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On DNA: Nature vs Nurture

For a teeny-weeny double helix, DNA sure packs a punch.

Isn’t it amazing to contemplate a thread that goes back farther than your mind can grasp? That there is an unbroken line from you stretching to the dawn of humankind? That line, and the relationship webs that accompany it, connects each of us to every person who has ever taken a breath on this planet.

Teeny-weeny DNA makes me think gigantic thoughts like that.

Nature or Nurture?

I’m not a genealogist, but I do enjoy looking at old photo albums that belonged to my grandparents and feature their parents. The generation of my great-grandparents goes back to the 1880s, and we don’t have any photographs from before that time.

I enjoy the stories of my maternal Scotch-Irish grandfather, who grew up in a sod house in Nebraska, a twin and one of nine children. I mourn that I don’t know much about my paternal Jewish grandmother’s history, other than the fact that her father owned a shoe store in Manhattan. She converted to Catholicism before my Dad was born, and her Jewishness was hidden from us until a decade before her death. I missed out on some of my heritage.

Adoption and Genetics

DNA and the role of genetics can weigh even more heavily on people  involved in adoption. Adoptees grow up with the biology of one clan and the biography of another, and are sometimes unsupported in healing that split. Adoptive parents must accept that they have no hereditary influence on their child. Birth parents may grapple with the idea that a child of their own genetic line was diverted from them.

So the question is: do I like poring over those musty photo albums because the people in them are part of my genetic line? Or do I like poring over those musty photo albums because I can see the people who raised the people who raised me?

It’s probably both. Nature AND nurture both play a role in my fascination with my roots.

The Adoption Split: What Matters?

I don’t have to put nature and nurture in a hierarchy because in my case they are the same. But adoptees are often asked to rank their influences. Who made you MORE of who you are — your parents or your birth parents?  In asking the question that can’t be answered, there is no win, only loss, because the question itself emphasizes and reinforces the split.

Why can’t we simply acknowledge that both biology and biography are important? Why don’t we move from Either/Or to Both/And-thinking? I’m not even talking about 50-50 or equal measures because some things cannot be put on a scale.

I’m just saying that DNA matters. And as a mom via adoption, that doesn’t bother me at all.

Because I matter, too. 

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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50 Responses

  1. oh this is a good one. thank you for articulating much of what has been swirling in my head for a while now, but especially since I sat down with my mom the other night and heard stories from as far back as she could go. having the distinct feeling that all of that knowledge and those memories were about to disappear forever. wondering whether any of this would mean anything to our child. thinking of what we know about her own birth family and how to capture it while we still can. havne’tb een able to form them into words yet, but fascinating thoughts, all.

  2. All I have asked for Christmas is a DNA test. Often my daughters and I get questions about our nationality. Although, I look like a clone of my late birth mother :), there are obviously strong genes from some far away country. When my youngest daughter, Chelsea used to work at the front desk for the Marriott an older couple marveled on much she looked like their niece and asked Chelsea about her nationality. Of course, she had to give them that same pat answer again, “We don’t know; my mother is adopted.” The couple even took a picture to share the uncanny resemblance with their relative. My daughter said they told her what their heritage was, but she never had heard of the nationality and didn’t write it down. For me personally, the television show, Who Do You Think You Are? makes me feel left out as an adoptee and that somehow our genealogy is supposed to be forbidden and not as important. Thanks for sharing Lori; I always enjoy reading your posts.

  3. I agree. Some of the influence in my family was from a woman I’m not genetically related to. My grandfather’s first wife was 16 and died during childbirth. The infant was buried with her. I think it hardened my grandfather so much that he never really connected to any of his children when he eventually had them.

    My cousin brought over a picture of our grandmother when she was around 18. I looked at it and thought how much I looked like her. Then I looked at my cousin and saw the same features. It was almost like all 3 of us were sisters. But all 3 of us had separate paths in life. We have similar genes but depending on opportunity, we created our own life our of our collective experiences.

