Another way of breeding

More and more I suspect that short of some kind of existential catastrophe, in the near future the human genome is going to start getting re-written de novo every few generations.  This makes the already shaky argument for propagating my own personal genome all the more ridiculous.  Queen Elizabeth, for instance, in all likelihood carries exactly zero genes passed down to her from William the Conqueror, and that’s without genetic engineering.  Far more important today will be the ideas and technologies that are passed forward.  Add to this my deeply held belief that virtually all of the dangers and problems we face in the near term as a species, and a biosphere, stem from the enormous and rapidly growing human population (and it’s unending desire for material goods), and actually reproducing biologically becomes not only unnecessary, but morally dubious.

But there is still a powerful attraction to having kids.  To experiencing that kind of persistent mentorship, from the point of view of the mentor.  To watching, and hopefully guiding, another human being on the path to self-awareness, and an awareness of the world.  To having a visceral and deep connection to the future, through a person who will live in it.

I’ve been trying to think about what aspects of having children it is that I would really value, and whether there are other ways to have those experiences.  There are certainly other ways to act as a mentor, teaching being the most obvious.  There’s working at summer camps, either the outdoorsy kind, or the more school-like academic programs.  I love foreign languages, and could certainly imagine hosting exchange students on a regular basis too.  In general these options trade persistence, intensity, and uniqueness of the relationship for temporal flexibility, and the ability to interact with and influence many kids, instead of just a few, and that’s actually attractive in some ways.  The 20+ year committment that comes with an infant is huge.  Actually I’m surprised that such a large proportion of adopting parents are specifically focused on getting an infant.  Getting a five year old would mean a five year shorter committment, and would allow you to avoid that (to my mind) unpleasant period in which you can’t communicate with the child very well, because they can’t speak yet, and they also require seriously constant attention, and help with every possible bodily function multiple times a day.  This isn’t to suggest that dealing with a child instead of an infant is any easier, or any less work, but the character of the work is a lot more interesting to me.  I’d much rather focus on ideas and ethics and language and socialization and wonder and observation, than how to effectively introduce food to your gastrointestinal tract and where it is appropriate to excrete your bodily wastes.  Not that those aren’t essential life skills, I just don’t think I have anything particularly interesting or insightful to add to the societal consensus, and so I’d rather focus my efforts elsewhere.

It was with these things in mind that I biked by a hispanic woman walking a couple of little white kids in a stroller through the enormous multi-million dollar houses along San Pasqual Ave., east of Caltech.  She’s probably a nanny, and they were probably the genetic descendants of some very well-to-do Pasadena couple.  For a moment it struck me as a bit strange that someone would actually go to the trouble of reproducing, and then promptly hand off the parenting to somebody else.  I know it’s not really that strange (societally speaking) but in thinking about adoption, it just seemed odd, because if you don’t want to deal with the infant through toddler phase of kids anyway, then why not just adopt a prefab 5 year old that already walks and talks and knows how to go potty, and avoid paying the nanny. In fact, you can even get a $12,000 adoption tax credit from the federal government!  But this isn’t really about the money.

The obvious disadvantage to adopting an older kid is the problem of provenance.  Where did they come from?  Do they have any infectious diseases?  Have they been permanently damaged by malnutrition, environmental toxins, or physical and emotional abuse?  Do they have serious genetic predispositions that you would be aware of if they were your own offspring?  These are issues you would not necessarily have to deal with if they were your own progeny.

On the other hand, in addition to shortening the overall commitment time and avoiding all the diaper changing (not to mention the pregnancy and birth, which seem as daunting as they are awe inspiring), adopting an older child could allow a prospective parent to make a conscious selection, based on characteristics which are not available to someone either adopting an infant, or having their own biological children.  There are all the obvious and superficial things: sex, hair color, race, etc., but kids really do have very different personalities from a startlingly early age.  Some are quiet introspective observers, others are gregarious and energetic participants.  How old does a kid have to be before you can tell whether they have an inborn aptitude for math, or music, or spatial reasoning, or visual art, or perceiving and directing social dynamics?  (I’m a pretty unabashed inegalitarian, in that I don’t believe we are all created equal.  To be sure, there are many different ways to be exceptional, and it is unclear which ways are the most valuable and desirable to society, despite the fact that society chooses to focus on a pretty narrow subset of our traits, but I think it is hard to deny that there is a spectrum of overall inborn ability in the population, and that that pre-existing ability is subsequently modulated by ones particular experiences.)

