The Lottery Of Life

Tenth instalment - nine months of dependence

One sperm out of tens of millions won the race to fertilise the one egg out of hundreds that happened to be available at the time. Sperm and egg carried a random selection of genes from the father-to-be and mother-to-be respectively, creating a unique genetic combination.

Now that genetic blueprint is contained in every cell in the embryo, the tiny cluster of cells – still not visible without microscopy – affixed to the wall of the womb. During the next nine months or thereabouts, barring accident or intervention, those cells will multiply, and become differentiated, and become a foetus, which will grow, and develop, and will at the end emerge as a new person, eventually capable of independent life. And every cell in that baby’s body and brain will carry the same genetic information donated by the sperm and the egg.

As discussed in previous instalments of this blog, many characteristics of this new person were determined at conception: sex; physical characteristics in absolute, including skin, hair and eye colour, and others as tendencies, such as height, body shape, facial features; heritable conditions, which include not just physical conditions such as haemophilia and Crohn’s Disease but also disorders such as ADHD; and, to an extent difficult to determine, personality traits and even intelligence. The person that will come into existence in nine months’ time is already, while still no more than a miniscule clump of cells, destined to be lucky in life – or unlucky.

Lucky: male and white-skinned is a good start, regardless of the society the new person will be born into. Tall is usually beneficial. Cardiovascular, nervous, lymphatic, digestive, and all other physical systems normal. Symmetrical shape of face and body, particularly if conforming to norms of attractiveness. A neurotypical brain. A tendency to learn easily; a tendency towards intelligence, whatever that may be. A tendency towards personality traits that are considered desirable, for instance sociability, empathy, diligence. All of that is contained within the DNA of that tiny clump of cells – that very lucky little clump of cells.

Unlucky: the more of the above features that are lacking, the unluckier the little cluster of cells and the person into which they will grow.

I know: it isn’t fair. (Unless, I suppose, you’re a follower of one of those religions or sects thereof that believe in reincarnation and the concept of karma – one’s actions in one life determining one’s fate in the next. It’s nonsense, of course.)

It’s more rational simply to accept that the universe isn’t fair. Why on earth should it be? That’s a whole other philosophical discussion and one that I’d better not enter into here.

The womb should be safe place for a foetus; it is the only place in which a foetus can survive. But what happens to a foetus while in its womb can radically affect its development, for good or ill. There are lucky foetuses and unlucky foetuses. A lucky embryo may have bad luck as a foetus. And that also isn’t fair.

A lucky foetus is one that grows in the womb of a woman who is fit and healthy; whose diet includes sufficient folic acid, iron and vitamins; who does not drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or take certain drugs – for instance marijuana or opioid painkillers; who manages to avoid being exposed to toxins such as pesticides, lead, radiation and certain solvents; who eats a wide range of nutritious foods (but not too much fish); who is neither under- or over-weight; who is vaccinated against, or otherwise succeeds in avoiding, a host of infections that range alphabetically from chlamydia to zika and which can cause defects in the foetus.

The more of the above features that are lacking, the unluckier the foetus.

There are specific factors that can cause specific conditions – for instance a woman imbibing too much alcohol may result in the foetus developing foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The effects of these range from mild to severe, and they include intellectual and developmental disabilities; behaviour problems; abnormal facial features; and disorders of the heart, kidneys, bones, and hearing. But there is also the general point that the healthier and better-nourished the woman, the better the chances that the foetus will develop to its full potential.

Many of the factors that influence foetal development are beyond the control of the woman carrying the foetus: poverty, in particular, may result in the woman having poor nutrition, low weight, and possibly exposure to toxins if obliged to work in certain surroundings.

There is no part of a foetus’s physical or mental development that is immune to damage during pregnancy. Lack of sufficient folic acid on the part of the mother, for instance, can result for the baby in paralysis, urinary and bowel dysfunction, blindness, deafness, intellectual disabilities, and sometimes death.

The unavoidable conclusion is that lucky foetuses are more likely to be found in the wombs of women who are not poor, who have access to vaccinations, dietary advice, nutritious food, modern medical facilities, and whose daily life does not expose them to toxins. In other words, women who have themselves been lucky. In addition to whatever is in the genes, a pregnant woman with good luck usually endows her foetus with good luck factors.

Nonetheless an embryo endowed with a plethora of lucky characteristics may be growing in a womb that will cause catastrophic harm.

I did point out that it isn’t fair.

I must also reassure my readers that of course most pregnancies, particularly in developed societies, proceed without mishap. Most foetuses are lucky. It remains the case, though, that the nine months or so between embryo and baby constitute another gauntlet that the as-yet unborn individual has to run.

Much of what makes an individual is encoded in his or her DNA. The nine months in the womb add another layer of influences that shape the individual.

In the next instalment: they luck you up, your Mum and Dad.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

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