Why I See The Intersection Of Genetics And Religion In My Infant Son
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Before we left the hospital with Lev, the nurse gave us a little lecture about how important it is not to shake the baby. We’ve all read about awful incidents in the newspaper often enough to realize why the state has now mandated this little chat with new parents — though I found it odd that they not only explain it, but make both parents sign a document promising we would not violently shake Lev.
He is about to turn 3 months old, and has been such a perfect baby that I have not even once felt the slightest impatience or frustration with him. Forget shaking him, I don’t even look at him with a frowning face. But clearly, many parents out there do lose patience, especially when their baby cries for nights on end, and that’s why it’s so important to educate people that your newborn is not a maraca.
In addition to the obvious moral reasons, there are also evolutionary reasons why you don’t want to harm your baby. According to his seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins postulates that when we look at human history — the wars and famines, inventions, glories and failures — from the point of view of individual humans, we are totally missing the point. Dawkins suggested instead that the main agent of evolutionary history is the gene. We are all basically pawns being controlled by our genes, which are in a life or death struggle to succeed and transmit themselves to the next incarnation. (At least that’s what I recall — I read the book when I was 17.)
If I understand him correctly, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution suggests that the more closely 2 people are genetically related, the more sense it makes (at the level of the genes) for us to behave selflessly with each other. It’s a scientific explanation for altruism.
In a nutshell, Dawkins’ idea is that organisms evolve in order to pass along the maximum number of copies of their genes — which works better when you don’t kill people who are related to you. Hence, there are not only ethical and karmic reasons but also evolutionary logic behind the fact that we shouldn’t bash each other in the head with a shovel just because someone left the toilet seat up.
This is a scientific basis for morality, not a religious one. But in this case, the 2 seem to agree. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy to be nice to everyone. As any non-hermits out there will have noticed, you will rarely encounter anything more annoying than other people. This universal phenomenon could be taken as a gift — an opportunity to practice patience. On the other hand, some gifts are better to give than receive.
We are all basically pawns being controlled by our genes, which are in a life or death struggle to succeed and transmit themselves to the next incarnation.
According to Jewish law, one should never blame your child for the fact that you are slowly going insane. In fact, Judaism completely rejects the notion of original sin. According to Judaism, a child is born pure, completely free from sin. And as Dawkins points out, those are, after all, your genes in there, screaming at you and peeing on you. You are the one who put your butt on the Xerox machine and pressed the copy button.
As we approach the 3-month mark, it is safe to say Michelle has definitely managed to avoid the baby blues, but it’s easy to understand why postpartum depression is pitfall for many new mothers. Not only because of the hormonal shifts a woman goes through, but also because of the societal expectation that you should be feeling totally blissful and blessed, when in fact, you might feel exhausted, scared and fat. For the father — speaking from personal experience — it’s thrilling to have a little Xerox of you. But suddenly you start to feel this weird caveman pressure to go out and gather berries, drag home an injured wildebeest, and worry about your stock portfolio.
Taken together, these pressures and the strangeness of having a new roommate who never cleans up after himself, can take their toll. Even if you don’t clinically suffer from postpartum depression, and even if there is no such thing for a dad — at some point the thought might pop into your head that life would be a lot easier if you were, say, dead.
Then you look down at that little bundle of your genes — squirming in a onesie, your DNA and RNA mingling with the genes of your beloved queen — and you are hit with a wonderfully liberating thought: it isn’t up to you. It’s your genes that are in control, struggling mightily to replicate and carry on their tangle of ribbons filled with passionate intensity and the blueprints of a body to be.
The moral of the story is relax, sit back and enjoy the ride. Jesus may be your co-pilot. But it’s your genes that have their tiny fingers on the steering wheel.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.