Mammals. Humans. Nine months or so inside our mother’s uterus, separated from her by just the umbilical cord. Two genetically distinct organisms cohabiting for almost a year. As I grew into existence from a zygote, some of my cells went inside my mother and stayed. Some of hers came into mine and stayed. In biology, we call this chimerism, or feto-maternal microchimerism to be exact.
Feto-maternal microchimerism. A small number of cells that arise in one person yet end up in a genetically different person. Feto-maternal. Not exclusively from the mother to the child. Not exclusively from the child to the mother. Bi-directional. Through the pregnancy, both mother and child rendered chimeric. The manliest man may have some of his mother’s cells floating around inside him. The most womanly woman may have some of her son’s cells floating around inside her. How much chimerism? Usually we don’t know unless something happens to reveal it. So what? A few genetically distinct cells floating around in our body? Yet what if such cells expand in response to disease? Ah, there lies the marvel of nature! To reveal that which is invisible to our naked eye.
Chimerism revealed*. For an unnamed woman, subject of a 2002 study**, it started with Hepatitis C. No history of transfusion. Five known pregnancies with four partners. One son delivered at full term. Unexpectedly high number of male cells in her liver biopsies. As Hepatitis C ravaged her liver, it appears that long-lived fetal microchimeric cells, maybe stem cells, remnants of one of her pregnancies, made their way from somewhere inside her body to her damaged liver and differentiated into hepatocytes, to help, to try to heal.
Our politics of identity. Absolute. Crude. Consumed by dualities. Man. Woman. Black. Brown. White. Visible to our naked eye.
Our naked eye may erroneously favor absolutes. If we foolishly forget its unreliability, we have our magicians to remind us. Nature however favors nuance. Through feto-maternal microchimerism, Nature reminds us there’s usually more than meets our naked eye. Would the chimerism represented by a few genetically distinct cells really threaten our notion of personhood? Doesn’t a little injection of our biological dictate into our politics of identity instead help clarify and refine our understanding of not so much who rather what each one of us is? A chimera. Those absolutes our naked eye perceives? Not so absolute after all. Mutually exclusive, each of us? Not at all. Rather a Venn diagram of overlapping selves. Some selves overlap more, others less. Yet overlap we all do. Whether we like it or not. It’s our biological dictate. Science has proven it to us.
All well and good. What to do about this dictate?
When even the most blindingly different part about our biology, our male and female selves, overlaps, maybe we could begin by embracing this nuance that Nature bestows upon us, and having embraced it, inject it into our politics of identity. If we did so, we may finally attain the politics our biology decrees, a politics that reflects our true subtlety and nuance rather than the one of faulty absolutes contrived by the prejudices of our fallible naked eye. Doesn’t a politics subsumed by awareness of our overlapping selves better reflect our biology rather than one at war with those overlaps?
* While the labs of
Post by Tirumalai Kamala:
Our Identity: Part Three
The Biology of Us versus our Politics of Identity. The Profound versus the Profane.