Building for the Past

David Edmonds poses a question:

Imagine three cities.

1. A medieval city (something like Oxford).

2. A city heavily bombed in World War II and completely rebuilt, with original materials etc. (e.g. the centre of Warsaw).

3. A city constructed in 2012 to look just like the medieval city (e.g. Poundbury the ‘traditional’ village Prince Charles has created in Dorset).

Now imagine that these three cities look identical.  And let’s stipulate that the experience of living in them is pretty much the same (the houses are no more likely to suffer from dry rot in the first than the third).   Here’s the question: where would you rather live?

He reckons that most would prefer Oxford over Warsaw, and both – comfortably – over Poundbury.  I suspect that he’s right.  Why is this, and why does it matter for bioethics?

Edmonds’ hypothesis is that it’s because we care about origins and back-story.  We like to have some sense of where things came from – it’s a part of how we assess their worth.  The problem with a place like Poundbury is that its backstory is completely ersatz. (Whether an ersatz history is better than none at all is a further question, and we could extend the thought-experiment by adding a fourth option: what about living in an unashamedly modern town?  What if an architect was allowed to start from scratch, and didn’t look to the past at all?  Depressingly, my hunch is that many people would prefer to live in Poundbury than in Neopolis.  Without genuine history, they’d prefer fake history.  Prince Charles obviously would.  Mind you, if it wasn’t for a history, fake or imagined, he’d have nothing at all.  Except Cornwall.  And about a billion pounds.  But I digress…)

As for bricks and mortar, so for genetic origins. Lots of people care about their genetic back-story.  Being better informed about your health prospects might give some explanation about why we care about our genetics, but it’s not really all that compelling a reason to care.  After all, you don’t need to know a family history to get a genetic test done.  And, as Edmonds points out, it’s not the potential health benefits that tend to move people anyway.  People break down on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? when they discover that some hitherto-unknown ancestor died in the potato famine, although none of the other deaths had made the slightest difference to them, and continue not to.  But it’s not insight into their own health that provokes that reaction.

He continues:

There has long been a debate about whether adopted children should have the right to know about their biological parents.  And in recent years a similar debate has been stimulated by the revolution in fertility treatment.  A law now gives children born from sperm donors the right to discover the identities of their father when they reach eighteen [.  G]iven the yearning people have for knowledge of their origins, one can at least understand why the law-makers did it.

From an anthropological and a political point of view, we do have an explanation for why the law is as it is.  People do want to know “where they come from” – and they think that “where they come from” is at least partly to do with their genes.  That is going to feed into a political imperative.

But giving a reason why we have the law we have is not giving a (moral) reason to have the law we have.  It’s not nearly so obvious that anyone would be seriously wronged if they did not have information about their parentage – as I’ve noted, the things that’d make a material difference are available without that knowledge.  In fact, it might even be pernicious to have such information available.

The reason for this is that it’s possible that having access to such information destabilises a person’s sense of where they are now.  Being told that you can have information about your genetic origins could end up fostering the feeling that the social relationships with which you’ve grown up and to which you’re used aren’t “real”, and aren’t as important as the genetic relationship with someone you’ve never met.  Emphasising genes might end up alienating a person from the lives that they lead.  Especially when society and the government talks about what an exciting and good thing it is that at last you can have all that information.  It’s bound to make people more likely to think that they’d be missing out without it, isn’t it?

Let me give an example that, though slightly extreme, illustrates the worry.  A few years ago, I heard an interview on Radio 4’s PM programme with a couple who’d adopted a child from – if I remember rightly – Cambodia.  The child was about two years old.  The mother seemed like a wholly decent person, but said something astonishing: that she would try to bring up her daughter to understand her own culture.

Her own culture? At two?  I’ve seen two-year-olds, and they all share the same culture: it revolves around crying and – with luck – becoming continent.  Beyond that, culture is entirely to do with upbringing.

I don’t doubt that the intention was well-meaning, but I can’t help but to worry that a possible outcome would be a child who was always feeling that she somehow didn’t quite fit.  It’s possible that she will, at some point in her childhood, ask why her skin is a different colour from her parents’.  But in that case, why not just say that she was adopted?  This ought only to be problematic if we take as a starting point that biological relationships are the Oxford to adoption’s Poundbury.  If we deny that – and it seems to me that we could deny it perfectly well – there ought to be no problem.  Some people are gestated by their mothers; others aren’t.  The non-gestational mother is no less a mother for that.

And where a person currently is, and who they currently are, is not undermined by the fact that they don’t know their genetic history.  Why should it be?  It isn’t for most people.  After all, as a slightly bastardised form of the saying goes, it’s a wise child who truly knows his genetic father. But we can add to this: it’s a wiser child yet who doesn’t really care.

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