  4. Great article! As the adoptive mother of a baby, I have already started to wonder how to describe her ethnic heritage to her. She is the same race as us but of different European ancestry. And it becomes a bit complicated because my husband’s family is 100% Italian. They still speak the language, they very much identify themselves as Italian, etc. By virtue of being a member of our family, my daughter is Italian (because it will be part of her culture even if it is not her DNA). But she is also German, and English and Scottish like her birth parents. I would appreciate the advice from adoptive parents and adoptees about how I should explain this to my daughter when she is young and doesn’t understand the difference between being Italian in her heart versus German based on her DNA. Bceause being Italian is such a big part of our family identity, I don’t want her to ever feel like an outsider but want to honor all of her roots – adopted and biological.

    1. I think you’re off to a good start simply because you have awareness of the issue as it may look to your daughter.

      I would say to embrace both parts of her heritage in the And style. I know that sounds simplistic, but it can be a guiding principle. By helping your daughter explore and love all parts of herself, you are enabling her to heal that split.

    2. Like being an Italian national. Hundreds of thousands of Italian Jewish know this. You say she is raised Italian or in/by an Italian family. She’ll claim it.

  5. Blessed Mommy- your daughter will NEVER be Italian. Adoption changes your name, not your DNA. Adoption forces us to straddle both worlds, and we really do not fit in 100% with either family. The only way to truly honor a child’s roots is to have a very open relationship with their first family.

    As an adoptee, I can say my DNA is much stronger than the environment I was raised. Yes, there are some superficial traits I share with my adoptive family, but the core of me was pre-programmed by DNA. The way I think, act. walk, talk, react to things…even my political ideas & the foods I like are the same as my first family.

    I enjoy hearing stories and looking at pictures of my adoptive family member’s ancestors, but they are not MY ancestors. I have no connection to them. Im sure they are nice people, just as most of my adoptive family are nice people, but they are not MY people.

    It infuriates me to see shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” trace people’s ancestry, when that basic right is not possible for over 6 million adoptees who are not permitted to have their original birth certificates. Professional genealogists mark an adoptee in the tree…because they are not blood related. We have our OWN family trees, but in many cases, it is illegal for us to know OUR family.

    Does your child have her ORIGINAL birth certificate? Not the fake one, issued by the government, which lists YOU as “giving birth” to the child, but her REAL birth certificate, with her first parent’s name on it? If you do not, try to get it, or write to your legislator to change the law in your state. That way, when she wants HER family tree, she will have an easier time….not to mention having an OBC can prevent issues with obtaining a passport or other government issued id.

    1. Agreed about OBCs. Yes, I am in possession of my children’s, and as you know I speak out for of others who are unable to get theirs.

      I’ve been trying to formulate a point-by-point response, but I think that doing so would lead to a discussion that generates more heat than light.

      So instead, I will just say that I’m sorry adoption hurt you so. It must really suck to carry that around.

  6. I love this post. I don’t have anything meaningful to add because you not only said it perfectly, but you gave a lot of food for thought.

  7. I think both nature and nurture (biology and biography) are important…and I see it in my kids every day.

    Their biological father passed away 2+ years ago, and I constantly see traits in them (physically and behaviorally) that remind me of him. Many people say the boys also have traits from me (although that is a bit harder for me to see).

    And my husband, who adopted them after their father passed away, has had a tremendous impact on them in SO many ways.

    Even though my hubby and I tease about the boys by saying “Nature” or “Nurture” when they do something goofy or act out, perhaps we are easing the tension by blaming one or the other (in a joking way). But perhaps we are acknowledging that BOTH play very important roles.

    Well said, Luz!!

  8. I read this post and the comments to this earlier today and I have to admit that it was the comments that I keep reruning in my head (no offense, Luz, as your post is awesome as always).

