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
“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 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.|
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
|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
Should we be concerned?
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.