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.
On Wednesday I heard author, Rebecca Skloot speak about her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but has remained alive in one way or another in all of us through the research done on her immortal cells that were taken from her without her consent. Her cells have kept each of us alive through the various vaccinations we’ve received, she has helped others to have life through in-vitro fertilization, the cells have helped develop drugs for diseases such as Parkinsons and leukemia and the list goes on and on. The scientists who took Henrietta’s cells did not make money from the cells, but they were commercialized. Currently they are bought and sold every day the world over, and they have generated millions in profits. Henrietta’s family never saw a dime of this money, nor did they benefit from some of the very scientific breakthroughs that her cells helped create. They were poor, with little education and no health insurance, and some had serious physical and mental ailments. I’ll stop there, as this book deserves your read!
Skloot acknowledged that she was able to write this book thanks largely to the white privilege advantages. In the United States, folks like to think that we live in a developed country and that therefore “minorities have every right and opportunity as whites,” or statements are made that “with affirmative action, blacks actually have more leverage and opportunity now.” Skloot admirably spoke to the fact that were she not white, the white scientists in the south would not have spoken to her with the same honesty and assumed intelligence were she a black author looking to write a story on a poor black family.
Henrietta (HeLa) is alive in all of us today, not because she donated her cancer cells to cell research, but because her cells were taken from her while she was alive and without her consent. I am able to know this story and pay my respects and homage to Henrietta, because of the backwards world of white privilege with which I live. With whom do I thank?!