dna and the popular imagination

The front page of my hometown rag yesterday featured this teaser: “Got a rambling man? Blame his DNA.” The story it pointed to reports on the new Swedish study locating a particular allele related to commitment problems both in voles and in men.

This, in turn, offers the opportunity for me to note that a big part of my concern with the ontology of behavioral genetics is not with the genetics or the geneticists, but with the absurd overinterpretation exercised by science “journalists.” For example:

if a man’s culture, religion and family background each have a seat at the conference table that determines his attitudes toward marital fidelity and monogamy, his genes might well sit at the head of the table.

Problem is: the study doesn’t show that at all! All it shows is, to stretch an idiotic metaphor to its breaking point, that his genes are somewhere at that table! Oy, vey.

There’s also an empowerment narrative offered as an alternative interpretation:

“There are many ways this information can help a man and his wife when they marry,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies romantic love. “Knowing there are biological weak links can help you overcome them.”

A man who knows he has this allele, she added, might be able to use the knowledge to ignore tugs of restlessness he might feel in his marriage: “You can say, ‘Oh, it is just my DNA, and I am going to ignore it.’ “.

But this, too, buys into the genetic self claim.  There’s no reason to assume that the genetic is more real than the social, but that assumption is not only made, it’s completely unchallenged in the media.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “dna and the popular imagination”

  1. Thank you for posting this response. When I read the initial article, I was hoping for a Scatterplot smackdown. I’m completely with you that the journalism on this is really sloppy. And it’s unsurprising but nonetheless disappointing how often they like to pick up on that whole “well, science shows us that our farkakte social patterns of gender, class, and race… are right on the money!” Bleh.

    Like

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