Column: Barbara Sumner –
The Gallows Bird is a historical trilogy I have coming out next year. In it, we meet Mr Fingleston, a silk merchant and tailor.
Mr Fingleston visited me in the early hours. I described as an ivy bush of a man, small and messy with a moustache drooping below his chin.
I wrote that description over 20 years ago. The timing is important.
For most of my adult life I’ve been on a shadow journey to find my biological family. In 1983 after an overheard comment and some pre-internet sleuthing I found my mother. Shortly after she died in a fiery plane crash on her way to meet me.
From that point on I searched for my father. There were many wrong turns, false information, raised hopes and deep disappointments.
I found him, finally in 2017. Five years too late.
In finding my father, I discovered a new sister, a genealogist cousin and a very detailed family tree.
Including my great-grandfather, Alfred Fingleston.
And yes, he has the same name as my invented character. Yes, he was a master tailor. And yes, he lived where my novel is set. Then I find I look just like my father. I share a skill set with one of my sisters and have the same passions as another. Our children echo one another.
It makes you wonder to what extent our behaviour is predicated on the long-ago past? On DNA and genetic determinism.
25 years ago, proponents of the Human Genome Project said DNA would change everything. It would lead to ‘a new understanding of what it means to be a human being.‘
“Genetics and the Sociology of Identity”, a social sciences publication, studies genetics’ penetration into social life. How we negotiate the space between self, others and institutions in light of DNA. They worry about genetic determinism. The idea that genes control your behaviour.
Reading the science (as a non-scientist) I am struck by how nervous the writers seem.
And so they should.
Because it’s stepping back in history. Way back. To Plato and Aristotle. To Essentialism and Determinism. To the idea that every entity has a predetermined, genetic set of essential attributes necessary to its identity.
That belief held sway through history all the way until Charles Darwin and Karl Marx changed the world by theorizing that external material conditions create identity.
This philosophy had to be if they were to end the inequities created by birth. (For men anyway. Women were still expected to behave in a gender deterministic way)
Nurture over nature.
Except DNA came along. Is DNA the elephant in the room of social sciences and social determinism?
Because DNA delivers a high degree of certainty about who we are. Race, ethnic origin, kinship, propensity to hereditary diseases and other traits.
But NZ law says otherwise. Under the Adoption Act 1955, I have no heredity rights. The act says I am ‘as if’ born to the people who adopted me.
I am a social experiment. My whole life It has been concomitant on me to play the part of the happy(ish) adoptee. To prove that social determinism is indeed a valid way to run society. While behind closed doors my behaviours and actions are still discussed as aberrations. A flaw in my genes.
It was not Karl Marx’s fault. It was my fault I did not fit the family deemed more socially acceptable than my unmarried birth mother.
Meanwhile, the Adoption Act 1955 remains firmly in place. Propped up by unthinking judges and social workers. And by successive governments.
Between 1955 and 1990 the government took over 103,000 children from their mothers. They did it in the name of social engineering. Not one of us has ever had our rights restored.
Yes, DNA has given me some freedom. But my files remain locked away, my legal right to my history is still denied.
The Adoption Act 1955 remains able to separate children from their parents.
Thanks to DNA, Plato’s idea of essential nature is again a determinant of identity. Science, medicine, insurance companies, employers, government departments, policing and childcare services all seek to ascribe status and identity using DNA.
Except in New Zealand legislation. which still believes nurture can cure nature.
And The Gallows Bird? Thank you for asking. It should be available in about six months. Send me an email if you’d like to join either my author newsletter or the Like a Stranger newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org
– ref. In the blood – https://www.sadiesumnerbooks.com/blog/2018/11/15/7l07hgfghnxqpxxilwsk1i29iw2xgh
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