So, at some point, a sense of what gives us a biological identity must be somewhat inbred or conserved. A network of roots, subways of cities founded and long forgotten, looped upon itself. Perhaps, at some point, to just two, though odd and even numbers greater than two do seem plausible, for what we know about biology and the nature of our kind. What, then, were they like? Were they in any way like you?

Genetics is a tool, a means to get in touch with that sense of "who made me". It's a scientifically based curiosity. It's certainly more scientific than consulting the spirit medium to find out that I'm the fifth reincarnation of Napoleon or Cleopatra (and not suprisingly, people always find themselves to be close to notable historical figures, "Flavius Spearcatcher" not being as interesting a destiny, I suppose). I think it's an attempt to do what you can to find a place in the world. Without creation mythology, we're forced into a cycle of neverending begats which begin to paint a history of how I got here.

Even if you never knew your biological parents, you know the people or role models who shaped you person and character, and could begin to ask, "how did the people who shaped my destiny come to that point, where they had such an impact on me? What caused them to be that way?" Genetics has little to offer in such a search, sadly, and all we can hope for is an accurate retelling of the stories that make up our lives.

Some people, I suppose, if they are truly self-made, or perhaps posessed of purest faith, might never be curious to trace how they came to be, or to think, the way they are. I think that they are the rare exception.

Particularly our flaws, but also our defining characteristics- if my grandfather was a die-hard atheist, and those before him, then how much of what I believe to have reasoned out myself is just predisposition? Am I always going to have my father's fits of anger? Will I always be burdened by bursts of mystical irrationality like my mother's mother? Is it in my genes, or my "inherited" learned personality?

This is what separates us from a purely computational model of our brains. Sapir-Whorf tells us that language shapes our thoughts; and years of either successful flirtation or frustrated isolation lead us to believe that the narrow envelope of our largest organ determines how well we are able to interact with others. We look in the mirror, and recognize ourselves instantly; and yet wonder in endless dumbfoundedness what other people might see.

Science, by and large, teaches us that for much of what we are, it is in our genes. Is it any suprise we would turn to obsess on that? Was Aquinas smarter, or Kant more diligent, or Descartes more incisive, or Plato more logical? Do we even know Kary Mullis? Do we stare at a box of old daguerrotypes and ship manifests and not begin to have our own entirely cohesive sense of what may have made each one of us?

We have come to a fragile point, here, after which we each travel alone. If we respect science, then when investigation of our genetic relatives becomes an integral part of our theories and conjectures, can we put limits on how we approach such inquiry? If we believe that our chromosomes are not only markers but destiny of a form, what are the limits of privacy when we all share common parentage? If we do not, how did we arise? What means this, if I am a son of Seth, or Cain? Does Calvin have his icy grip, or am I tabula rasa?

If biology is not decisive and final, what shall we believe?