The Myth of the Genetic Tie

In the context of having children, there is a romanticized concept called the “genetic tie.”[1] When my parents considered adoption, my dad dismissed the idea because he felt he could never love an adopted child as much as his biokids. There is a scary brainwash element to this notion – that the “genetic tie” is the reason parents love their biokids, or the reason biosiblings love each other. Because we have given the “genetic tie” a seat at the head of the table, right next to “love,” reproduction has been valorized as the primary, normal condition and foundation for parenting, relegating adoptive parenting to second place.[2]

The “genetic tie” is a myth. In reality, you and I share 99% of our genes, guaranteed. But you and I are not tied – at least, not in the way I am tied to my family. I may share more genes with my parents or brothers, but the miniscule difference doesn’t account for why I am “tied” to them. I am tied to them by our shared experiences – shared parents, a shared home, and many happy (and not so happy) shared memories.

From a purely biological and scientific perspective, the genetic contributions from a particular inseminated egg do not actually contribute much to individual distinctiveness beyond species specificity.[3] From a sociological perspective, most people are more attached to their grandchildren than their nieces and nephews, who share the same “percentage” of inherited genetic material.[4] And on an individual level, it is incontrovertible that parents love their adoptikids “with all the necessity and wholeheartedness of biological kin” – to question this is to misunderstand what it means to be a parent.[5]

Despite these facts, I suspect people like my dad presume that biokids will be “easier,” by virtue of being more recognizable. Charlotte Witt points out that family resemblances are part of a family’s mythology, serving multiple purposes of bonding family members, explaining behavior, and assigning blame; “a family resemblance is not simply a matter of having blue eyes, but having blue eyes like Aunty Ginny; not simply being moody, but being moody like Mom.”[6] But the heritability of characteristics isn’t just genetic – another “vehicle for transmission could be parents teaching their children to have a certain characteristic, like moodiness, thriftiness or a wacky sense of humor.”[7] Resemblance isn’t all nature; in fact, most of it is nurture.

The reality is that shared genes won’t guarantee ease in parenting. Take my family – two parents, two sons, and a daughter. My parents, neither of whom have addictive personalities, went through years of distress as one of my brothers struggled with addiction. Both my parents have masters degrees, so it wasn’t easy for them to get on board with either of my brothers’ decisions not to graduate from college. None of us are funny like my middle brother, and while three of us are extroverts (my parents and middle brother), my oldest brother and I are introverts. Do we resemble each other? To be honest – not really. But are we a family? Yes.

Families like mine, in the sense of how varied we are, exist everywhere, whether they are composed of biokids, adoptikids, or both. We just happen to share a fraction of a percentage of genetic material more than we do with non-family members. But that didn’t give us any advantage in respect to “ease” of being a family – understanding, supporting, and loving one another. To move forward as a society, we have to abolish the myth that the “genetic tie” has anything to do with what really makes a family a family.


[1] For an in-depth exploration of the genetic tie in the context of how it marginalizes the institution of adoption, see “Methods of Adoption: Eliminating Genetic Privilege,” by Jacqueline Stevens, in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)

[2] “A Child of One’s Own: A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts in Adoption,” by Janet Farrell Smith, in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)


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“Methods of Adoption: Eliminating Genetic Privilege,” by Jacqueline Stevens, in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally

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Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)

[4] “The Moral Psychology of Adoption and Family Ties” in The Morality of Adoption: Social-Psychological, Theological, and Legal Perspectives (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2005)

[5] “Accidents and Contingencies of Love,” by Songsuk Hahn, in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)

[6] Charlotte Witt, “Family Resemblances,” in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)


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Charlotte Witt, “Family Resemblances,” in Adoption Matters, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt (Cornell University 2005)


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