    Blessed Mommy’s has a very valid point: her daughter will be Italian by virtue of being a member of the family. Obviously she doesn’t mean that her daughter will pass on “Italian genes”; she knows this. But yes, her daughter will most certainly be Italian by virtue of her surroundings. No, that doesn’t mean she will suddenly become an expert in cooking pasta or grow luxurious, black hair or have large dark eyes (all stereotypes anyway). It just means that the culture, customs and traditions she will be surrounded by WITHIN her family WILL BE Italian. She won’t suddenly announce that she has a craving for haggish or want to learn to play the bagpipes because her DNA happens to be Scot.

    My daughter is not my blood but she was born to me. She physically resembles her maternal parent. She may even sound like her. But she won’t think like her. She won’t act like her. She won’t talk like her. And she won’t react to things like her. These are not DNA traits. These are “learned behaviors”. And it will be those customs and traditions and behaviors that she passes on to HER family, whether she gets one by Nature OR by Nurture.

    And really? The bottom line if one was to work themselves up about their lineage and it’s abrupt stop…well that’s not even really possible. Pieces may be missing, but if you want to get technical, we ALL can be traced to one mother and one father.

  9. I like to look at the photo albums because I like to hear the stories. My ancestors aren’t really REAL to me, but the stories people tell are always interesting. If they weren’t interesting stories, no one would remember them. But, in the same way, I find it interesting that Bill Murray and the founder of Cabela’s went to the same college I did, and Bob Newhart graduated from my high school. I think it’s just a sense of connection – common ground – that everyone seeks. And I don’t know how much that has to do with DNA.

    Also, theoretically, there is a type of DNA (mitochondrial, I think) that is passed down unaltered through maternal lines. So, theoretically, we could all trace our DNA back to a common ancestor…the original Eve? And any DNA combination has the potential to mutate in unusual ways.

    It is fascinating to me, though, to see gene expression within my family. (Educationally speaking, I am a biochemist, so double fascination). My dad’s family has incredibly dominant genes as far as appearance goes. Yet, I have my mom’s eyes and legs – my sisters and I are a fairly clear example of Mendelian genetics. I got all the recessive genes. It’s something that’s easy to see. So, I worry for my nieces who were adopted from China – will they never feel that connection? Will they feel like they are missing something? I hope that love is enough to overcome the differences.

    1. “I think it’s just a sense of connection – common ground – that everyone seeks.” Yes, and it can be DNA and it can be shared history. Good point.

      I wonder, too, about your last sentence. I’m not sure that it is, but I feel that parents who adopt can help by not minimizing the influence of genetic heritage.

      With all that Mendel talk you’ve got me remembering my 8th grade genetics class with Mr O’Connor, who could not roll his tongue and did not have hair on his first knuckle.

  10. Lori, I enjoyed your post. I am amazed at how much my daughter is just like me in personality, tastes, and reactions to the world. Even some of my quirks she has. Anyway, it has been wonderful to discover her, her personality, her personhood, whether it is genetic or environmental. We cherish her for who she is and what we share is our mother-daughter bond. That’s what matters the most to me.

    By the way, I am sending an award your way. Please check my latest post to see!

  11. Great post. I have been thinking a lot about this lately as we are embarking on a birth family search. I also love to look at old photo albums and hear family stories. Growing up, I never thought about how nature vs nurture influenced by interest, but I certainly do now! Personally, I have always been more interested in the stories and the life experiences of my family that helped shape who they are than I am interested in who I look like. But, I also realize it is easy for me to say that since I don’t have to wonder about the biology part.

  12. Great article! I just found your blog and am a new convert.
    As someone who is at least peripherally involved in the business of genetics, and who just started the open adoption process, I say…well said! I’ll be coming back to read more.

