Not Passing on the Bad Genes

Sarah Silverman recently said that she wasn't going to have children, because she didn't want to pass on the gene for depression. Anna Brezlaw adds her own commentary at Jezebel. 

My own family tree is littered with alcoholics and depressives, as well as people with unusal smarts and musical ability. Steve's family is pretty similar. Then we mated. Apparently, some recessive autism genes lurked in there, too.

Do I worry about my grandchildren and my great neices and nephews? Sometimes, but not really. I doubt that anybody really has "clean" DNA without any freaky genes in there. Honestly, I wish I had more freaky-gened children, because the two that we made are so great. 

9 thoughts on “Not Passing on the Bad Genes

  1. I think it’s a commentary on how much pressure there is on women to be mothers. She has to justify her desire not to be a mother by claiming a “motherly” role to want the best for children. If a person doesn’t want children, s/he should be allowed to feel that way without having to cover it all up in excuses and rationalizations to avoid being judged.

  2. When we were making decisions about how to start a family knowing that I had some spinal deformities that would make a pregnancy risky, I did think to myself about how reassuring it was that I wouldn’t be passing on genes I wouldn’t want to. And yet it’s also reassuring that the daughter we adopted has predispositions to all the same stuff she’d have been prone to with my genes or my partner’s, right down to a mother who had her gall bladder removed at the same unusually young age I did. I know that her life and health outcomes will be her own, but it’s good to know that we’ll be likely to be able to connect with what she needs thanks to our own family histories.

  3. I’m a big advocate for human biodiversity. I think there are a lot of things that are very good and useful in moderation but go by nasty names when you have too much of them (ADHD, autism, bipolar, depression, narcissism, etc.). For one thing, if you read the lives of great men, there are few well-adjusted ones in the bunch. To systematically try to eliminate all the “bad” human genes might be as ill-advised as trying to get by with only one variety of potatoes.
    On alcoholism, I think there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful. For one thing, there are now less harmful medications to treat a lot of stuff that old-fashioned alcoholics were often self-medicating for. For another, I know that it’s possible for alcoholism within a family to stop…just like that. I am descended from a long line of Swedish alcoholics (in one family with a Swedish immigrant father, 3 out of 4 of the kids were). It went on like that until my grandfather. Somehow (unlike just about every living male relative he had at the time and at least one alcoholic auntie), he just never got into it. He didn’t and doesn’t smoke, chew snus, drink, or gamble (the last being especially an issue in the Army where in the old days, a couple of guys would wind up with everybody’s paycheck at the end of the month). That sounds very prim and uncool, but it all had a huge difference in the direction our family tree took. When you don’t have the tapeworm of addiction sucking up family resources, very good things can start happening.

  4. “I doubt that anybody really has “clean” DNA without any freaky genes in there. ”
    Yup. I find it an incredibly naive reading of genetic literature. Sergey Brin has been pretty smart about describing what the LRRK2 gene (and the genetic risk of autism, potentially 28% by the age of 60) means. But, it’s naive to imagine that he risk should mean you shouldn’t reproduce. Really — 60 years of being brilliant, amazing, productive and changing the world? Isn’t that worth some risk?
    There are lots and lots of risks out there, only a few of which are linked to an identifiable gene. Taking that to mean that you have more risk is committing the error in analysis of presuming that having information means more risk than having none.
    Finally, even if imagine not eliminating Sergie Brin or Sarah Silverman, but only their “parkinsons” and “depression” genes, we run Amy’s risk of reducing human biodiversity tremendously. And, that’s way more dangerous than having only one kind of potato.
    I had a friend who was at risk for Huntingtons, an autosomal dominant gene that debilitates people in their 40’s (famous 60 minutes profile). He agonized about having children, because that was a gene with 100% penetrance (everyone with it develops the disease) and devastating to everyone involved (muscle dysfunction that leaves you unable to control you bodies + senility). Finding out the risk would have been a life sentence for him as well (that he would have to plan his life knowing that it would be destroyed at 40, after seeing his parent fall apart). Oh, and let’s add that was a student in the field where any ability to hide from the was impossible. Now that’s a quandry. Potential risks of depression, diabetes, parkinson’s, they’re just part of the world.

  5. I think Wendy is hitting the real story on the head, that the genetics becomes another loophole for people who don’t *want* to have children. People who want children have them anyway.

  6. I really like this… my father’s family has a history of mental illness (a few of his siblings, actually, which is pretty scary, at least for me), but my mom’s side is ok. My husband’s too.
    I love it that we passed our combined geeky genes to our boys, though.
    I worry about something else… the longevity of my grandmothers & K’s grandparents too. I imagine it must not be easy to live to be 90+ years old. Caring for our parents (who live in Brazil) is also a HUGE worry since they will probably live into their 90s as well… sigh.

  7. Personally, I think that people who are really unpleasant should probably think twice about having children — regardless of how good their genes are. (Can you tell I just came from dropping my daughter off at cheerleading tryouts?)
    Unfortunately, there is no test to help us select for all the stuff you might actually want to select for — people who are cruel, abusive, self-centered, entitled. I’d rather have a quirky kid who is kind and thoughtful than a perfectly healthy one who cheats on tests because he feels entitled, or be the mom of a guy who takes advantage of girls and uses them.
    I think the other issue might be that most of the population still reproduces at the age of 19 or so, when it’s entirely possible that you don’t even know yourself very well. A lot of these traits — depression, alcoholism — might not show up until much later in your life.
    One more thing: It’s kind of a luxury that we’re even able to navel gaze and have this conversation. In pioneer days, people had kids so they would have labor to help on the farm — they worried less about all of these quality of life type issues.

  8. Really makes you nostalgic for the days when everyone just died of heart disease in their mid-60s, doesn’t it? (Only kinda kidding.)

  9. Passing on bad traits that you know you have is selfish. You can candy coat it all you want. You make the choice for your unborn children. They can not say “mommy..daddy, please don’t give me (fill in the blank) for the rest of my life”
    Yup they will get stuck with a life time of doctor visits and pills due to your “choice” but hey, being a parent is all about YOU right?

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