Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Who are you?

Crooked Timber points to an interesting paper by David Velleman that argues against donor conception on the ground that knowledge of one's ancestry and parentage is crucial to identity formation.

I have to wonder how much of the author's sense of ancestry's importance to identity flows from his relatively homogeneous heritage and his attachment to a singular, coherent ethnic identity. For a European mutt like myself, finding out whether I have more Germans than Scots in my family tree, or if there's a hitherto-unknown French or Italian branch, seems relatively unimportant. My identity is not "Amber, German/Scots-Irish-American." It's more "Amber, generic pasty woman." I don't eat sauerkraut and I don't drink whiskey. I didn't know my father's family when I was growing up. Due to geography and untimely deaths, I still don't know that much about many members of my family. I've never thought of this as disadvantaging me in terms of identity formation. When I have met members of my father's extended family, I haven't found them to be particularly familiar; they did not show me "deeply ingrained aspects of [my]self."At no point have I ransacked genealogical databases to discover whether the horse thief ancestor my now-deceased grandfather claimed was real or not.

We make our own stories, and I don't particularly care which of them are biologically based or even true. Many things can be incorporated into our process of identity formation. Velleman's rejection of the possibility of us finding our own meaningful narratives outside a biological context is conclusory; "Adoptees," he asserts, "seem to have the sense of not knowing important stories about themselves . . . unless and until they know their biological origins." Where is the evidence for this lack being innate and not the product of ideas like Velleman's? He admits that the benefits of putting personal traits in the context of one's ancestral history is "imaginative speculation," since we don't know which traits are the product of nurture. In arguing for the maximization of "possible self-understandings," he hobbles understanding by tying it to biology. For someone who purports not to understand how his opponents can comprehend literary themes, he ignores the role of influences such as literature and culture on on identity formation.

Velleman's characterization of his opponents is similarly conclusory; they are "in denial" about the fact that they are similar to their families, or have actually used their family members as cautionary tales in pursuit of differentiated identity. It is almost impossible to argue with someone who makes his case in such a manner. Like claims of false consciousness, in many cases it proves too much. Additionally, Velleman ignores people with a multiplicity of potentially contradictory identities; is a businessman following the spirit of an entrepreneurial ancestor or boldly departing from the ways of a timid, risk-averse one? Given such options, is it meaningful to put your actions in the context of your biological ancestry at all?

While Velleman doesn't make any public policy proposals in his paper, his general contention is that we have a moral obligation not to create children who may have access to only half of their biological heritage. He analogizes this to the obligation a woman on teratogenic medication has not to conceive a handicapped child. I wonder if he would be willing to take the analogy one step further. Many women who discover they carry deformed fetuses choose to abort. Would a woman who could potentially bring a fatherless child into the world be making a similar choice? I think not.
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