Volume 11, Issue 2
Life magazine for November, 1996 featured an article, illustrated with a series of extraordinary photographs by Lennart Nilsson, of comparative embryology, evocatively titled What Does It Mean to Be One of Us? I saw my first human embryo, one of about three months gestation carefully preserved in a glass container, in my physician father's office when I was four years old. I marveled then (even though I could not have articulated my feelings) as I am awestruck now at the incredible delicacy and wondrous construction of the tiny being. I also remember being sad that the minute creature had not survived. When I was older and questioned, now more concerned than enchanted, such a specimen's existence on a shelf in a back room, my father (who during his years as a general practitioner delivered thousands of babies), explained that the embryo had been a spontaneous miscarriage preserved by a research pathologist, who was investigating placenta previa. Years later in a zoology lab, during my undergraduate years at Duke University, I drew a fetal pig as my dissecting responsibility, in the portion of the course dedicated to comparative embryology. Eventually, as was of course intended, I noted the similarities of the various mammalian embryos dissected by others. Like generations of students before me I memorized the discredited but euphonious phrase, Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The truth is considerably more complex but as the Life article states:
If our intelligence has made us wonderful and glorious (and singularly dangerous), if our works have transformed the planet, the miracle lies not in our distance from the less accomplished animals, but in our closeness.
In fact the more we learn the less singular we become. Remarkably this same issue of Life reported the story of Binti Jua (Swahili for "Daughter of Sunshine," who is a Western lowland gorilla) who rescued a three year old boy who tumbled into her zoo habitat. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it, "We are a tiny little twig of the mammalian tree. Nature was not made for us." Yet because of our exceptional development and current dominance on this planet we have wrongfully made the opposite assumption. At the beginning of a new millennium we live in an era of unparalleled destruction of species and resources, somehow erroneously believing our own progeny to be inviolate. James Shreeve in The Neandertal Enigma illustrates clearly that we are not. "If you did not know the eventual end of the story," he states, "you could not say which was doomed (Neandertal) and which was destined (Cro-Magnon)." One recently discovered Neandertal fossil from Zafarrya in the south of Spain is a mere 28,000 years old. "So their moment of extinction creeps even closer to the present."
Extinction is the ultimate private act. It buries both hope and memory, disconnecting the one from the many, the species moment from the continuum of time. Life goes on but not this life, and not these deaths, with their promises of rebirth. There is nothing left behind to grieve for, because the grievers too, are silenced.
None too would be left to mourn for us . . .
Yet as I work with the remarkable contributors to this Journal I am reminded of the comment by Jean-Paul Sartre, who is said to have invented the modern existential crisis, "Being has not been given its due." So I offer tribute to those who are helping to change the underlying patterns of human birth toward hope and joy and fulfillment. In this issue, Tiffany Field, Ph.D. and her colleagues give us the results of their research, funded through an NIMH grant, Massage With Oil Has More Positive Effects on Normal Infants. From the departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Montreal, Véronique Lussier, D.Ps., Hélène David, D.Ps., Jean-François Saucier, Ph.D. and François Borgeat, M.D. describe their results in a Self-Rating Assessment of Postnatal Depression: A Comparison of the Beck Depression Inventory and the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. APPPAH Board member and Director of The Infant-Parent Institute, Michael D. Trout, in The Optimal Adoption Launch, explains the need to understand the central character in any adoption-the baby. Frequent contributor, Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., M.S.W. examines the effects of the "devaluation of childbirth on woman's self-esteem and family relationships" in her article, Childbirth: The Ordinary Miracle. APPPAH Board member Robbie Davis-Floyd, Ph.D., and her colleague Judith Luke, who is a midwife, review the exceptional book by Robbie P. Khan, Bearing Meaning; The Language of Birth.
Miller, Kenneth (1996). What Does it Mean to Be One of Us? Life (November), 38-54.
Shreeve, James (1995). The Neandertal Engima. New York: Avon Books.
Ruth J. Carter, Ph.D.
Georgia College & State University
Publication Date:December 1996
Volume Page Numbers:67
Volume Page Numbers:117