Darwinian Nightmare

I used to have a friend who would call me a “Darwinian nightmare.” I’ll just say that this very loosely had to do with me making a habit of flaunting certain principles of evolutionary psychology. I realized the other day that I’m still flaunting the basic premises of evolutionary psychology. I’m spending tens of thousands of dollars in a highly effortful attempt to perpetuate some other woman’s DNA. For nine months, I want to dedicate my body to housing, nourishing, sustaining, and developing a child who is entirely unrelated to me. For the rest of my life, I want to drain a large proportion of my own resources into creating for this child an environment that allows him or her to maximize his or her own fitness and, in theory, success in passing on the genes of a total stranger into the next generation**.

I used to study evolutionary psychology (and I will freely admit that I wish I still did), but I must confess that this was over a decade ago. I no longer talk the talk like I used to, and apparently I never really walked the walk. As I understand it, the field has (coincidentally) evolved to the point where it has become more sophisticated. For example, the idea that women are monogamous and men are polygamous is now seen as excessively reductionistic and, frankly, not even true. But when I was young and idealistic, I became disillusioned by what I saw as evolutionary psychology’s central premise: people who can’t or won’t reproduce are useless. At the time, I didn’t know that I was one of those people, but I still scrapped an entire field of study based on my reductionistic viewpoint.

I wondered how egg donation is now explained in the field of evolutionary psychology. I did a quick literature review and found multiple sources specifically noting that their findings were contrary to those predicted by evolutionary psychology – namely, they found that families in which the children were conceived by egg or sperm donation were comparable to families in which the children were conceived naturally.  In one study, they found that families in which children conceived by donor sperm or eggs were no lower in warmth or involvement than those in which the children were conceived naturally (Blake, Casey, Jadva, & Golombok, 2014). Similar findings were found for families in which the children were conceived by embryo donation (MacCallum & Keeley, 2008). In another study, the researchers hypothesized that fathers of children conceived by donated sperm would have higher psychological problems and lower quality of parenting. They did not (Casey, Jadva, Blake, & Golombok, 2013).

I’m still not sure what the evolutionary psychology explanation is. But, enough about all this research. How do I feel about trying to get pregnant with an anonymous woman’s genetic child? My feelings about it surprised me.

Before I found out about my infertility, I had always felt that a genetic connection with my children was of utmost importance to me. I had this arrogant view of my genes as my pride and joy that needed to be spread throughout the world. I wanted a chance to be the next Mitochondrial Eve!

However, when I discovered my diagnosis, we knew there was almost certainly a genetic cause, since my sister has the same diagnosis. I received genetic testing to try to find the cause and, like about half of women whose infertility is of genetic origin, it didn’t turn out to be a commonly tested-for gene. So, I’m not sure what it is. However, I did discover that I was a carrier of genes for spinal muscular atrophy and Gaucher’s disease. In the midst of these revelations, it struck me that my genes were not exactly hot shit. That the gene pool was not going to fall over itself clamoring for my vaguely rat-colored hair or my perfectly unattached earlobes. And the genes associated with my mental health are not exactly stellar. And that I’m really just one perfectly average, definitely flawed bag of DNA in a sea of humanity. But that I could still be something over which my genes have little, if any, control – a good and loving parent.

It’s also a little exciting, as there will be many surprises in store. Maybe my child will have his genetic maternal grandfather’s ears. Maybe she’ll have her genetic mother’s voice. Maybe he’ll make that exact face his genetic maternal grandmother’s brother made when he was skeptical. But I don’t know any of those people. (In fact, neither does our current donor, who was apparently adopted). It’ll be a little genetic mystery that unfolds. “Kid, how is it possible that you don’t like cilantro? That ain’t your dad’s OR6A2 gene variant, I’ll tell you that much! Now put some salsa on those tostadas right this instant, young lady!”

**Note: obviously, my husband’s genes will be bouncing around in this kid, too, and I must admit I have a much higher investment in his genes than I do in my own or basically anyone else’s. So hats off to gestational surrogates, people who conceive through embryo donation, and people who adopt – who are investing in children unrelated to any of the parties involved. I can’t comment on that experience, which may be much different.

Casey, P, Jadva, V, Blake, L & Golombok, S. (2013). Families created by donor insemination: Father-child relationships at age 7. Journal of Marriage & Family, 75(4), 858-870, doi: 10.1111/jomf.12043

Blake, L, Casey, P, Jadva, V & Golombok, S. (2014). ‘I was quite amazed’: Donor conception and parent–child relationships from the child’s perspective. Children & Society, 28, 425-437, doi:10.1111/chso.12014

MacCallum, F & Keeley, S. (2008). Embryo donation families: A follow-up in middle childhood. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(6), 799-808, doi:10.1037/a0013197

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