I think for someone who isn’t concerned with passing on their own genes, that in combination these two sets of advantages, the practical and the selective, are likely to outweigh the potential disadvantages of unknown provenance.  Additionally, I think unknown provenance can be pretty effectively mitigated.

What if instead of engaging in random personal genetic recombination, or the adoption grab bag, you made a point of really getting to know kids, as individual people, before taking on responsibility for them?  This certainly isn’t “normal” behavior, so far as I can tell, but what would be wrong with it?  I could potentially imagine spending six months or a year volunteering at an orphanage in say, Ukraine, teaching English to kids who are an age where they can potentially really absorb it, and math and physics to the older students, and at the same time studying the local language and learning about their culture and history, before finally deciding to adopt someone.  You would have vastly more information about their personality, their physical and mental health, and their abilities.  Add a quick genetic screening, and I think most of the questions of provenance would be solved.

Would this be strange?  Certainly in the context of social norms.  But there are a lot of good strange things in the world.  Would it be wrong?  How so?

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now trapped on Earth. Just trying to make sure we don't blow up our one and only spaceship.

8 thoughts on “Another way of breeding”

  1. At first I found it cognitively-jarring to read someone thinking so rationally about raising children. It's not a decision most people even consider a candidate for in-depth research and ethical considerations. The only time you mentioned "love" in a diary about family was in reference to an intellectual activity. Not to poke fun, but the first thing that came to my mind was geneticist Hermann Muller, who, in a different age and having different interests, considered it his duty to have as many children as possible to spread his own fantastic intelligence.

    We need that, though – people willing to think about traditional topics more rationally.

    As far as your specific thoughts, I don't have too much to add, except that perhaps it's been irrelevant for any one individual to create biological offspring from an evolutionary point of view for a long time in our history. Any given person is unlikely to hold any very special gene that lots of other people don't have. Regression to the mean shows that genetically exceptional people are as much a matter of luck as having genetically exceptional parents.

    However, it's certainly possible that being the biological father of a child subconsciously (or consciously but uncontrollably) creates stronger emotional ties to the child than for adopted children. After all, you'll constantly be seeing yourself in a biological child. They'll be much more similar to you than an adopted child. Whether that's desirable or not, it's an important difference which, for me, would drown out moral considerations I might have about adding to the human population. (If I have one biological child and wait until I'm 35 to do it, I'm doing quite a bit to reduce population growth. Also, I remember hearing it's actually negative now in the US minus immigration, although I'm not sure where I got that stat or whether it's accurate.) Choosing to mix your own DNA with that of your partner might also affect your relationship with them differently than choosing to raise an adopted child together.

    1. I guess part of what I'm thinking is that the kind of presumed genetic attachment — feeling so differently about your own biological offspring, and having shared biology with a partner — while potentially a real concern, is something that I believe it would be good for us to work against as a species and a society. At least part of this expectation is social (not genetic) and that part we can overcome, and I think there could be real benefits to doing so, for population, and for our ability to identify with "foreign" peoples. I think there's also a very strong argument for cementing a relationship (with the child, with the partner) through conscientious volition. By openly and purposefully *choosing* to do something, especially something which is socially unusual, you create a different kind of bond. A kind of bond, incidentally, which on Earth humans are perhaps uniquely capable of forming. What would it be like, as a child and later, to know that you were not random, that your parents chose you, specifically, as an individual. How would it affect your image of yourself? How would it affect the parents to have to say to themselves, in great detail, that they *did* this thing, that it did not "happen".

      Also, ultimately it doesn't matter what the population growth rate is in the US (or Russia, or Italy, or Japan, or Spain, or Portugal, or Poland, etc.) In exponential growth, it is only growing subpopulations that matter numerically in the long run), and really it's the product of population and material consumption that's the problem, by which measure having one child in the US is similar to having ~20 average Earth children. But this is not an argument against adopting someone from a poor country. We should not suggest that the solution to excessive population and consumption is to keep everyone else poor. Humanity needs to learn how to live well in a sustainable way, and that's something that can be learned and practiced anywhere.

