I’ve decided to address the falsehood “An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of the mother” next. That was not my original intention, but for various reasons this is appropriate.


Before I give the very straight forward reason for this, which I attribute, by the way, to Sarah Hrdy, I want to make note of a few different variants of mother/baby relationships.

  • A woman becomes pregnant, carries the fetus full term, gives birth to it, and raises it up, together with her husband who is the father of the child.
  • A woman has an offspring with artificial insemination.
  • A woman has a fertilized egg implanted, and has an offspring which she raises up.
  • A woman has a fertilized egg implanted, gives birth to the offspring, which is then taken by the sperm and ovum donor as their own child.
  • A woman is inseminated by a man but then taken by that man and his wife (not the woman who was inseminated) to be raised. (That’s from a book/movie.)

If we fully insert the male into this set of scenarios, and add a couple of more variables, the list gets longer and more complex, but you get the point. A baby sitting there in the car seat and two adults of some gender or another sitting in the front seats on the way home from a Target Shopping run could represent any of a number of different scenarios. In some scenarios, both parental units are the genetic parents of said baby, in others, neither.

Now, let me lay out a brief description of the life history of a human.

  • Insemination (sperm is allowed into the egg and the DNA gets its act together)
  • Implantation, facilitated by various cell surface proteins, hormones, etc.
  • Cell division and ontogenetic development of an embryo/fetus/etc.
  • Birth of the baby, which is utterly dependent on others for survival even over any period of a few hours.
  • The transfer of 100% of the energy the baby requires for survival via milk, either from a woman’s breast or artificially, but usually via breast milk, for months.
  • The transfer of increasing amounts of energy from other sources (veggies, etc.) by adults to the offspring, and continued period of total dependence for day to day survival, for several years.
  • High school, college, graduate school, etc. etc.

All of the above life history phases except the last couple are biological phenomena to a very large degree, if not 100%. And, they are all parenting related, including carrying the fetus, feeding the offspring, etc. The parents who do these things are biologically essential to that child’s survival.

Integrating these two lists, it is obvious that adults may provide this biological care to offspring whether or not there is a direct genetic link.

This is what is meant by delinking “genetic mother” and “biological mother” and a similar thing can be said of the father. This is an idea suggested by Sarah Hrdy in her book Mother Nature, and I happen to agree with it.

To insist that “biological parent” means “genetic parent” and the obverse, that a non-genetic parent can not be considered a biological parent literally equates “genetic” and “biological” as perfectly corresponding ideas. This equation is simply wrong, and can only be sustained in the absence of any understanding of what biology is, and the relationship between genetics and all the rest of biology. The conflation of genes and biology probably arises, as well, from the rise of genetics as the holy grail of biology (which it is to only some extent), but mostly, I think, it comes from failure to really think about the terms and their implications.

Moreover, it is interesting to consider the legal issues across some of the variants of childbirth and raising listed in the first list (with adoption being an obvious subset of these categories, as well as surrogate motherhood, etc.). Traditionally, we equate parenthood with a special set of rights and responsibilities, and we transfer those rights and responsibilities to adoptive parents. Those parents become the biological parents as well. Interestingly, the law seems to follow the broader biological concept better than it follows the purely genetic concept. Similarly, fatherhood does the same thing. In many states/countries, the name of the man on the birth certificate is the legal father of the child regardless of any subsequently adduced countervailing evidence.

Check out Sarah Hrdy’s book: Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

More Falsehoods !!!

This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:

Comments

  1. #1 CybrgnX
    August 19, 2009

    Excellent blog!!! I’ve always hated those ‘Im adapted so Im looking for my biological parents’ movies. That couple who raises a baby from near day one thru teen years is the biological parents. The sperm/egg/gene donors are just that donors with no real identity to the kid except where it involves genes. Any teen or older who doesn’t realize that deserves the shit that comes down thru the rest of the ‘movie’.

  2. #2 Jonathan
    August 19, 2009

    Thank you for this :)

    Now I need to read Sarah Hrdy, Mother Nature

  3. #3 garg
    August 19, 2009

    Thanks for the explanation! Cleared it up :)

  4. #4 Regina
    August 19, 2009

    I totally agree with what Greg has said, but the most important thing here is defining the vocabulary. As time goes on and new techniques become used we need to redefine thye vocabulalry. There is a difference between where a child comes from(how it was made=”genetics” and the older term “biological”)and what is neccessary to bring a child up in a healthy way( the new term “biological”).
    To say that an adopted child is rediculous to want to find out who it’s biological parents are is incorrect. It is normal for any person to want to do that. It is just the incorrect vocabulary that is being used.