  13. My oldest child was adopted when he was 1 week old, 7 months later we had a biological child (both surprises). We have raised them as twins being so close together in age. We treat them as equals – if our adopted son gets special benefits because he’s adopted, then we make sure the other has the same options. Do they have different personalities, sure but they are raised as twins. Our adopted son can NEVER look for his biological mother for her safety and any children she may have including him. I imagine he’ll wonder where he’s biological ancestors come from but I also believe he is going to consider himself coming from both our lines AND his biological lines. I am in awe at how much he looks like his cousins and other family members even though geographically the ancestoral lines couldn’t be farther apart. His mannerisms are just like ours and he sure does pick on his younger siblings as an oldest brother should. I do know that some of his traits come from his biological parents and I think it’s wonderful as I see them coming out – it gives him a past. Still he can never look for his biological parents.
    …I look at my children and they are 3 peas in a pod even if 1 is adopted!

  14. Dear Luz –

    I really love this post and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing it. As a Genetic Parent, I often feel like the thorn in our Adoptive Family’s side, the fly that can’t be shoowed away, the irritant that keeps on irritating, and yet I do nothing, say nothing, and expect very little and they say nothing also. Sigh. It’s so hard to navigate this adoptive journey……much more than I ever anticipated. There are so many opinions on adoption; I’ve concluded that no one is an expert and it’s maddening that there’s no help to be had. Everything seems to be fear driven and I truly desire to just understand and find a place to settle into.

    I do enjoy your vulnerability and ability to share your point of view. It’s a part of the calm in the midst of my emotional storm in figuring out what to say, do, and be. There’s much to be said for both nature and nurture. I feel God made it that way for a reason. Blessings, Sheila

    1. That sounds like a difficult situation with the your Adoptive Family (through embryo donation/adoption). I’m so sorry it didn’t turn out the way you’d planned. I hope that as your biological child grows the other parents can become more open to allowing access to his/her genetic family, too.

  15. Dna is cool, a road map if you will. What you make of the journey, ah, now that is another story.
    I try to keep this whole geneology thing in perspective by remembering that humans share well over 98% of Dna with the ape kingdom. (Who are also wonderful parents, both biological and adoptive.)

  16. Here from Mels:

    While I am not an adoptee, an adoptive parent, nor have I given a child up for adoption, I WAS married (long ago) to a man who was adopted when he was born. It was a closed adoption, and he has very little information on his original birth certificate. It is unlikely that he will ever find his birth parents, although I do wish he would, just for his own sake. I’ve watched him with his parents and he shares a lot of their same traits. Who’s to say his birth parents don’t have those same traits, though?

    I think nature vs nurture isn’t just about adoptees, however. I look at my own life and I see my parents in me, but there is also a lot there about how I was raised. What would my life have been like if I hadn’t grown up in a tiny town, sheltered by my parents from the big bad world? What would have happened when I went out on my own? It’s always food for thought.

  17. Hi Luz!

    Here from Mel’s. As an adoptive parent, I, too, ponder the DNA thing (or nature vs. nurture). I have a stepmother, and a rather large step family (think 120 people plus at our annual reunion). I kind of liken my son’s life to that of mine as a step. I have step-cousins and step-aunts and step-uncles (all of whom I just refer to as cousins, aunts and uncles) who are closer to me than my “blood” relatives. Having spent so much time in the past 30-some years with them, I am family. There is no question.

    I know that my son looks like his birth mother, and I love that. I love that I see her smile every day. I know nothing about his birth father (because his birth mother refused to name him or give information) and that saddens me. But then I look at all the other men in his life who will influence him – that are “family” – and I realize he will have an abundance of people who love him. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t look like me or his dad. And we will be honest with him about those things.

    But I’ve written on my blog before that I think family is made up of the people you do life with. I have friends I would call in a crisis before I would call family. I have friends I would rather spend the holidays with. Because they love me for who I am, no matter what. I think love trumps DNA in that way, but I think DNA is also so important.

  18. Arrived here from the Crème de la Crème list.

    I find myself nodding at your post, though I’ve only dipped my toes in the waters of adoption in the smallest of ways. And and makes sense. How to put it in practice is another matter.

  19. Hi! Thanks for posting on Creme de la Creme- this is indeed a wonderful post! My husband and I are just embarking on the domestic adoption path after a disappointing year or embryo adoption and failed transfers. Your words definitely made me think about both sides. It is important not to emphasize either side, but to embrace each.