  2. Interesting ideas. I am guessing you want feedback? If I am misunderstanding your tone/ideas in my response, forgive me.

    Here are some thoughts that come to mind. Human beings, the human psyche, and human children (and adults) as a whole can be unpredictable. What you see at 2 or 5 or 8 is not necessarily what you “get.” Although you could give them all the “marshmallow test” I guess.

    I can see visiting the country you will adopt from and getting to know the kids and seeing who you “click” with. I don’t think that is unusual. Spending an extended amount of time is, probably because most people couldn’t afford it. You may want to google “attachment disorder” and get an idea of what that might be like if you wanted to adopt an older child.

    What would the genetic screening be for?

    I am thinking that an overly long search/screening may in the end, make the child feel pressured to never “disappoint” you by having unforeseen problems, difficulties, etc. in the future. I have a traditionally adopted friend who struggled with that, and I understand it is not uncommon. For some reason your description made me think of some weird reality TV show, where in the end, one lucky orphan gets a home if she can pass each test and blood screening. No pressure, kid.

    I get the feeling that what you are looking for the most benefit/pleasure with the least work/input. Unfortunately there are no guarantees with parenting. Partners can get divorced, but what if the child didn’t turn out how you imagined? Long term illness, attachment disorder, learning disabilities, etc. Unconditional love is so so important to kids, and I believe adults as well. As you pointed out 20 years is a long commitment! I think you have to have a real longing for a child “for better or worse” to make it work.

    Maybe I have just watched Gattaca one too many times, but I think there is something to be said for a little jumping in with both feet, if a child is what you truly want. Adopted or biological. I mean really, if you described courtship, love, and sexual intercourse to an alien, it would probably sound a little daunting and awe inspiring as well. Sometimes things may certainly be difficult, or complicated, but not so much as they might seem if we analyze them to pieces.

    One last thought. I think a child will change you more than you think, and that your influence on them may be less that you think.

    Good luck on your decision.

  3. i really don’t think adoption versus my-precious-DNA approaches to starting the process of raising a child would have a lasting effect on the emotional connections of the parenting couple, and between each parent and the child. it would be fun to have a mini-me running around for several years, but ultimately i don’t think that level of amusement would affect my attachment. of the friends i’ve had who were adopted, they all knew that from the start and it never seemed to be an issue in terms of affection. i suspect this is true for most people who adopt, that feelings of attachment and love run just as deep as they would for a biological child.

    i’ve considered adoption for a good while, at least as some abstract option, both because i’ve had friends who were adopted and so the idea is not foreign, because there are plenty of kids out there who don’t have parents, and because i’ve always been apprehensive about the whole birthing process.

    some things would be simplified by adopting. screening for a lack of genetic disease wouldn’t have to be accompanied by the choice of whether to abort or not, just whether to adopt or not. screening for ability would be impossible with an infant, but possible with a few-year+ kid, which would also help set up the conditions for a good experience all-around. this all sounds very callous and detached, but with so many kids out there to adopt, why play roulette? why not select someone (or siblings) who would most benefit from parents who highly value education?

    and then some things would be complicated by adopting. the emotional attachments and affection received while very young would not be up to us, and may create problems with emotional attachment in any and all directions…the amount of cuddling/touch given to non-infants is generally less than that given to infants, so we’d all have forgone that period of more-physical bonding. also, in some ways the process of deciding who to adopt would be very stressful, since that change in the child’s life will have such a huge impact on them. sure, having a few pre-decided requirements would help, but i suspect the problem would be deciding between several great children, rather than struggling to find a child we wanted to adopt. that process of judgement would feel…kind of harsh. but that’s not a reason not to do it, just something to be aware of.

  4. I don’t post if I don’t want feedback… or at least I turn the comments off, and if you misunderstand my tone or ideas, it’s my fault for not making them clear enough!

    I admit completely that there’s no sure thing in this train of thought anywhere. It would be at best about improving the likelihood of desirable outcomes.