  5. #5 Liz
    August 19, 2009

    Ha! Brilliant. I have read that book, forgot that point. Now remembering.

  6. #6 Sofia
    August 19, 2009

    The Handmaid’s Tale…

  7. #7 Priam
    August 19, 2009

    This reminds me a lot of the “alcoholism is a disease” arguments. And I think this usage of the word “biological,” that is, the sense in which adoptive parents are also biological parents, is stretching the term over a wider area than needs be covered.

    Feeding a kid is tending to the kid’s biological processes. But when we generalize that to mean that the person doing the feeding is the child’s biological mother or father, then the terms “mother” and “father” lose a hell of a lot of meaning. Skipping the adoption scenario for a moment for simplicity, the child’s genetic uncle can be a biological father, in addition to the child’s genetic father also being a biological father. The child’s genetic mother’s circle of friends can become a collective of the child’s biological mothers–if they teach the child and attend to the safety of the child and feed the child and so on, they qualify.

    And they can’t not qualify, unless we want to say that a child can only have one biological father and one biological mother (by definitions involving contributional percentage, in which case we get into semantics issues relating to homosexual couplings and polyamorous relationships).

    Under these rules, it’s fairly easy to imagine situations in which an automaton could also be classified as a biological father or mother. Even though they are not comprised of biological materials, or compelled towards any particular behavior by biological processes (except in the rather indirect way that a biological construct, presumably a human in this case, would have to have built and programmed it).

    So what we end up with is not a terribly big enlightenment about the nature of “biological” as it relates to “genetic,” but rather that the word “biological” is used by those in a position to claim the jargon to link a very nonspecific and thereby fairly worthless tie. Whereas the layperson uses the term to mean, in brief, “governed by biochemistry which proceeds even in the face of relative inaction.”

  8. #8 gruebait
    August 19, 2009

    “Parental units”?
    Are we talking about Coneheads?

  9. #9 dean
    August 19, 2009

    Very interesting. A question, only tangentially related, to this: both of our sons are adopted, from South Korea. There have been two times when we’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, that this was either wrong, or did not constitute a family. Some background, if I may.

    The first time was when one of my former students, and her christian reformed pastor, decided that “Since you and your wife are intent on mixing the races, we can’t change your mind. We will pray for your souls.”

    The second time came when the priest of my mother-in-law’s church stated that “If a couple cannot produce their own children, they are not a family in the eyes of god.” when we asked if that meant anyone who adopted was not a family, he responded “Not in my eyes, not in the church’s eyes, and most importantly, not in god’s eyes.”

    The first happened in grand rapids, michigan, the second just outside of racine, wisconsin.

    Since both of these comments came from men of the cloth i wasn’t surprised at the bigotry or stupidity (my wife, and other family members, were appalled). But here is the question: how are the issues you address viewed by religious institutions, in terms of whether the results do or do not qualify as a family?

    To end on a lighter note: my favorite story is this: when we were preparing for the arrival of our older son, my nieces daughter, who was in 4th grade at the time, told her class “My aunt and uncle are going to have a baby, but it’s not coming from my aunt’s tummy: their baby is coming by mail.” my niece ‘had some ‘splainin’ to do to the teacher.