  20. I can’t believe I didn’t see this for my Sunday Linkage when you wrote it. This is such an important concept to ponder. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – it made me think.

  21. I really adore this post. Because as a member of the LGBT community, it has always been one of those questions, one of the biggest debates. And as a woman dealing with severe MFI + my own, leading to a child on half genetically ours…it comes back again. It seems it is fated to be a major part of my life. I have adopted friends…and could talk about that angle for ages, LOL. But as with many things, it is a little of both, and seeing it as a black and white issue is simply not an option.

  22. What an excellent post, Lori!

    Reading this reminded me of a song that I really like by The Stre.ets: “for millions of years/ since the outset of time/ every single one of your ancestors survived / every single person on your mum and dad’s sides / successfully looked after, and passed on to you, life / what are the chances of that like? / it comes to me once in a while / and every time I tell folk it gets the best smile”

    When I first heard it, I had some feelings of sadness because I felt like this would not be true for our child, this feeling of being part of a chain of humanity on both sides of a family, the way that I have with my parents and ancestors. But after pondering it for a while, and especially after C was born, I saw that it is still true – there is just an added piece of the chain for our son. He is part of the chain of my family through biology, and a part of Manny’s through an equally deep and meaningful connection. And he is also a part of the chain of the donor’s family, and I hope that someday C will seek out the donor to learn more about him and his family. But I agree with you that it is not a matter of placing one over the other – the mystery of who we are is much deeper and more complex than any two things we can reduce to percentages. The stories and experiences of our ancestors’ ancestors have all contributed to who we are, and those things are passed on through biology AND through relationship.

  23. Oh, I forgot to make the point I set out to make about the song lyrics – the thing that shifted it for me was the line about “looking after” life. That happens in so many ways, doesn’t it? A lovely, inclusive way of thinking of it…

  24. Excellent post.
    Yes, both matter. I guess it might also matter how much the presence or absense of heritage plays a role in your life. I have never cared to research the family line on my biological father’s family, but have for my adoptive father’s family.

  25. I was talking to my sister the other day and she made some remark about a cousin she didn’t consider “family” which made me think mmm, I wonder what she thinks of my son. Of course, I don’t actually care. As the years go by, I expect that I’ll learn more about this nature/nurture business. At present, all I know is that my husband and I don’t give a rat’s ass about whose loins our son sprang from, we’re forever his.d

  26. coming back to reflect some more. my first reaction concerned ancestry — mine, and whether or not it would ever matter to our child as more than just a “story.”

    but now that I see our daughter’s little personality emerging more, I realize that so much of her is a combination of us all. when I look at her, no doubt I see her birthmom, maybe even some of her birthdad. but when I listen to her talk or laugh or watch her mannerisms, well, that is a combination of her little self emerging plus a reflection of what she soaks in every day. you cannot discount the role of either nature or nurture. both are so important to the person she is becoming.

  27. You know, it does suck to carry that around. But no matter how hard we try, we can never get away from it. Because we don’t have something as simple as the knowledge and security of our very own heritage and roots.
    What is VERY important to know is this: NO MATTER how fantastic an adoptive parent is, they cannot give their child their heritage. They cannot provide for their child a biological connection. And please trust the adult adoptees on this one; when someone grows up knowing their roots, it does not seem like a big deal (my adoptive mother once told me she didn’t see what the big deal was). When someone grows up NOT knowing their roots, and continues to be categorically denied that knowledge as an adult, it IS a big deal. A VERY BIG deal.
    One day, your children that you live for will recognize this too. Please don’t be hurt when they do. It’s truly no reflection on you as a parent. It is just a basic human NEED, to see, feel and own that biological connection.
    In ALL adoptions, there was loss before there was gain. Please remember & respect that children know and feel that loss, regardless of age at adoption.

