In my continuing research into what I term transformative anthropology, or, into developmental serendipity in the human life cycle, every question or speculation is worth investigation. This includes questions considered ridiculous:
“What if your parents had never met?”
To which I respond: Indeed. (So, I gently pull it into my mental lab.)
I had an opportunity this fall to pose clinical-like questions to one of my softball associates, a pediatrician, Dr. Art. What I was wondering about was whether or not it would be equally correct, given the what if you’re parents never met query, to pose a similar question: “What if your, (or my own, or anybody’s,) parents had instantiated the fertilization at some other timely point, say seconds, minutes, hours, the next day, later, other than at the time at which point you, me, anybody came to be?”
Here’s the encapsulation of my questioning of Dr. Art.
Given the chanciness of what comes together at point of fertilization, is it correct to state that the fertilization that produced me, you, anybody, exactingly reflects the outcome of a single and unique outcome of sperm meeting egg? (In other words, fertilization is not able to be comprehensively duplicated in anyway.)
Okay, so, the nature of fertilization is a spectacular instance of something, a human he or she, in its generative case, created and necessarily from this, completely unique.
Dr. Art’s answer was,
“As far as anybody can know, human fertilization causes a unique person.”
Its instance comes down to a singular event and a rapid unfolding of unique configuration. This is entirely given by the nature of the mechanics involved. A different instantiation would unfold under the slightly different conditions given by these same mechanics.
Several aspects of this (class of) instance figure into how one thinks about it–as a matter of these mechanics. Fertilization’s uniqueness is not repeatable. Nor is this like shuffling a deck of cards or rolling the dice. The unique result is singularly so. There are many many possible outcomes when the deck is shuffled. Yet, over time, and with enough shuffles, the outcomes aren’t singularly unique. Likewise if we pose such an instance as a roll of the dice. I don’t know what a rigorous mathematically-minded appreciation of the consequential uniqueness of fertilization would be, yet I suspect the analogous two dice have to have an odd, not finite, configuration.
The scale of the temporal condition is something like: instantaneous, yet this also reflects the physical conditions through which fertilization happens as a result of one sperm actor, so-to-speak, being successful against all the other actors. It’s a measurable amount of time too, this instant.
A consequence of this set-up is that the instantiation of one’s own self hangs on the slender thread of these conditions. If Marvin Gaye comes on the CD player, and one of the parties to conception gasps, “Hold On!” then the internal process will be configured differently. Yet, consider how even this kind of adjustment occurs at an almost ridiculously huge scale given how the outcome of fertilization is itself contingent on the tiny scale at which the jockeying of sperm happens.
Perhaps, say you, “So what?”
As I mentioned, I take this seriously because I’m researching the element of fortuity as it plays a part in the resolution of human development at any scale of condition or time. I’m tracking back here to what I term the primordial biological dependent contingency. This is where any map of fortuitous contingency tracks back to. However, at the same time, there is also the implicit regress, ‘what if your parents’ parents had never met?’ And, the circumstances for consequential conjoinment, and for relationship, are entangled in vast, requisite ‘narratives’ for which all the necessary human players, and time-and-space, features necessarily are in some exacting way configured by long chains of, well, fertilization!
Backing up from this, we can sift through other consequences (of primordial biological dependent contingency) at much larger scales of relationship and agency. The evolutionary perspective warrants consideration of where this all can be said to commence and how the two, at least, most primal actors came to make something like the first instance, and how the original hims and hers were instantiated in kind.
Also recognized are other perspectives and the explanations or suppositions each invokes. The idea that a unique soul animates the physical instance of fertilization is, obviously, a very ancient idea. This same idea is deeply embedded in many varieties of how persons culturally grappled with the presumably self-evident unique outcome of procreation. Actually, is there a good reason to presume even this was so? I’m willing to wager without knowing–yet–conceptions about the soul finding its physical incarnation predate ideas about every born human constituting an utterly unique instance of human being.
Obviously, fortuitous dependencies track backward from biological scales ‘down and further’ back through material and temporal scales. My main research interest lies in the other direction, long after the presumptive collapse of enjoined human wave functions (!) granted in fertilization have occurred. Still, it would remain true enough that the serendipity decisive in later human development all are in the light of the strange and implicit fragility of fertilization, and, the: “I might never have come to be!”
Except for this crucial feature: successful fertilization and thus the biological evocation of a him or her sets up this new person as a unique in stance of human being, but is not the whole story by any means.
So much for the notion that DNA determines what an organism is like; it doesn’t. There is, in principle, no one-to-one relationship, no “mapping,” from DNA sequences to characters. (Of course, we can map differences of character– like albinism or Parkinson’s disease–to species differences in DNA.) The whole process of development, from ovary- making egg to mother-making ovary, holds itself together. Each bit of information context, like the egg mechanisms, is necessary and specific for each bit of information content, like the DNA. What makes the fly, or you, is the complete process of development. All of it. Can you blame your DNA for your funny squiggly handwriting, your passion for Fats Waller and
Burmese cats, your blue eyes! Well, perhaps the last, but certainly not the others. You can’t blame the DNA for what you’ve made of yourself. You, the process, are responsible for what you are, what you do. And for what you become. (biologist Jack Cohen)