    I don’t know what the social dynamics would be like at all on the orphanage side. I’m sure it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to ever blend in completely, and be seen as a teacher, and not a potential adoptive parent, even if it were 6 months or a year. I agree, it does sound like some kind of reality TV show, but I think a lot of the messed up behavior such shows seem to contain is a byproduct of everyone being told they’re in a TV show, playing some game. It wouldn’t have to be a mission. Just an experience, with an open mind, and an open heart. And it’s actually very cheap to live in a lot of countries if you ignore all the lost paychecks, but grad school has inured me to that pretty effectively, and it would be an interesting experience all by itself, even if there ended up being no adoption.

    I agree about unconditional love with children, to a point. I think a lot of that expectation comes from the way we’ve historically had kids: randomly. As soon as you have the kid, the unconditional love is necessary, but we don’t generally (and aren’t expected to) have unconditional love for other people’s kids. With a biological child, they’re yours from the very beginning. With an adopted child, that point is later. It’s when you say yes. When you tell them you want them. And there are plenty of biological kids who don’t get the unconditional love they need too — there’s nothing magic about sharing your parents genes.

    I thought Gattaca was great cautionary tale, but I think maybe we got different messages from it. To me it was a reminder that genes aren’t everything, that it is possible to succeed with the wrong ones, and fail with the right ones, but that’s very different from saying they don’t matter. I’d want a genetic screening for the same reason that if I were going to have biological kids, I’d want to get sequenced, and do amnio (not that I’m, um, actually the one who would be doing the actual having, but, you know…), etc. There are genetic diseases we can identify confidently. If the zygote isn’t human yet, instantiating those diseases (and being responsible for the additional burden of care they bring) can be avoided. With a 5 year old, the only part you can avoid is the responsibility. But this only applies to avoidable things. We’ll probably never know all the ways that we can be genetically broken, and you just have to take responsibility for all the things that come up that you had no way of knowing about or preventing. There’s still plenty of chance in our lives.

    Your last point is the real big question though I think. How much can we really say about how people will turn out, based on what they’re like as kids? I think there are probably some things that are predictable, but I should do a lot more reading. And get some marshmallows.

  5. Thinking about it a little bit more it seems like the potential for regret and remorse would be greatest if we didn’t do any kind of testing. If you test, and nothing comes up, and then there’s a problem, you know it wasn’t your fault. It’s just part of life’s chances. If you don’t test, and then there’s a problem later, wouldn’t it be horrible to always be thinking “If only we’d tested…”?

  6. I have a half-mexican child, and the first two kids I nannied were alaskan native, so I was often the white woman pushing around the multiple brown kids in the stroller 🙂

    I think your ideas sound great. My natural child looks (and probably acts) way less like me than my boss’ two adopted daughters from Russia do like her. My partner has very dominant genes. We both love and talk about our children the same. My boss adopted her first daughter at 2 years of age, her second at 3, from orphanages. They were small for their age, but quickly bloom, grow, and attach to mom. My boss wishes she could skip the potty training stage, but I think she chose those ages for bonding reasons. Adopting from Russia, at least, was fraught with lots of rules, especially about the initial visits and such. I’m not sure how easy it would be to deviate from what they tell you you need to do to adopt, but I really don’t know.
    So far in my experience with kids, you can pretty much get their basic personalities at about a year (shy, aggressive, talkative, impulsive, etc). I’ve babysat twins, and most of this stuff truly seems to be present from birth no matter what you do, and very individual. But I think a lot of academic type abilities can be influenced by the environment. My boss’ older kid, who is now 7, is turning out to be very mathematical and a great little engineer, as is my boss. Of course, maybe she lucked out and adopted a mathematically inclined orphan.
    Having children is way harder than most people can ever imagine. I think it really behooves one to be as analytical as possible about it. I think way fewer people than have children should, especially as they often get foisted off on others to basically raise anyway (nannies, schools, etc). Those that have children would likely do just as well adopting. Bonding to and raising a baby isn’t necessarily cake either, and the overpopulation issue is immense – enough to deal with the extra bonding and other issues of adoption. Obviously this is theoretical since I did have my own genetic offspring – but that was the messiness of my real life, not a model for the world!

  7. Coincidentally I had just emailed the marshmallow man a few days ago after reading a New Yorker article about him. He didn’t reply, though. He has a quote saying, if I paraphrase accurately, that nature vs. nurture is not an interesting argument – too hard to get any positive conclusions with any data you could conceivably take.

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