    I hope this isn’t too far off topic.
    Dean

  10. #10 Elf Eye
    August 19, 2009

    Scenario: Man and woman have sex; woman gets pregnant; man and woman plan to raise child; something happens to remove one parent from picture within days of birth; remaining parent continues to raise child; child reaches adolescence and expresses interest in absent parent. Would anyone say that the fact that the absent parent had no hand in raising the child means that “Any teen or older who doesn’t realize that deserves the shit that comes down thru the rest of the ‘movie’”? It is no more abnormal for children in families formed by adoption to be curious about their backgrounds–genetic, biological, cultural, ethnic, racial, religious–than children in families not formed by adoption. Now, as to terminology: one day, as my preschool daughter played in a doctor’s waiting room, she cheerfully said to a woman, regarding me, “She’s not my real mommy.” Lacking a sophisticated vocabulary, she tried to explain as best she could that we had become a family through adoption, and at that point to her the phrase “real mommy” meant the equivalent of “birth mommy,” which is the phrase she would now probably use in referring to her first mother. Today she is aware of the multiple-meanings of the word “real”: on the genetic level I am not her “real mommy”; on most other levels, I am as “real” as a mother can be. Now, as to the word “biological”: that can be as problematic as the phrase “real mommy.” Yes, I met my daughter’s biological needs starting ten days after her birth. However, I did not conceive her, carry her, or give birth to her, and, obviously, I did not contribute any of my chromosomes to her complement of forty-six. In that sense, I do not have a biological connection to my daughter. This fact is usually surmised by anyone who sees this Caucasian mother with her Amerindian daughter. Moreover, there is at least one good reason for emphasizing that lack of biological connectedness: when my daughter fills out an intake form at a doctor’s office, she knows it is important that she leave blank sections asking for a “family medical history.” So I am in some sense her biological mother; in other senses I am not. Since it is not an all or nothing situation, should one usage of “biological” be adopted (no pun intended) to the exclusion of the other?

  11. #11 g
    August 19, 2009

    Semantics. Filling someone’s biological need does not mean you are a biological parent. Otherwise every dog owner would the dog’s biological parent.

  12. #12 g
    August 19, 2009

    Same thing for an older child who raised his or her brothers and sisters. That does not make him or her a biological father or mother, but a tutor or something similar. So providing care is clearly not enough.

    Maybe providing cells would be enough. But that raises the problem of multiple care-takers, if a child is breast-fed by 2 woman (after the mother’s death for instance) then how many “biological mothers” does the child have exactly? And I doubt that if I give bone marrow or blood to a child I would become that child’s dad.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Are we talking about Coneheads?

    We do not know what you are talking about. We are from France.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Dean: #9…

    Interesting stories. I just had dinner in a nearby restaurant and the waitress was visibly South Asian (and it was an Asian resturant, so maybe that made sense in some way). She had as thick-a-Minnesotan accent as I’ve heard. Clearly she was raised north of the Twin Cities in a small community, perhaps the small community we were eating in. Talk about mixing races. I really enjoyed hearing her talk.

    I hat being in a position to defend anything religious, but ’round these parts it is very common for churches to do major organizing for mass adoption efforts. As you may know, this region has the largest or second larges Hmong population in the US, and many Hmong here (now second and third generation) originally came over as adults or as members of families. But lots and lots of Hmong babies and young children who were orphaned in Southeast Asia or en route here were adopted. My daughter went to a school were something like 25 percent of the kids were non-white, and of those, half had white parents, the kids coming from all over the world. The thing is, much of this adoption as done in connection with one church or another.

    Those experiences you had were obnoxious, but not necessarily typical. I don’t know if the genetic/biological issue informs us much on this one, though.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Elf Eye: The point of this distinction is not to encourage you to consider yourself the “Biological” mother of your adopted child (terminologically). Rather, it is to discourage the use of the word “biological” to substitute for “genetic” or “birth” mother.

    g[11]:see my response to Elf Eye. Not semantics . And no, you are not the parent of your dog. Your dog is a different species living in a commensal or domesticated relationship with you. You are the “owner” of your dog . Now, with cats, that would be defined differently …

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    g[12]: No, you are still not quite getting the point, IADR. You are insisting that “biology” is genetics and/or cells and nothing else. I think you think “biology” means something other than it actually means.

  17. #17 Elf Eye
    August 19, 2009

    An attempt to discourage the use of “biological” as exclusively referring to birth parents will probably be a losing battle for two reasons. First, in the context of adoption, “biological” was accepted as a synonym for “genetic” for many, many years. Those who accepted this conflation included adoption professionals, adopted individuals, adoptive parents, compilers of dictionaries, and, of course, the public at large. Second, if anything, “biological” will become even more entrenched as a term for birth parents, and at the expense of “genetic.” The reason for that is the advent of reproductive technology. A term had to be adopted (again, no pun intended) for individuals whose involvement in the process of reproduction was limited to egg and sperm donation. There is a tendency for “genetic parent” to be used in such cases, thus making the term unavailable as a label for birth parents. A Google search will demonstrate the phenomenon. Run “biological parent” and the majority of hits will refer to birth parents. Run “genetic parent” and the majority of hits will be to articles that discuss the legal, moral, and social implications of sperm or egg donation. So, “genetic parent” having been co-opted to cover those who donate eggs and sperm, “biological parent” becomes even more the term of choice for birth parents and hence unavailable as a term to describe adoptive parents.

