The Founder Effect – no. 1


The most remarkable thing about me is I have twelve fingers and twelve toes; six fingers on each hand, six toes on each foot. And I don’t mean unsightly nubs that can be shorn off in a hospital with a scalpel and some alcohol. I mean bone, knuckles, nails, sensation. So perfectly formed that if I shook your hand, you wouldn’t notice. It might even take you a week, maybe longer. Not a casual thing. It would take a moment of intimacy.

As you might imagine, I’ve read quite a bit about my remainder. The medical establishment has the most to say, but I find science so dull. I prefer history, poetry. A doctor diagnoses a “condition.” A poet marvels at divinity.

The medical term, for my particular case, is central polydactyly. On x-rays you can see each hand and foot have two middle fingers, two middle toes; the bones are exactly the same size, the same shape, perfect twins, from the tips right down to the wrists and ankles. Polydactyly is rare, maybe 1 in 500—but central polydactyly, on both hands and both feet, is closer to one in a million.

To be honest, I tire of discourse on metatarsals and metacarpals. It’s so institutional, Latinate, cold. I like stories instead. Myths. After all, it is the kind of thing that invites superstition.

In 1942, Ernst Mayr published a book called Systematics and the Origin of Species. Mayr had studied birds in exotic locales and had generalized some findings that bear on my situation. He defined species as groups that must breed within their own kind. He further explained that when external factors—storms, bacteria, enemies—inflict harm upon a species, and its numbers drastically dwindle, it repopulates itself through a small set of breeders. In short, the species bottlenecks. Like the tightening of an hourglass. And since life is bred from genes, the supply of genes becomes limited, truncated. Pruned. A massacre of variation. The breeders pass on genes from a measly supply that was meant to be occasional, not the rule. As such, the old flaws become the new normal.

This he called The Founder Effect.

It is a phenomenon that has impacted the human species as well, and throughout history, anywhere a relatively small group of people were cut off from the rest of the world. On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, deafness is twenty times more common than in the rest of the American population, so normal an abnormality they invented their own sign language. To the tune of one hundred times the general population, Ashkenazim suffer from all sorts of cruel ailments, including a disease that makes one both insensitive to pain and incapable of tears (familial dysautonomia, or, more poetically, Riley-Day Syndrome). Of the 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Hildale, Utah, three out of four are blood relatives to one of two men; amongst them, encephalopathy is widespread. Two hundred Mennonites spawned 150,000 Amish, a community that suffers disproportionately from Cohen Syndrome (100 cases worldwide), Maple Syrup Urine Syndrome (a line of modern verse in its own right), and a slew of other genetic malformations so rare they manifest themselves faster than scientists can name them.

So, I empathize. Empathize, and sympathize. My overabundance of extremities, I believe, is a sign, a living relic, a palimpsest. Somewhere, sometime, people had any number of fingers and toes: maybe six, or eleven, or fourteen. It varied. But over time, generations, millennia, our global inbreeding normalized the number. A tidy ten. Ten fingers, ten toes. Something you could count on. A standard for exclusion.

And yet, every now and then, something strange comes out. A specimen appears so different from the rest that you don’t know whether to chalk it up to error or perfection. You don’t know if it’s a waste product or a lifeline. A deviation conjured from the depths of the universe, either imp or angel, a scrap of excess or a shot in the dark. Whatever it is, the race is speaking. Life with a capital ‘L’ has something it wants to say. And for that, I am worth being spoken.

Which is good because for someone barely seven hundred words old, I could use an illusion of history.

Let’s be honest.

I know I’ve said things about myself that imply I’ve been around longer than this very recent introduction, but you and I both know that that is simply not true. Not that I’ve been deceitful or false; it’s just the nature of my condition. This condition of existing in words. Hopefully there’s a parallel, a metaphor, to be made between my polydactyly and my self-articulation. Perhaps something having to do with the illusion of history. How the moment is too small to have perspective on epochal time and vice versa, the kind of deep, existentially tragic realization that could make a person feel sick to her stomach. A Möbius strip, if you will, of an emergent present and a forgotten past flowing in and out of themselves to the point of evoking a familiar terror. Because believe me, when I tell someone for the first time that I have twelve fingers and I hold my hands up to his face and he sees that such an unbelievable abstraction is true and there and in the flesh in three dimensions, it is terror that is in his eyes. Always. Likewise, it is nothing short of terrifying for me to think that I exist nowhere but here in these words. That I’m so neophytic, so limited, just moments old really, each new word like a cell divided: a further coming-into-being, carving my niche, pushing space away with shy nudges, a glacial pace for expanding the universe.

What keeps me calm within such claustrophobic confines is the confidence in knowing that I am unique. I can be regarded, so I have a value, which means I have a future.