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?