  28. Here from Creme De La Creme..really interesting post. My parents had me when they were really young (my mum was 17) and they just had no idea to the point of neglect – so I was left to pretty much raise myself. I am completely different to them even though I come from their gene’s. I was just really luck to meet teachers and friends along the way who helped me shine forward and were my biography! I just think the most important thing is to have loving people around you who help you bring out the best in you – even if they don’t share your gene’s.

  29. “Adoptees grow up with the biology of one clan and the biography of another, and are sometimes unsupported in healing that split.” This is a beautiful line. You are an amazing writer, tackling a truly difficult topic. But I think you are spot on, that when it comes to nature/nurture it’s not just an either/or but definitely an “and” situation. I’m sure one can’t help but wonder about where they come from biologically, but I think nurture has at least as much to do with who we as nature does. Still, my parents had their first daughter when they were 17 years old and put her up for adoption. I’m so curious to meet her and see how we are similar and different, if you can see the parts of her that are related to us, in her appearance and personality. I guess I’ll never know.

    Creme de la Creme #125
    Creme de la Creme Iron Clad Comment Attempt 2010

  30. I have done lots of ancestry research…most of it brought on because of my infertility issues. It is nice to know where I came. I think that biology is definitely part of it but not all of it. Everything else plays a part too! Thanks for sharing.

  31. I love this post! We are in the middle of the adoption process and my husband and I often discuss the whole nurture vs. nature thing. Both play a huge role, and I can appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this. Happy ICLW

  32. I think this is a wonderful post! I also think that sometimes adoptive parents may have no nature history to pass onto their child. Sometimes you have no information about your child’s birth-parents. Sometimes all you have is nurture and that is o.k. Because I don’t think as a future adoptive mom that it matters where my child’s genetics come from as long as all involved love and want the best for the child. I think that in many cases we pass on things that we learn from our parents and grandparents to our children. Hopefully, our children will then pass on these things to their children and in the end will it matter that these things originally came from someone not having a direct genetic link? I think not. Because like you said nurture matters. I would also like to add that one of teh great things about open adoption is that is allows for a closing of the gaps of knowledge and helps instill a balance between nature and nurture.
    Creme de la creme

  33. I find this all so interesting, I recently learned my 2nd cousin, My father’s 1st cousin, was actually our cousin(we always suspected, relation).If I didn’t know, he is my brothers identical twin! He looks/acts , more like my brother, than my own father! The features, gestures, are freaky!! Having him be, my brother and I, 2nd cousin, How much DNA, do we share? He is my grandfather’s brother, son! Again, he is more like my brothers TWIN!! Thank You. Any input helps,, as this was recently found out !

  34. I also learned, my grandmother, who never told anyone, ANYONE!! She was adopted, we learned after she passed, whether she was embarrassed, because it wasn’t talked about in those days (born to a 16 yr old, unwed mother). I don’t know. I would always get asked, “What are u”??I can’t tell you, how many times, ppl think, I’m Polish, Dutch/Russian . It almost became a joke, Because, I thought I was all French Canadian!! At age 27, I learned, My grandmother, was adopted at age 1, from RUSSIA!!Her mother, was of Russian/Polish descent&as far as I know, her father was Russian Lithuanian. I was SHOCKED!!People, would say, I was “Built” I didn’t know how to take that? A polite word, for “Heavy”? I am Tall, (5’10) and 155lb. I never thought , I was Heavy, Nor Thin. I’m just Tall/Proportioned!! Funny Thing, I saw a Russian girl, my age, and for a second, was like looking in the mirror! I now know, why, I was asked if I was Russian, I see such a resemblance, Is it a Strong Russian Gene? Most women, seem Taller than the average&lack of a better word, “Sturdier”??Alot have Blonde hair& Blue Eyes , like myself . It amazes me, the power of genetics!!Until I was 27, I had No Idea, my grandmother, wasn’t only Russian, also, born in Russia!! Her first name, wasn’t even her birth name, either!! DNA , Ty!! The things u learn?

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