  18. #18 Alex
    August 19, 2009

    Greg @ 15: “The point of this distinction is not to encourage you to consider yourself the “Biological” mother of your adopted child (terminologically). Rather, it is to discourage the use of the word “biological” to substitute for “genetic” or “birth” mother.”

    You should have said this to start off with.
    So your saying that the people who raised you are your biological adoptive parents, the woman that gave birth to you is your biological birth mother and the people that donated gametes are your biological genetic parents. They are all biological because they are/were living people, and so the distinction should be what else they did?

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Alex: “Becuase they are living people?” Get serious, please. Jeesh….

    (try to explain and people go and get weird on you…)

  20. #20 CT
    August 19, 2009

    What Priam said. The original statement is not a falsehood-it simply doesn’t conform to your clarity-inhibiting reinterpretation of what “biological” commonly means in this context.

  21. #21 Irene
    August 19, 2009

    It is clearly not true that a person who lactates and feeds a young mammal is biologically critical to that individual, and that this ‘parent’ is a biological parent irregardless of genetics. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore and enlighten.

    But, leave it to a pedant or two to miss a learning experience. This could be a problem with writing up this idea of falsehoods across more than one blog post, even if you have a link-back.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Irene, you make a good point, For some of the falsehoods (see link to earlier post) they are simply wrong. For others, they are actually right, but in a way that leaves something out, or in a way that people may conflate with some other, bad idea. In this case, the falsehood is not wrong if you equate biology with genetics. Equating biology with genetics is stupid, ignorante, and often, as a matter of fact, nefarious (becuase freeing the two up a bit allows for other means of transmission of important information and, for example, undercuts racists or sexist arguments). If I was feeling cynical, I would possibly assume these particular ‘pendents’ were shoring up some racist argument or another in their own minds.

    But in the end, this partiuclar falsehood is best used to make a series of points about life history, parental investment, and development. There is a semi-political side to this and a plain-old biology side to this. I strongly recommend reading Hrdy’s book (I’ll put a link in the post to in just now).

  23. #23 chunchung
    August 19, 2009

    In a (natural) language, words only mean things that the users of the language want them to mean. And, these things can evolve over time and vary over sub groups of users. There is no true or false, just subjective recognition of what the convention is and if the points are gotten across.

  24. #24 travc
    August 20, 2009

    Good point Greg. I’ve had a serious interest in non-genetic evolution (epigenetics, cultural evolution, ect) pretty much forever, so you’re preaching to the choir.

    I don’t think it is something to get terribly dogmatic about, but pointing out that the “biological parent” isn’t a very well defined (is a donor or surrogate a biological parent?) term is all good. “Genetic parent” is precise, at least until we start doing genetic engineering.

    BTW: “Birth mother” is pretty precise too.

  25. #25 Miss Cellania
    August 20, 2009

    I wasn’t sure what your point was until comment #15. We’ve never used the term “biological mother” in my family. My daughters have “birth mothers” in China and India. I am their “mother”. We tried to get away from the term “real mom” when I reminded them that I am quite real. Then my stepchildren call me “mom” sometimes, but never when their “real mom” is around. Sigh. I attend to biological needs for all of them, including endless groceries, cash handouts, and taxi service.

  26. #26 mlifshin
    August 20, 2009

    Some comments accept the new definition but are eager to discount interspecies relationships as biological in a similar, redefined sense. Why not though? Interspecies nursing is well-documented online. That is very biological. Adoption happens interspecies, too, and the associated behaviors run the spectrum, from the nursing to providing food to teaching and upbringing.

  27. #27 D
    August 20, 2009

    What Priam and chunchung said. At best, you want to bring about a change in how a word is used in a certain context. It’s hard to understand how this could correspond to rejecting a “Falsehood”

  28. #28 DuWayne
    August 20, 2009

    I’m sorry, but this is the very new age semantic game that pisses me off about a lot of my hippie friends. My dad is not my biological father, because he didn’t contribute to my genetics. My biological contributor, OTOH, is not my dad and never could be – because I have a dad who isn’t him.

    I don’t need some redefinition of biology to legitimize my relationship with my dad. He put in thirty some years of parenting that more than legitimized it. As far as I am concerned, trying to redefine this is nothing but a detraction from my relationship with my dad – not so much the act of redefining, as the perceived need to do so. There is absolutely no need for it – my dad is my dad and has legally been such for nearly thirty-two years, since I was two years old. Not that that is even important. It is not biology that makes my dad my dad, nor is it that piece of paper that says he is. My dad is my dad because he raised me and loves me. And one needn’t spend a lot of time with the two of us to see that I am very much my father’s son.

