In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”
In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”
The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.
While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”
Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.
But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.
If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.
Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.
It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.
There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.