"DNA" as a cultural icon

Over the years I’ve been fascinated to see where the word “DNA” and the iconic double helix turn up in everyday life. It’s become so commonplace that phases like “corporate DNA” are in common usage and the double helix has pride of place on beauty cream adverts and many other places. 

While it’s interesting to see genomics enter the cultural lexicon, I think the general understanding of what DNA does and does not do has rushed way beyond the scientific case. But can we contain the spread of the idea of DNA as a cop-out?

DNA in corporate management

“DNA” seems to permeate business speak. For example, a popular management book called “Corporate DNA” describes how a company can change the behaviour of their employees by changing their fundamental management structure. Other business strategists use the metaphor of DNA to codify the precise nature of a company:

Just as the double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by bonds between base pairs of four nucleotides, whose sequence spells out the exact instructions required to create a unique organism, we describe the DNA of a living organization as having four bases that, combined in myriad ways, define an organization’s unique traits…

One consultancy puts forward its winning formula as: “The Effective High-Performance Organization = (Corporate DNA + Strategy + Agility) x Risk Management x People & Culture. They explain:

Corporate DNA … inspires the way individuals in your organization think, behave and act. It determines the motives behind their actions. We work with our clients to distinctively and explicitly formulate and align the components of their Corporate DNA and put them effectively into practise. Typically, the Corporate DNA consists of six components…” (emphasis mine.)

DNA in art and architecture

DNA is a ‘winning formula’ concept for architecture as well. Here’s a picture I took of a building site in London, which boasts, “…with Solidspace DNA inside”. Presumably, this takes its cue from the corporate-DNA meme.

DNA as an architectural design concept

I was really intrigued by a description of a Roy Lichtenstein picture at the Tate Modern, which equates DNA and brushstrokes: 

“…they can be seen as a quiet, almost simple meditation on the very essence of painting. These small, late paintings bring together two opposing approaches to painting – spontaneous release versus controlled application – via its very DNA, the brushstroke.”

(By the way, this was part of a great retrospective on Roy Lichenstein, an artist whose work I’ve always loved.) 

DNA and Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes

DNA and the beauty industry

Double-helix iconography adds a certain mystique to cosmetics adverts. Here’s a rather imposing picture in Heathrow airport for an Estée Lauder product. Notice that the double helix is carefully not linked with any specific aspect of the product – Estée Lauder doesn’t go to far as to say that the product uses “DNA technology” (which some products do claim…). It is just a background motif to lend their product some scientific gravitas. 

Rather gigantic advert incorporating the double helix, for no particular reason.
A couple of things that just annoy me: They’ve decided to go for a symmetrical double helix, which is what makes it an icon rather than any kind of scientific image (the real strand offsets would not be so pleasing to the eye, and demand too much thought about what is going on). Also, the ‘rungs’ are all the same, making it more of a stairway than a complex, information-containing structure. 

I’ve also seen a skin-cream advert with a DNA helix motif that has the tag line, “bringing out the real you”. Sadly, I did not take a picture of it, but it is a prime example of really irresponsible advertising.

The DNA of legends

Here’s a rather amazing watch advert, with the tag line, “The DNA of Famous Legends”. 

With the right DNA, you, too, could have this watch.

Where to begin in discussing this advert?

All these examples just illustrate a kind of knowledge vacuum that is being exploited in different ways.

DNA in the Zeitgeist

So what does all of this assume about the general understanding of DNA in our culture? 

DNA is scientific and modern. Using the double helix picture and/or the word ‘DNA’ says, “This is really advanced stuff.” 

DNA is unchangeable, or at the least very hard to change. Using ‘DNA’ in this way says, “You know that DNA is your very essence, and that changing it is going to take an extraordinary effort,” (i.e. changing your ‘corporate DNA’). 
DNA is has core information from which other, more visible features can be derived. Many of these cases convey that DNA is a sort of truth at the core of the product / company / design, or that it is a hidden thread holding visible features together. The skin cream that “brings out the real you” enhances your purest qualities, present from birth and gifted by your parents. A company’s core, foundational values are its DNA, which will not change even if its products do. The DNA metaphor in these cases provides a sort of scientific sheen to ‘destiny’.