    Biology is a values neutral concept with a specific meaning – hippie-dippy wordgames cannot change that, nor should they try. When we play these stupid fucking games with language, we are not doing anyone favors – if you don’t think that the word used to describe something is adequate, then suggest a whole new word – don’t coopt an existing word, with an existing meaning that is not an accurate amalgam of the concept you are trying to describe. There may be better words to describe the relationship between a non-biological offspring and their parent(s) (though I don’t believe there is), but biological is simply not it.

  29. #29 michellespidermonkey
    August 20, 2009

    Really interesting post! Sarah Hrdy is my hero… Mother Nature is one of my favorite books, and I just read Mothers and Others, which is fantastic as well.

    Anyway, I think you bring up a really important issue in people’s understanding of “biological” versus “genetic.” I think the conflation of the two is why people misunderstand a lot of biology, because they assume if something is “biological” than it’s misunderstood as genetic determinism. Basically, it comes back to the whole nature-nurture fallacy.

    That said, I do think some of this is a semantic problem, and I think calling adoptive parents “biological parents” is apt to be confusing. Especially since that leads to having many potential biological parents–what degree of caregiving is need to qualify “primary parents” from “alloparents”? Is someone who babysits once a week a biological parent? Three times a week? A live-in nanny?

    Also, I think that the interspecies relationship could qualify in the same way… I have a friend of raised orphan puppies, and always insist that he (yes, he’s male) was essentially their “mommy” (due to the fact that they are mammals and he fed them doggy formula til they were weaned). I guess it depends on the relationship–if you have a working dog that herds your sheep, perhaps it’s different from the dog you adopt from the shelter, who you pamper and let sleep on your bed. I feel that in some sense, my pets are definitely my babies. And given that we often feel this way because they have the same cues that human babies have to elicit care-taking behavior (the big eyes, rounded features, etc), I think the relationships can be very similar.

    Then again, I’m not sure how someone with both kids and pets would feel… I remember my advisor remarking that prior to having kids, your dogs are your babies… whereas after kids, the dogs are just dogs… But I can’t imagine having such a detached perspective of my pets.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    August 20, 2009

    Mlifshin (26): I agree with you that this is a very biological relationship (betwen species )and yes, there is lots of adoption in lots of species, not to mention aunting and creche. Ultimately, it is hard to use these categories and definitial approaches, and better to use the underlying process and theory about that, such as (in this case) Parental Investment Theory.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    August 20, 2009

    DuWayne, there are three reasons why identifying this statement as a falsehood is good, and none of them need impinge on your sensibilities.

    1) Genetics does not equal biology. That itself is a falsehood, and this is one way to get at it. I am NOT redefining biology. I am pointing out that the average drone is walking around mis-defning biology when they confuse genetics and biology.

    2) One of the ways in which, or for which (as a reason) women are treated as they are in many societies and social contexts is that they are the vessel for male reproduction. Hrdy is trying to stress the vital role of women and mother hood and uses this as a foil. By insisting that this discussion is a hippie semantic word game you are being an utter misogynist shit, so you’d better stop now. I’ve not followed this angle here. Instead I keep saying “Read Hrdy. Read Hrdy.” So go read Hrdy. Anyway, by defining “genetic and biological” as the same and linking it to birth, post-partum female investment is systematically devalued for political patriarchal reasons.

    There was a third reason but I’ve said enough. Got other stuff to do today.

  32. #32 DuWayne
    August 20, 2009

    By insisting that this discussion is a hippie semantic word game you are being an utter misogynist shit, so you’d better stop now.

    Fuck you and your post-modern fucking bullshit. That is exactly what this conversation is about. And quite honestly, trying to redefine words to accommodate patriarchal nonsense, instead of standing up to it and calling it the misogynistic bullshit that it is – that’s motherfucking misogyny. That’s just more patriarchal cock-sucking, no different than these fucking anti-sex morons who parade themselves as feminists.

    I like you Greg, but sometimes you are totally capable of being a condescending fuck – and this is one of those times. Having a fancy Yale degree doesn’t make you smarter than everyone else, it just means you have a more expensive piece of paper that was moderately more challenging to achieve.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    August 20, 2009

    What is this “Yale” thing you mention? A prep school or something?

