Monday, 7 July 2008

Writing our Stories

Of the conversations I have had with Kate and Jeanette, about Genetics and Kinship, one of the things that has stuck in my mind is the role of the imagination.

Kate talked about people who had been offered testing for a genetic pre-disposition to bowel cancer, who 'knew they had got it', perhaps because of relatives that they 'took after'. These people had a clear idea of their future, and sometimes those that did not have the gene  -who got the good news - had more difficulty coping, because their idea of their future had been so changed. In some cases where one sibling had the gene and another didn't, it strained at their relationship. Not only was there guilt, but in some sense the mythology of their connection had been challenged.

It's hard sometimes to remember just how much recombination and randomness there is in the business of inheritance. If you track just one gene or even two as we did at school at it makes such a neat diagram> ( ). Introduce more and the possibilities increase exponentially. And that's before you even start thinking about those strange other ways that genes apparently can behave. 

We forget that we take after people in some ways and not others. So sometimes we look at those relatives we aspire to be like, and we see what we want to see. Sometimes we look at ourselves desperately not wanting to see the evidence of those people we don't want to turn into. It's easy too to look at those relatives that we resemble - or are said to resemble - and see some of their personality traits in ourselves. It's easy to see, too, that the expectation of others might powerfully influence a child's development.

Jeanette's speciality is Kinship. Recently she's been studying people who trace their family trees. One of the things I realised quite early on in our conversation is that if you trace a family tree in this way, it's upside-down. It doesn't show people's children, it shows their parents, but it proliferates just as quickly, if with more regularity. You have two parents, four grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great grandparents, 32 great great grandparents and so on. (Actually I don't because my maternal grandparents were second cousins, but that's a whole other story). The further back you go the more possibilities there are.

Except people can't track down all those possibilities. There are choices made in the paths that are followed. Some paths of course are blocked through lack of information, and sometimes there's a lucky find. But there's also a process of selection - people chose those ancestors they invest in - perhaps because of their difference in terms of class or wealth, or perhaps because they bring exciting stories with them.

Jeanette felt that 'discovering' one's ancestors was the wrong word - that people 'created' their ancestors as they built a person from scraps of information. Again there's a significant role for the imagination in our idea of who we come from and how we relate to those people.

Do we become who we imagine we can be? I recall Anwen in a recent discussion at Commonword interjecting several times with the words 'we chose'. Do we, given the potential laid in by our inheritance and our early upbringing, chose who we turn into? Or do we discover who we really are? How much can we chose if we are unable to imagine ourselves being different? And how difficult is it to imagine that which has no basis in experience?

When I first got this grant through it occured to me that I was stumbling into the complex and fraught territory of the nature vs nuture debate. (I've never been one of those that's afraid to tread; part of my charm, I'm told... ) Now I don't think it's that one at all. I think it might be the one about determinism and choice. Genetics might seem to offer us a fatalism rivalled only by ancient curses and the 'sins of the father'. Psychology might also seem to show us a version of life in which we are forever bedevilled by the half-known experiences of our childhood.

What if both nature and nuture merely lay in the potential? And what if the thing that allows us to variously exploit and transcend that potential is the imagination?

Kate told me of one person at risk of inheriting Huntingdons   (  ) who refused to take a genetic test. In some versions of the world that might seem like denial. But perhaps too, she is claiming that which we all have - the right not to have our life mapped out. To make choices, to deal with what happens. To write our own stories. 

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