Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.
And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.
Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.
But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary. https://aeon.co/essays/in-genetics-as-in-philosophy-existence-precedes-essence?
She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’
On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.
And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.
Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.
I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?
At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective. Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.
“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.
“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.
“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.
Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”
His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”
“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”
He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”
“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”
“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.
Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.
“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”
“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”
“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”
He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”
She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”
He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”
Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”
He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”
Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”
I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”
I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…
“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”
He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…