Anne Mei turns 18 today. We are heading out shortly for her to get her adult drivers license.
When Anne Mei was five years old, Laura told me what she said while they were looking at the Families Through International Adoption newsletter, which was full of pictures of children just adopted from China, Russia, Guatemala, etc. “You could have just given another baby the name ‘Anne Mei.’”
The frightening contingency of being adopted. Laura reassured Anne Mei that she is special. Anne Mei liked that—the affirmation of her uniqueness, the denial of her fungibility with any other child, adopted or not. Not satisfied, she asked if her friend Anika, is special, and was disappointed to hear Laura say she was. Laura hastened to add “in her family.”
Here are some reflections made in my journal at that time.
A rock is a rock and remains a rock for eons. Nothing internal to the rock causes it to change, but it can be eroded, cracked, or pulverized by external forces. A rock has no senses and no sense of itself or what happens to it.
A plant grows from a seed (according to a genetic program), eats, breathes, drinks and dies. A plant can sense internal and external happenings and react to them (again according to a genetic code) of which the plant has no sense.
An animal has the above capacities, plus, to varying degrees and modes, the ability to move under its own power and direction from place to place. This movement is often related to or highly/integrally linked to acquisition and consumption of food and drink. Additionally, animals reproduce through sexual attraction, sexual relations, and parenting. The complexity of the interaction among living (eat, sleep, breath), movement, sex and parenting affect an animal’s sense of internal and external things and happenings in ways that lead to, point towards, a greater sense of the animal as an individual distinct from others—other things and even other animals of its kind, including (for some) a greater capacity to sense not only itself, but its kind from other kinds. Now add sight (integral to movement) and then memory, the ability to recall what the animal has seen before and associate that image with what happened when what-was-seen was seen. And the ability to recall that image (see what-was-seen again) to evoke the emotions and the mandate to action associated with what-was-seen. Or what-was-sensed—heard, tasted, touched/felt.
All this needs to be checked against what biologists say. (Note I do not say “against biological facts.”) The degree and mode by which a plant senses external things and happenings is largely related to how and what the plant consumes (eats, breathes). Question about plants which have to be more active in acquiring their food—do they have more sense of themselves as distinct from their food? And how would a human observe, measure, or confirm a plant’s sense(s) of itself as not-food? Much less “not-my-food,” where “my” is loaded.
From not-food to not-cómo-se-llama, where cómo-se-llama refers to everything and anything that is not the plant. As observed by the plant? For instance, do plants sense the insects or animals that enable the reproduction of the plant? How and why if the plant has no sense of the plants which precede it or succeed it?
At some point in the evolution of the human from animals, and in the classification of the human, or close-to-human, from other animals, there appears, emerges, develops the ability to sense, perceive oneself as a distinct entity—distinct in generation (child-parent-grandparent) and distinct in identity, selfhood. The internal storage and recall capacity of the human is greater than (most) other animals, particularly when supplemented by a growing capacity to record, store, and recall (not always developing at the same rate as the capacity to store) what-was-sensed externally. The ability to record is integrally related to the ability to talk (and then to write) and out of talk, language, emerges the sense of the one who is talking, and of the other to whom one is talking.
Holy cow! I left out the whole question of communication among animals, and plants for that matter.
I’m fumbling here around the circularity of what I’m writing about the emergence of the ability to sense oneself as oneself and not anything else.
I started on these thoughts to try to develop grounds for addressing the profound questions of identity raised by Anne Mei’s observation that we could have given her name (it’s hers now) just as easily to another child. When she’s older, she will wonder what would have happened to Liu Mei and who would Liu Mei be. She may also ask who would have been this other “Anne Mei.”
The manner of our adoption of Anne Mei where we had no role in the selection of the child highlights these questions. But they are implicit in the identity of any child because conception and which sperm fertilizes which egg and which fetus makes it to birth are such matters of chance, probability.
Adoption represents a human intervention in the process of the placement of a child with the adult(s) who will become that child’s parent(s). (One thought to ponder: the mere placement of the child with an adult or adults does not make them the child’s parents. It is by the love and care of parenting that one becomes a parent. The legal designation of parenthood is a related, but distinct matter.) Other forms of human intervention in this process are challenged on moral grounds more than adoption, though there are some people with strong moral objections to adoption. These other interventions include artificial insemination, fertility treatments, surrogate gestation, cloning (if ever perfected), frozen embryos, etc., and on the side of preventing placement of a child—birth control and abortion.
I wonder whether it makes any difference in one’s selfhood if there was a human intervention in the process by which one was placed with one’s parents. On the other side, however, human intervention certainly can thwart the potential for any such selfhood.
Anne Mei is worried about the contingency of her adoption, but it is precisely the apparent lack or loss of contingency that bothers some people about human intervention in the process of child-parent placement (e.g., IVF, adoption).
What they’re forgetting is that the human intervention itself is contingent. Who is to say that the decision to adopt or not to adopt, the decision to use in vitro fertilization, or the decision to abort or not to abort is any less contingent than the decision to make love with the knowledge that the circumstances are such that there is a high probability of conception.