The Things Our Genes Didn’t Pass

My grandfather on my mother’s side died before I was born. My family emigrated to the U.S. when I was three, and my parents didn’t like talking about what they had left behind. They put up no photos or heirlooms. Before I was a nosy teenager and rifled around in old photo albums, I had never seen my grandfather. Yet, according to my parents, I act almost exactly like him. Now, I’m not talking about our penchants for creative writing or the fact that neither of us are good at hiding laughter. I’m talking about habits and idiosynchrasies. The details of someone’s personality that develop over time and shape them into their unique being. I have a habit of, when I say goodbye, waving my hand to my side, palm up, before placing it against my thigh. I’ve done this since I was little. My parents hate the habit. I’ve never seen anyone else do it. Yet apparently my late grandfather did this all the time, it was his personal, quirky goodbye. But I’ve never seen it.

This story has a point: is heredity entirely genetic? Is what makes a person act and react the way they do unequivocally hard-coded into their DNA? Gattaca seemed to think so: dispositions for violence and anger are cut out. The workers of the company Gattaca seem uniform not only in their dress, but also their muted emotional mannerisms because that was how they were programmed. Brave New World agrees. But this is something that The Island, “Little C,” and “The Behavior of Hawkweeds” contend. Especially “The Behavior of Hawkweeds,” which is entirely about the things that were passed not by our genes, but by our experiences. What does Antonia inheirit from her grandfather? Her name, for one. Her love of botony. Her story about Mendel. Her word “Prase” and contempt for Germans (but perhaps that’s a cultural thing among the Czech, one that surfaces even though she identifies as American.) These are the things passed on outside of the blood influence.

Little C approaches this topic from a different perspective: the clone of the main character’s lover inheirits none of the lost lover’s traits. In Behavior of the Hawkweeds, Antonia is two generations away from her grandfather. Little C is supposed to be of the same generation as the protagonist, but technically he’s a generation behind her. But while Antonia gains quite a bit from her grandfather, Little C gains nothing from his original. Even the physical aspects that the protagonist admires changes with Little C’s upbringing. Little C, who tries his best to live up to the main character’s expectations, but ends up being his own person simply because the only similarity is his genetic code. This is like in The Island, where Lincoln is literally a copy of his sponser, but ends up making his own choices and forging his own life despite the “role” given to him by the company.

So what IS in our genes? A likeliness to fidget when bored? A personality quirk? The decisions that we make or the ways we react? How far does the influence of our chromosomes extend?

– Kievan

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~ by kievan09 on February 10, 2012.

One Response to “The Things Our Genes Didn’t Pass”

  1. I found your personal story compelling – it’s so interesting to think that you inherited “habits and idiosyncrasies” from a family member you’d never met. I also enjoyed the tie-in you created to the film and literature, and I agreed with your points. Then I reached your comment about The Island. You claim that Lincoln is an exact copy of his sponsor, but makes his own choices and life path. However, we discover at the movie’s conclusion that Lincoln ultimately acted upon memories, memories that spontaneously evolved in his mind because of a flaw in the cloning science. By no means am I legitimizing the science of the movie; we can probably agree that there are as many gaping holes in the science as in Swiss cheese. However, the idea made me question the influence of memory (as you questioned the influence of chromosomes). From a wider scope, I also wondered about the influence of experience, as it ties so closely to memory. For instance, what if Little C had the memory of holding a tennis racquet, remembered the feeling of exhilaration as he cannoned the ball toward his opponent? Would his predecessor’s memories, implanted or grown or evolved in Little C’s mind be enough to turn him into his original? Would his “mother” tried harder to mold him if she knew for sure that her methods of memory recall might work? I don’t know, but it IS creepy to realize that The Island’s Lincoln understands the memories he has enough to drive a flying cop motorcycle, reproduce his original’s accent, and deceive somebody into thinking Lincoln is the original. And all after having recently escaped a Brave New World-like community, full of adults with the mental faculties of children. What kind of life did Lincoln lead after the movie’s conclusion, with two warring sets of memories and personalities within him? All of this is hypothetical, of course, but it reminds me of the complexity of the human brain. While we know bits and pieces about genetics, and bits and pieces about neurology, much of the difficulty (elucidated in the literature and film you mention) lies in putting the two together.

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