When my 16-year-old niece came up to stay for the weekend, it felt odd on several levels. I knew her well for the first 2 years of her life, but the number of times we have met since then could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And yet, here she was, playing with her younger cousins and very much a part of our family. Physically she was clearly the daughter of my brother, although she could just as easily have been my sister’s daughter, and even reminded me of my mother when she pulled particular expressions. Her eye colour, though, was exactly the same as mine – grey with flecks of brown in them – the same I once saw on a distant cousin at a great aunt’s golden wedding anniversary many years ago.
Even more disturbing, however, was an almost constant stream of “your eyes are the same as my dad’s when you smile” and “my dad does that” and “my dad says that” and “I can tell your joking because that’s the same expression my dad has when he is”.
Because we cannot see other people’s thoughts, we believe ours are unique. Sure we know that physically we can resemble our siblings or parents, but our minds are our own, aren’t they? We’re comfortable enough with the notion that someone might have inherited their mother’s temperament, or their father’s musical ability, but are our innermost thoughts and feelings just as genetically determined as our metabolism or our skin colour, where environmental factors might play a small role, but not that much? It’s an uncomfortable idea and challenges our innate sense of free will.
But over and over again, people repeat patterns of behaviour while all the time thinking that it was their free choice. How many times have I heard people declaring with surprise when meeting me for the first time, “But that’s a girl’s name!” Each one thinks they are the first person to have had that thought, and yet in my experience 95% of all people I have ever met say, or at least think, the same thing.
Events in my life have certainly affected my thought patterns, and therefore my behaviour. Due to a close scrape with homelessness several years ago, for example, I am more likely to buy a copy of The Big Issue from a street vendor, understanding that not everyone ends up in that situation by their own fault. But so many of my thoughts and actions run on automatic pilot and are not reflected upon or assessed at every juncture. I can accept that many of my beliefs and attitudes result from the influence of society and my upbringing, so is it so hard to make the leap that certain thought patterns are just as influenced by my genetic makeup? But it is unsettling.
While teasing my son at dinnertime about whether I was going to steal his pudding, I believed myself to be acting wholly independently; but my niece saw my behaviour as a carbon copy of the way my older brother behaves in a similar situation.
When I was younger I was so convinced that I didn’t think I looked anything like my brother, and that we had very different personalities, I was quite certain that one of us had to have been adopted. But as we age it seems we are beginning to merge.
However, unlike my brother, you won’t ever catch me sporting a moustache without a beard.