Monday, May 12, 2014


 I consider myself a person because I am self-aware.  There are probably not more than a dozen people in the US and perhaps a hundred in Sweden with my name, Elof Axel Carlson.  I can be identified by my anatomy which includes photographs of me at different stages of my life cycle. My 83 year old portrait is not too different from my 55 year old portrait but it is considerably different from my 30 year old unwrinkled appearance. My fingerprints, of course, have not changed since I was a youth. A very complete autopsy at my death would reveal a considerable amount of information about my various organs and tissues. I am also a person defined by the artifacts of my life.  I have a personality that is known to my family, students, and colleagues over the years. Readers know me through my books, articles, and this Blog.  For some of you it is as if I am conversing with you. I could add those items to a variety of social and historical facts to make a CV or curriculum vitae, which I used to use when I was seeking a job. It was used by deans and committees to create an overall impression of who I was as a person.  For the most part my written record would not give many clues to others about how I look or what my personality is like.
At a genetic level, I have a unique genome that no other person alive or dead has.  Our genomes can give some information about us as persons.  If there is an abnormal chromosome number, we could predict that a person with trisomy-21 has Down syndrome, trisomy-13 has Patau syndrome, trisomy-18 has Edwards syndrome, and for the sex chromosomes, individuals who are XXY have Klinefelter syndrome and those who have an unaccompanied X are said to have Turner syndrome.  Today people can have their genomes sequenced, partially or completely, depending on how much they are willing to pay. They can learn about their risks for a variety of disorders and get some insights into their ethnic or racial ancestry.  Their DNA might also reveal a number of physical traits.  But reading my entire genome will not tell you what books I wrote, what field I worked in, or the type of information you could obtain by reading my CV. At a physiological level, you could learn about my blood types, my HLA tissue antigens, and a variety of health conditions and past illnesses I have had. When my physicians do laboratory tests, they are interested in my risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases. If I were consumed by a fire and my jawbones were left relatively undamaged, my current dentist would be able to identify me from my extractions, implants, crowns, and fillings.

I have no conscious awareness of who I was before I was about three years old. I would be unaware of my name as a fetus, unaware of existing as a fertilized egg.  I think of personhood as a process of becoming rather than an event that is assigned by society as fertilization in an oviduct, implantation into a womb, birth that is recorded on a birth certificate, or concluded with a death certificate. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes of people through their contributions to civilization – thousands of words coined over centuries, hundreds of ideas and values that I was taught and absorbed into my personality, and,  of course, some 25,000 genes that were transmitted from Swedish farmers, pious Lutherans, polytheistic Vikings, Orthodox Jews in Ukraine, survivors of pogroms, who some 1900 years ago were scattered by a Roman conquest of Jerusalem. 

1 comment:

Collette Chandler said...

Well said. Love it. Thank you!