Our genes. Those basic units of heredity of ours; the segments of our DNA that inform – or, determine – our characteristics. The knowledge that we are these moving, thinking, breathing human beings – with so much going on within us, maintained via the presence of roughly thirty trillion cells (!!!), innate forms of information, and communication between all these microscopic parts. Mind-blowingly fantastic, amazing.
A while ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘Three Identical Strangers’, and it is safe to say that its contents – the topics explored through it – blew my mind; I would strongly recommend it to anybody who is even vaguely interested in psychology.
The documentary is centred on the story of three identical triplets who had been separated at birth, and who had been adopted into three different families. So, they had been practically the same on the ‘nature’ front, but brought up within three distinctly different household-types, of different social classes and such — and so, they had ended up being quite unalike on the ‘nurture’ front.
This had been a real-life occurrence; not something plucked from some work of fiction:
Nineteen years after being separated at birth, two of the three biological brothers meet, by ‘chance’, at university. One of them walks in, as a new student; his fellow students are already acting awfully familiar with him. He wonders why. Turns out, there is another student at the university, who looks just the same as him, and whom he is now being mistaken for. [Once again, I would truly recommend watching the documentary, for the details of the triplets’ story, and for more about… the experiment they later discovered they had furtively been made a part of, from birth. An absolutely astonishing story, which had given rise to a number of fascinating findings and resulting questions…]
The young men discover that they are indeed twins; later discover that there is a third brother: they are a trio. They looked pretty much the same: almost entirely identical facial features; hair type; build. Moreover, the brothers discover that they exhibit very similar behavioural characteristics too (in terms of ways of walking, of sitting, and such); they favour the same brand of cigarette; they even have the same ‘type’ (the same ‘taste’ in women)!
Tragically, one of the brothers eventually ended up taking his own life, after a battle with bipolar disorder, the actualisation of which had been pinned to social/environmental factors: namely, the man’s difficult relationship with his own (adoptive) father.
But I guess what I am trying to express, in this particular article, is how awesome it is, that we have, within us, these forms of innate knowledge, and how elusive the answers to these questions about ‘nature’/’nurture’/’autonomy’ really are.
We operate on information that is in-built, pre-existing, and here we are, as experiencers. We did not get to choose the colours of our skins; the texture of our hair. We did not choose whom we had been born to; whom we are connected to ‘by blood’. All of those ‘bigger’ things. And… so many of the ‘smaller’ ones, too.
Last year, I decided to purchase a ’23andMe’ test for myself. To find out more about my genetic predispositions, and also after years of being asked,
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, where’s that?”
“Oh, but you look Moroccan/Mauritian/Pakistani…”
Within my immediate-extended family, some of us look more ‘South Indian’, while others look more ‘Northern Indian’. Some look more Turkish, North African, Persian. The list goes on. For example, one of my first cousins and I attended the same primary and secondary schools together. We’d mostly been in the same classes, but nobody really ever suspected that we were cousins, or even that we had been ‘from’ the same country, until we told them so. People assumed he was Algerian or something, and some people guessed correctly that I’m Bengali, while others insisted that I look like I’m from “somewhere else”. [“Where, though?” “I don’t know. Just… somewhere else”]
I wanted to find out more about the story of my ancestry: about the people who had come before me.
Outside of my familial circle (which is actually so huge that we could probably easily populate a small country) some of my friends who are Bengali look quite like they could be Malaysian; some look more European; some look more Arab.
From what I know, on my mother’s side, my great-great-great-great (with eight ‘greats’ in total, I believe) grandfather had been from Yemen. Other than that, ‘we’ are from the Bengal region in India – a large fraction of which became ‘Bangladesh’ (literally, ‘Land of the Bengals’) in 1971, when the region declared its independence from Pakistan.
According to ’23andMe’, modern-day Bengalis are mostly the descendants of Central Asians who had migrated southwards, roughly four thousand years ago. Bangladesh is also bordered, on one side, by Nepal – which forms a sort of ‘bridge region’ between ourselves and China. It has (or, should I say, ‘we’ have?) been under Mughal – so, Turco-Mongol – rule, and under British colonial rule, in the past.
I never really realised how alike Bengali ‘culture’ is, with Nepali ‘culture’ until I met one of my cousins’ friends, at my uncle’s wedding. Language, ‘cultural dress’, food. Extremely similar. [Also, I’ve used inverted commas around ‘culture’ because this word seeks to describe the entire way of life of a particular group of people. But, of course, ‘culture’ is never really static, not really reified — but it is useful when it comes to describing what might ‘generally’ be the case].
From reading about my own genetic analysis results, I learned that, in addition to the ‘big’ things that are genetically determined: hair colour, eye colour, susceptibility towards particular illnesses… many of the ‘smaller’ things are thought to be genetically predetermined too. How likely you are to… be averse to coriander, for instance. Preferring sweet foods, or savoury. Being more of a ‘night owl’ or a ‘morning person’; whether you’re more likely to be a ‘deep sleeper’, or a ‘lighter’ one. Earwax type. Finger length ratio. ‘Asparagus odour detection abilities’.
Maybe she’s born with it: maybe it’s in her genes.
So much of ourselves would appear to be… predetermined. But where does predetermination end; where on Earth does auturgy (acting independently, without external influence) begin?
I know for a fact that my genetic makeup has been greatly affected by the actions, the decisions, of those who had come before me. Migrations, and marriages, and perhaps far, far more than these. Perhaps one of my Yemeni ancestors had developed a real penchant for coffee, and maybe that is why I love it so much, today.
Why do I love the things I love? Why am I who and how I am? Is it just a ‘self’ that I am presented with, which I myself can only ‘discover’ and never actually creatively contribute to?
Maybe it is that we start off with a lot of these things, which are predetermined. Perhaps it is the case that within these given features and factors, we have the ability to act with auturgy.
When you receive the ’23andMe’ testing kit, the box reads, in large print, “Welcome to you.”
You: an alive, breathing, and conscious part of the story of humanity. Our very beginnings. A world to get to know, and to be conversant with; our selves, and other people, too. And every single thing that had to happen to get here, to you. The migrations; the meetings. The language barriers – and the breakthroughs – between Bengali and Arabic perhaps, and then came English.
Selfhood. The journeys of our lives. The innate information that tells us how – and when – to begin. Two cells fuse together; growth occurs. Majestic and precise. The innate knowledge within a woman’s body – cycles, circles – which knew how to nourish you, converting the food your mother ate, into food for you. The capacities we have, to learn. How words – language – sounds from our mouths, and scratches on paper, fit into our minds like puzzle pieces into gaps, ready for them, and waiting.
Our bodies know to begin to decline, too. The forthcoming, the inevitable. We are here for a while, and then we return.
We are not the creators of our own selves; it is not each of the trillions of cells that make us – nor the atoms that make up them – that are sovereign. How do they know what to do? How do we know what to do?
Strangers on an island, we are. We “[discount] all this learnedly”. We “[grow] accustomed to these mysteries and [ignore] them, just as [we ignore] the miraculous throbbing stars.” [William Golding, Lord of the Flies]
It is all just too amazing for words. Subhan Allah.
Also, a free pick-up line to use on your Bengali friends:
“Are you Bengali? Because I think you are… peng…-ali.”
With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.