“It’s in our DNA”: the clichés that confuse the public about genetics and essentialism Carlos Orsi The Skeptic

Linguistic prejudice is an ugly thing, but I have to confess that every time I hear someone (whether it’s a person or a legal entity) use the cliché “<such and such a quality> is in our DNA“, I go into the overdraft on my benefit-of-the-doubt account. I’ll explain. 

As we are in the season of celebrating the work of Charles Darwin (February 12th was Darwin Day!), it seems appropriate to take a brief look at the misappropriation of deoxyribonucleic acid – the molecule represented in the acronym DNA – to depict essentialism, and what’s wrong with that, beyond the tired (and tiring) cliché.

“Essentialism” is the idea that things have a core of characteristics that determines what they are at a fundamental level – their so-called essence. To these fundamental characteristics are added others, called accidents, which define how they are what they are, and how they express their essence. A chair, for example, has the essential characteristics of being a piece of furniture formed by a seat and back (without a back it becomes stool), and then, as accidents, whether it has legs or wheels, whether or not it has arms, whether it is made of wood, plastic or metal, whether or not it has cushions, etc.

There is a strong connection between the concept of essence and the idea of ​​definition. The list of essential characteristics of something very easily gets taken for the definition of that thing: in essence, “chair” is a piece of furniture consisting of a seat and back, and “a piece of furniture consisting of a seat and back” is a reasonable definition of chair, found in dictionaries. You can say (and many people do) that the essence of something is what defines it.


Thinking in terms of essences, accidents and definitions is very useful and enlightening in different contexts, helping to put certain ideas in order. But it also has the potential to generate confusions of epic proportions. Distinguishing situations in which essentialist thinking helps or hinders is a fun pastime, as well as being something that professional philosophers sometimes worry about.

But, at least in Western culture, even those who have never looked at the issue from a philosophical perspective, or have never even heard the word “essentialism” in their lives, probably have essentialist intuitions, beliefs and opinions about many things. It is something that is ingrained in language and in the collective mentality, appearing behind concepts such as soul and spirit (nuclei that concentrate the essence of an identity, whether individual, collective or even a situation: “the soul of the party”), and authenticity or sincerity (which are manifestations of fidelity to the essence: “an authentic hack”).

Distinctions between reality and appearance are often treated as if they were distinctions between essence and accidents; when we talk about someone who “behaves badly, but deep down is a good person”, we are presupposing a certain hidden essence to counterbalance the palpable characteristic. In fiction, narratives of overcoming and redemption are commonly constructed as stories in which an essence struggles to assert itself, to express itself in a heroic or, at least, constructive way.

The modern world, perhaps even more than at any other time, lives immersed in a kind of cult of the revealed essence of things: we experience an “ethic of authenticity”, where presenting oneself as sincere (or, in some cases, “sincere”) may be more valuable (or believable) than declaring yourself a good or well-intentioned person. Populist politicians work the magic of transforming their supposed defects, prejudices, ignorance and limitations into positive qualities and advantages, by exposing them “sincerely” – even more so if these defects and prejudices are shared by their base, who end up assimilating these defects into the idea they have of the group’s collective “essence”.

The DNA of the business

Co-opted by the marketing universe – which is already very well aware that language choices that sound “scientific” tend to convey an image of precision and sophistication – the contemporary passion for the ethics of authenticity gives birth to the cliché of “business DNA” in a variety of ways: “DNA of the firm”, “DNA of the team”, “It’s in our DNA”, “We have the DNA of innovation” and other permutations, ad nauseam

In all variations, the acronym “DNA” is used to mean that a certain desirable quality, attitude or characteristic is part of the essence of the company, business, or organisation. It’s an authentic facet, something that makes up the very definition of what you want to sell.

The problem is that, by treating “DNA” as a synonym for “essence”, these slogans end up imprinting (or reinforcing) in common sense a connection between genetics and essentialism which, in addition to being wrong, distorts the public understanding of science. One area in which essentialist thinking collapses (or leads to collapse, if it is persisted in) is precisely that of genetics and evolutionary biology.

Creationists, of course, have long used an essentialist version of the concept of “species” to attack, in logical-semantic terms, the theory of evolution. If each species represents an essence created separately by God, how could some evolve into others? Hence the radical-essentialist reading of Genesis 1:24 – “God said: ‘Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds, domestic animals, creeping animals and wild animals, according to their kinds’”.

Even many people who have already overcome the mythological stage of intellectual development still have this intuitive equivalence between “species” and “essence” deep in their heads, just replacing the celestial design with some kind of “wisdom of nature”, and the magic word of Divinity by… DNA. This pervasive image of DNA as a kind of biochemical “soul” is what inspires much of the emotional resistance to genetic modification: who are we to interfere with the essential spirit of the species? But it’s an image that doesn’t make any sense.

Darwinian evolution ties all living beings on the planet into a vast network of common ancestry. We have genes that we share with viruses, bacteria, fish and plants. More than ninety percent of what is “in the DNA” of a human being is also in that of a chimpanzee.

Every time I read or hear that such and such a beautiful and wonderful characteristic “is in our company’s DNA” I remember the gene for producing vitamin C – which is in the DNA of Homo sapiens, but deactivated (this is why we need vitamin C in our diet and are vulnerable to scurvy). DNA is not essence, it is flow: it is a river whose source is somewhere in the cloudy mountain range of the origin of life, and which soon opens into an immense delta. What is essential, if anything, is something we share with the rest of the biosphere.

The cliché of what is “in the DNA” is therefore not only a worn-out cliché, but also an inept metaphor that miseducates by reinforcing the spurious link between genetics and essentialism. 

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Clichés about a quality being “in our DNA” use the terminology of genetics to depict ideas of essentialism – and in doing so, they reinforce a spurious link
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