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?