  34. #34 DuWayne
    August 20, 2009

    Sorry, I meant Princeton…

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    August 20, 2009

    At least you didn’t say Stanford. That’d be fighting words.

  36. #36 Ian
    August 26, 2009

    Greg, this is bullshit. The meaning of biological parent not only hinges on a genetic relationship, the term has popularly been adopted with that meaning.

    What you’re arguing for here is the genesis of a total upheaval of language, where no word can be relied on to mean anything and can be changed on what amounts to no more than a whim, and the hell with the standard, popular, legal, sensible or accepted use.

    What you’re doing by blindly labeling the accepted (and accurate meaning) a falsehood is no different from those who insist, for example, that Pluto is a planet because they like it that way. Maybe they do prefer it, just like you prefer to regard anyone who has a hand in raising a child as the biological parent, but that doesn’t change any facts. Pluto is a dwarf planet. No one who not primarily provided the genetic investment in a child is the biological parent. Any other option deprives the word of any meaning at all.

  37. #37 Greg Laden
    August 26, 2009

    Ian, you are confused about biology and genetics. I’ve done all I can to help you out of that confusion but concede it may be hopeless.

    I don’t regard anyone who has a hand in raising a child as “the biological parent.” Life is a bit more complex than that, actually.

    I don’t think the planetary status of Pluto is a good analogy.

  38. #38 G
    September 1, 2009

    @Greg (15,16), Defining biology to suit our needs, are we? If I provide the same care to a non-human animal and to a human, how am I not, according to your definitions, the father of said animal? You now refer to the concept of species, that’s a nice ad hoc thing you should add to your homebrew definition of “biological parent” (which is, btw….?) Do you see how arbitrary this is starting to sound?

    I stick to my position that you stretched the meaning of biological and parent to the limit just to fit your point. Pretending that “we dont understand” is simply not a sufficient answer, it’s rather just another symptom of your idiosyncratic use of terminology.

  39. #39 G
    September 1, 2009

    In concert with Ian: the best argument on that page is probably that redefining “biological parent” could please adoptive parents and children.

    It’s more like A baby *wink* is not the biological offspring *nudge nudge* of its “adopted mother”.

  40. #40 Greg Laden
    September 1, 2009

    G: Under no circumstances are you the father of, say, your dog, so the phrase “He is not the biological father of his dog” is not a falsehood, and thus, is not covered by any of this.

    You may be, however the father of a red herring.

    I did not stretch the definition of biological parentage to make my point. My point IS stretching the definition of biological parentage.

  41. #41 G
    September 2, 2009

    Greg,

    You wrote that a biological contribution (which seems to include feeding vegs to the child as well as paying for college) can make someone a parent. That was vague, but it’s there. I suggested counter-examples.

    We agreed that not any care-taker can be a parent, and not any “biological contributor” can be a parent.

    Since you did not explain what does count as a parent and what doesnt, your contribution seems limited to noticing that “parent” is a fuzzy term.

  42. #42 Drekab
    September 2, 2009

    I don’t see what everyone is having such a tough time with about this. Greg isn’t defining the word parent as it is a commonly understood word whose definition isn’t being challenged. The main thrust of the argument is that there is more to biology than genes and that haploid donors are better refered to as genetic parents than as biological parents. You may agree or disagree, but all this going on about dogs and babysitters is silly.

  43. #43 Drekab
    September 2, 2009

    Double commenting in a week old post is silly, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Basically, what you’re saying is that since the genetic, birth, and adoptive parents all provide key biological components to a child, they could all equally be called biological parents and therefore the term is useless and should be abandoned, correct?

  44. #44 Greg Laden
    September 2, 2009

    Drekab: right on.

  45. #45 Greg Laden
    September 2, 2009

    OK, I was responding there to your first post not your second post. I’m less concerned about being a term nazi and forcing the terminology to shift than simply making the point.

  46. #46 Jared
    September 5, 2009

    Just out of curiosity, have you read “Performing Kinship” by Krista Van Vleet?

  47. #47 Greg Laden
    September 5, 2009

    No, but I have a vague idea of what it is. Have you read it? Or Dancing on the Borderlands?

  48. #48 Jared
    September 6, 2009

    I haven’t read Dancing on the Borderlands; that was in a “Natives Making Nation,” right? I did read “performing kinship” and I thought it was interesting that at one point, the “giving children” to a relative is discussed and the child is seen as having two sets of parents. I thought it was a rather interesting section. I want to reread it and write a review.