DNA is simple but gives rise to complexity. The explanation of the Lichtenstein piece, rather surprisingly, equated DNA with the brushstroke. The metaphor almost assumes that people know more about biology than art. As a string of nucleotide pairs can be used to build an apple tree or Roy Lichtenstein himself, a series of brushstrokes can give rise to a potato print or the Mona Lisa. 

Should we be concerned?

Is the rise of ‘DNA’ and the double helix in contemporary culture problematic? I think in many ways we should be happy that this concept is a familiar one in everyday life, and that it is generally presented in a positive light. It certainly helps me when I try to describe what I do. Like most scientists, I get the usual furrowed brow and look of concern/trepidation when I start to explain my work in mixed company, but when I get to the word ‘DNA’, many non-scientists will start to nod and we’re on familiar ground again. 

In all of the cases I’ve shown, I understand why they are trying to connect their subject with DNA. But while these examples are seemingly harmless and even funny (I do find the “DNA of famous legends” hilarious), they show a trend towards widespread misinformation. In particular, there seems to be a popular consensus that DNA as an unchangeable, core essence, and that your DNA is your destiny. That is just wrong.

The metaphor is further extended to imply that there are mysterious truths hidden in your DNA that neither you nor anyone else can challenge. This comes out in all sorts of bad ways, notably in cases where people dismiss destructive behaviours as inevitable: “He has ADHD genes,” or, “It’s in his DNA to be spiteful,” or “I’ve got fat genes.” It’s actually not that uncommon for people to say they don’t want to learn the time of their death from reading their DNA.

Nature versus Nurture, again

This type of lazy thinking drives DNA scientists crazy, because that is just not the way it works. DNA variants influence all sorts of biological activities, but these are often small. For anything complex, like behaviour but also a huge range of life outcomes, personal choices change things. 

I’ve always liked Matt Ridley’s snappy synthesis of the Nature versus Nurture debate in his book, “Nature via Nuture“, and I think the popular debate around this issue could use more fresh voices from the science side (Ridley’s book is from 2003 and still totally relevant). It might be an uphill battle, as destiny is a old concept present in many cultures around the world. But there are plenty of loud voices clamouring for people to take responsibility for their actions, and personal choices making an impact on your own life is a key component of much of modern thinking.

DNA has captured the public imagination and the double helix has become an icon of our time. But in many ways the general understanding of what DNA is has rushed way beyond the scientific case. If we are to keep the popular understanding of DNA anywhere near reality, we need to have a serious push to disentangle “DNA” from “destiny” and pair it instead with new perspectives on free will. This is going to be hard, as people are starting to get comfortable with this new way of framing fatalism. But it’s early days yet, and the scientific community – which includes science communicators – needs to find new ways of conveying DNA as one common thread in many lifetimes full of personal choices.


15 thoughts on “"DNA" as a cultural icon

  1. We expect a lot of DNA! The double helix is iconic and has been instrumental in opening doors for young scientists (and late learners!) and this piece will be interesting for my students from a young school age perspective, through University and as part of courses I run on enterprise in Science; also to my U3A students in the UK who are average age 70!. I'll recommend it to them all. Thanks (I blog on http://utcinnovationlabs.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://molecules2market.blogspot.co.uk/
    Dave Hornby (@dvdhrnby)

  2. Something really worrying that you have hinted in your post is to do with DNA determinism.

    Think of the extreme case of whether one's DNA predisposes us to criminal behaviour. Would this make someone less guilty for having a particular set of variants?

    Indeed it is our task as scientists to make sure that the wider public understands the uncertainty related to prediction of traits from DNA. Perhaps this is the kind of education that scientists need to be most concerned about.

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