When I returned from teaching medicine in Afghanistan from 1968 to’70, I was amazed at the number of adopted people clamoring to meet their biological parent(s) and learn of their roots. During my stay in Afghanistan when I came upon a surprising cultural difference, I could almost always think of a corresponding quirk in my own culture.
The exception to finding cultural similarities was adoption. It did not exist in Afghan culture. Orphans, whoever took care of them, were given a forthright answer about their origins. Chalk one up for the Afghan culture. They had wired around the problem that I had encountered on returning home before the problem existed, and I had thought them unsophisticated about adoption when I first heard that Afghans do not recognize adoption in our sense of the word.
There are cultural differences with respect to politics as well. For example, Lysenko, a minor figure in Russian biological circles who was appointed Director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s because he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a concept which gladdened the hearts of communists. Such inheritance would make second generation communists easier to govern than first generation ones because of inherited behavior traits. But Gregor Mendel had disproved the inheritance of acquired characteristics more than 50 years before the Lysenko appointment. The scientists who spoke out against Lysenko were sent to the Gulag not to be released until after Stalin’s death.
What do we do about qualified scientists on government advisory committees whose advice does not please our capitalistic corporate or religious preferences? Consider especially these examples: global warming, condoms and sterile needles to prevent AIDS, and stem cell research for therapeutic nuclear transfer (formerly called, confusingly, therapeutic cloning). Our response to these “renegade” advisors is to discharge them from the advisory committees and limit funding for their research (a Gulag equivalent?). And we may make a token contribution to hydrogen fuel cell research without action on the urgent problem of limiting current greenhouse gas emissions. We scarcely take even such actions which cost less than nothing.
Contact with other human cultures helps to keep our thinking in perspective. After all, I learned about adoption from the Afghans. I can hope they learned something from me such as the benefits of the secular state. Kemal Ataturk learned this from the West in 1920, and it is high on the list of reasons why Turkey is about to be eligible for membership in the European Union.
John A. Frantz, M.D.
October 1, 2004
Making people feel at home cuts both ways until you find out how they act at home.