  49. #49 Greg Laden
    September 6, 2009

    I’m looking forward to your review!

  50. #50 G
    September 8, 2009

    @Drekab,

    There’s nothing wrong with double posting in a week old thread. Actually I plan on doing that right now.

    We know that there’s more to biology than genes. That’s not enough to support Greg’s main argument though, which seemed to be based on the usual criticism of the term “replicator”, i.e. that organisms contribute some of their own cells and so forth. But that’s clearly not a necessery and sufficient condition to call one a parent, otherwise you’d have to concede silly things.

  51. #51 Greg Laden
    September 8, 2009

    G: You have made a number of decisions about what we can and can not do without one iota of rational argument. You just decided arbitrarily that a previously decided arbitrary thing is better than a newly decided arbitrary thing.

    Against that is my argument, which does the same thing, but with a valid pedagogical and socio-political reason.

    Go read “the woman that never evolved” and “mother nature” and come back and we’ll talk.

  52. #52 G
    September 8, 2009

    My initial complaint is that you seemed to claim that providing “biological care” (or being “biologically essential to [a] child’s survival”) is a sufficient condition for x being a parent. That would lead to numerous silly situations, like Priam’s “an automaton could also be classified as a biological father or mother” or mine (baby-sitter, wet nurse as parent, dog as child, etc.) If you did make that statement, I would appreciate if you could come up to support its validity – patronizing prose does not count.

    Your valid points seemed to be that we can extend the term “parenting” to cover care takers, and should not restrict it to genetic parents. All understood. I too am sensitive to the fact that words have an arbitrary meaning.

  53. #53 Jared
    October 26, 2009

    Sorry for the delay, I am currently dealing with a grandmother with dementia compounded with medical apathy and desire for independence while simultaneously having no ability to do so.

    Here is my very brief review:
    http://morsdei.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/performing-kinship/

  54. #54 VHM
    July 20, 2010

    Greg, just so you know: among the other two-thirds of the adoption triad, the preferred term is “first mother” and “first father,” not “biological” or “birth” parent. Problem solved, by the actual in-group.

    Elf Eye, your post was wonderful to read. Unfortunately (as you probably know), your insightful perception is still the minority opinion.

    I nearly died of a genetically inherited disorder, because there are so many general symptoms that none of my doctors could figure out what exactly was wrong for several years. Turns out, almost every one of my genetic relatives on one side of the family suffer from the same disorder. Now THAT’s biology.

  55. #55 Karla
    July 21, 2010

    VHM, that is very, very obscure. The problem is hardly “solved” excepting in a flippant and trivial way.

  56. #56 VHM
    July 21, 2010

    Karla,

    It’s only obscure to people who haven’t done research into the subject. Among adoptees, first parents, and adoptive and prospective adoptive parents who have ventured beyond what the adoption agencies say in their FAQs, it’s actually quite well known.

    Come to think of it, that spelling variant on your name seems familiar. If you are who I think you are, you’re playing a little game here, and you know it.

  57. #57 Greg Laden
    July 21, 2010

    VHM, Thanks for the interest, and your point is correct but only in the context that Karla points out, not so much in the public discourse. This discussion of falsehoods is not meant to explore the context of thoughtful understanding, good training, appropriate education, and generally proper use of the term. This is true of all of the falsehoods. In all cases, there are people using the terminology or concepts “correctly.”

    First Mother is an old term that goes way back before being replaced with “birth mother.” Later, people decided they didn’t like that term and switched back. This post, however, is about the term “biological mother.”

    So, what is this secret intrigue regarding Karla and vhm?

  58. #58 VHM
    July 21, 2010

    Greg, sorry: I wasn’t trying to make a huge deal of it, but then I felt I had to answer the snide response.

    Originally, I was responding to the point made several times in the comments above that people believed the use of the term “birth” mother obviated the need to use “biological” mother at all, because your theoretical point about *both* being biological mothers would be confusing to put into practice in real life.

    The term “birth” mother is considered offensive and discriminatory by many in the adoption triad, so I just wanted to point that out.

  59. #59 Greg Laden
    July 21, 2010

    because your theoretical point about *both* being biological mothers would be confusing to put into practice in real life.

    Not confusing. Challenging.

    Throughout all of this discussion, “mother” is being used for more than one thing. It isn’t the only word that could have subtle or complex meanings.

