Nature vs. Nurture

 PHOTO: Black and White twins – Kian and Remee Hodgson

It is clear that our DNA plays crucial roles in making us who we are physically, but to what degree “are” we our genes?

The age old debate of nature versus nurture swirls around in my head often as I hear so many people refer to newborns being adopted as a “blank slate.” Newborns – adopted or not – are certainly not “blank slates” (Tabula Rasa). Many behavioral geneticists have performed studies on adoptees and twins, and have learned that human development does not derive solely from environmental forces – wealth, social privilege and education cannot be assigned to a genetic code.

To what extent are we governed by external factors (nature), and how much is genetic? I think the answer lies in how we individually want to interpret it.  We can hear explanations for dwarfism, Parkinsons, and breast cancer, and try to ascertain that the reason we now have this condition is because of our genetics. However the reality is that our genes can only tell us if we have that mutation. Cancer, among other conditions, may in fact have more to do with our environment (nurture). However, people hear what they want to hear, think what they want to think, and assign blame to whom they’d like to assign the blame to.

I thought that finding my roots, and learning more about my genes and my background would give me answers, but it’s actually left me with a lot more questions. I, along with countless others, would like to pinpoint reasons behind seemingly innate talents, distinct mannerisms, IQ, susceptibility to mental health issues, or alcoholism etc., down to either nature or nurture, however I’m learning that though genes play a large role in our creation, much of who we are is also quite random.

That randomness is hard to accept.

Are we hard-wired to desire biological children?

If you’re considering adoption in conjunction with having biological children, then you may encounter the statement, “your child is so lucky to have gotten your great genes!” This statement has the potential to leave the adopted child in the lurch. Consider how the adoptee may feel at that moment…

I grew up with seven other siblings (six of whom were adopted), thus only one out of my seven siblings was privy to receiving these genetic comparison comments. This sibling routinely heard, “you’ve got those striking blue eyes just like your dads!” My origin-less brown eyes watched this scene play out time and time again over the years. I began to wonder why people’s go-to comments when making small talk is generally related to physical appearance and comparing that to the biological parents. When meeting newborn babies, the run of the mill conversation usually settles around physical appearance and which parent the child resembles more. Is this a simple culturally polite conversation starter, or something more?

It wasn’t until I searched for (and found) my biological family at the age of 26 that I began hearing these social niceties for the first time. I’ll admit, the fact that my birth father and I resemble each other so closely, does hold a special place in my heart and I’m not sure why. Even though my birth father and I don’t know each other very well, I do feel an extra flutter of connectedness when people look at our picture and comment “you and your birth-dad have the same smile!” This makes me wonder, do I feel this way because I’ve waited for 26 years to hear this, or is this a comment that we are all hard-wired to hear and enjoy?

In the same way that humans may be genetically predisposed to show empathy, to tend towards social altruism, or have an inborn belief in a higher spiritual being, are we also hard wired to desire biological children?

I’ve always wanted to adopt, but…

“I’ve always wanted to adopt, but…I think I’ll have my own {biological} child first.

We live in a  culture that places much significance and importance on appearance thus I understand the logic of this comment and the desire to build a family where the genes and biology match. However, when an adoptee hears the statement “I really want to adopt, but I want to have my own children first…” it sounds similar to how many of us order our meal at a restaurant: “The special sounds good, but I think I’ll order the usual this time.” While our taste buds long for the explosion of unusual and interesting flavors, we often stick with the familiar. No surprises (though we tend to forget biological children come with many surprises too!).

As thousands of beautiful children wait for their forever home, I’m grateful they aren’t hearing all of the people in the world who are continuously uttering the phrase “I really want to adopt, but…” I’m thankful that they aren’t hearing that they are unwanted at the current moment because even though they were born with a story and a purpose in this life that it is just too risky accepting someone with a different genetic makeup. An adoptee can’t help but wonder, forever, what’s wrong with me, was I born defective? Is biological-ness that much better?

As a wife without children currently, my husband and I have had and continue to have this very conversation. From our point of view there are many factors that go in to building a family; career, stability, traveling desires, further educational pursuits, etc.  However, for the child waiting for a home, there aren’t that many factors. They just want to be part of a home where they’re loved. Only when I think about the children who need a home do I begin to realize that parenting and desiring children isn’t just about me and having all of my wishes satisfied. It’s about children being able to have a family.

How can our culture better support adoptees who are added to a family as a “back-up plan?” Or perhaps a better question is, how can we become a culture where adopting is a norm, an accepted way to build a family whether infertility is an issue or not. A culture where a child can have a family simply because they are a human life deserving of a chance to grow up, play, laugh, make mistakes and contribute to society in a positive way. How about a culture where we routinely hear people say:

“I’ve always wanted to have biological children, but…I think I’ll adopt first.