Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny: Observing my 21-year-old daughter and 21-month-old grandson

I observe my offspring becoming mature members of the species

Posted Nov 10, 2009

I play a minor role, next to my daughter herself and my grandson's parents, in influencing their development. But I observe their developmental issues.

Issue               Cash (21 months)        Anna (21 years)
Movement       Climbing bars               Walking New York
Career             Entering play school     Graduating NYU
Relationships Kids at playground       Live-in boyfriend
Family             Parental separation      Parental separation
                              Self-reliance   Self-propulsion             Financial self-support
                              Identity           Self-definition               Self-definition

Human beings are in a constant state of self-definition, but more so when they're younger.  At 21 months, Cash is discovering everything about the world, and exploring his ability to participate in and manipulate it. Come to think of it, so is Anna. Cash's main issue is to know his capacity to climb up and down things and to navigate his environment feely, without hurting himself or being hurt. Anna's is to know how she can express her talents and make a living.

On the interpersonal front, Cash is learning give-and-take with other kids. I had to restrain myself as he took a little girl's teddy bear at the playground. But, no worry, she grabbed it back quickly. Anna is in a solid relationship with her boyfriend, who lives with her (okay, in a condo I purchased). He has already graduated college, so he is seriously - and so far futilely - looking for work in New York City. I feel for him. But Anna is going to have to either have some success selling her screenplays and TV sitcoms, or else get a day-to-day job when she graduates in May.

Both are in the process of defining their independent selves. Cash doesn't leave his house - or even play outside - on his own. Anna does. So - somewhere along the line - Cash will master solo safe self-propulsion. I often wonder about the timing of this process, and how it has changed in our contemporary world. Of course, his independence of action is intimately tied with establishing his independent identity and separation from his parents.

Meanwhile, there is some criticism within the family of how much support I provide for Anna. I feel good about it - she is appreciative and works hard. She did play an integral role in finding the condo I bought her and found a roommate to offset expenses (which I think of as a plus over the father representing his 21-year-old who called someone I knew who was seeking a roommate). But it remains to be seen whether and how Anna will support her own adult existence.

The two are similar - both must learn how to sustain themselves through a lifetime. This reminds me of how ontology (individual development) recapitulates phylogeny (species development). The PBS NOVA program has been running a three-part series, "Becoming Human," about how our species evolved to its present state. Ape-like creatures began walking upright, and greatly expanded their cranial capacity, turning into human beings able to adjust to whichever environments they have faced (I telescoped the history of a few million years a bit here).

And so Anna and Cash are recapitulating the way members of our species have come to grips with their environments from time immemorial. I hope and expect they will make it fine, with perhaps some stress and compromise. But, in some sense, whatever assistance we provide, we must not forget that it is their challenge to face. Just like phylogeny, ontology cannot be vouchsafed or short-circuited. It must be lived.