    It is interesting that while “birth mother” is considered in at least part of the adoption industry to be the inappropriate word to use, it is in fact the word that is almost always used. Why has the industry been so ineffective in getting this changed?

  60. #60 VHM
    July 21, 2010

    It’s actually the industry itself that’s driving the usage. The term “birth mother” purposely sets up a pregnant woman to think of herself as merely a gestating (biological) vessel. (The agencies don’t make money if a first mom decides to raise her own baby.) If you’re interested in learning about the early history of the U.S. adoption industry, an easy and yet illuminating read would be Barbara Bisantz Raymond’s “The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption.”

    Meanwhile….I appreciate your distinction between confusing and challenging. I guess I was looking at it from the POV of the average person who has little scientific knowledge. In some cases, people will admit to fear of the unknown with regard to science. Some are even proud of the fact that they are ignorant of scientific “beliefs.” Could you really get such people to wrap their heads around the idea that biology isn’t just genes? Or is this concept meant solely for more educated laypeople?

  61. #61 Sharon Astyk
    July 22, 2010

    I’m torn a little on this one. This would permit me to describe my step-mother (my mother’s partner for 31 years, since I was 7) as my biological mother, which I think would be lovely. My step-mother is the single most beloved of my family, and suffers, I think from a long-standing inferiority complex, in which she is not fully “real” – this was, I’m sure, not helped by my sisters and I screaming that point at her at some moment or other during each adolescence. Given that she tended my biological processes for decades, and now grandmothers my children and tends theirs, I like it a lot.

    And I think Greg and Hrdy’s points are both true and important.

    That said, I think there’s a case against attempting to overturn a popular language that has returned a reasonably satisfactory solution to complex problems – “Dad” and “Biological Dad” may not be as perfectly accurate as “Dad” and “Genetic Dad” but they serve their purpose fairly well, applying the modifier to the person who needs it the most – a shift away from the old scenarios in which the modifier (step, adoptive, etc…) was applied to the person who did the primary parenting. Moreover, biological is useful for those many complicated grey areas in which the only thing you want to establish is *not* a genetic relationship.

    For example, my niece, adopted from Vietnam, was raised for the first three years of her life, before she was handed to the orphanage, by her genetic mother. The raising was probably pretty awful – thankfully she doesn’t remember, and we know drugs and alcohol were pretty seriously involved, but her contribution was not simply genetic. And a terrible upbringing does not erase her mother’s attempts to tend her. In most cases other than a pure sperm donor or “we gave up the baby 10 minutes after birth” the parents shared in some biological care at some point – maybe badly, maybe well. “Biological” seems like a better word to describe this complexity, to me at least, than “Genetic” in cases where there are blurry lines.

    BTW, thanks for the kind link re: goats – no room to thank you there. Let me know how many to put you down for ;-).

    Sharon

  62. #62 Collin
    October 13, 2011

    “If we fully insert the male into this set of scenarios”

    When I first saw this phrase, I assumed it was just an oddity. But then I saw you saying that the only way to understand your post, and to avoid being called a misogynist, is to read a book. This is obviously some sort of twisted advert campaign for Hrdy.

    If I wanted to be told to read a book before I can express my opinion, I’d still be going for weekly prayers at the Synagogue.

  63. #63 Kyle
    February 2, 2012

    Yes, biology and genetics are not the same. But maybe the word biological can mean something different in that one very specific term “biological mother.” It’s simply a term to distinguish a person who actually raises you from a person who contributed genes and/or a womb. People are comfortable using it, so why ask them to change it? Why not instead just educate them as to the sort of biological connection an adoptive mother has to her adoptive child?

    I actually got into a discussion about the word psychology vs. psychologist. When you say psychologist, you’re not just talking about anyone who practices psychology. Psychiatry is a branch of psychology, and yet you wouldn’t call a psychiatrist a psychologist. A psychologist has a specific job that could be called a general psychologist. So the meaning of psychology is getting twisted a little in this context.

    So why can’t biological mother mean genetic mother or birth mother in this context? You don’t have to tell people they’re confusing biology with genetics because we’re not necessarily talking about biology or genetics as a whole. We’re just using a specific term to mean a specific thing. I for one have never even heard the term genetic mother until now. I understand that you think saying someone isn’t a biological mother sort of cheapens the job, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone I know understands that the adoptive mom is the “real” mom and the important one. Saying biological mom is just a matter of clarity and distinction.