Elvis' DNA: the gene as a cultural icon.
Dundy traced Elvis' musical talents to his father (who "had a very good voice") as well as his mother (who had "the instincts of a performer"). His parents provided a musical environment, Dundy noted, but "even without it, one wonders if Elvis, with his biological musical equipment would not still have become a virtuoso."
Another Elvis biographer, Albert Goldman, focused on his subject's "bad" genes, describing him in Elvis as "the victim of a fatal hereditary disposition." Using language reminiscent of the stones of the Jukes and Kallikaks, the degenerate families of the early eugenics movement, Goldman attributed Elvis' character to ancestors who constituted "a distinctive breed of southern yeomanry" commonly known as hillbillies. A genealogy research organization, Goldman said, had traced Presley's lineage back nine generations to a nineteenth-century "coward, deserter, and bigamist." In Goldman's narrative, this genetic heritage explained Elvis' downfall: his addiction to drugs and alcohol, his emotional disorders, and his premature death were all in his genes. His fate was a readout of his DNA.
The idea that "good" and "bad" character traits (and destinies) are the consequence of "good" and "bad" genes appears in a wide range of popular sources. In these works, the gene is described in moral terms and seems to dictate the actions of criminals, celebrities, political leaders, and literary and scientific figures. Films present stories of "tainted blood" and "born achievers," of success and failure, of kindness and cruelty, all written in the genes. The most complicated human traits are also blamed on DNA. Media stories (for example, Alan Wexler's article in the August 13, 1993, Newsday) feature various jokes about Republican genes, MBA genes, lawyer genes, and public-interest genes. Human behaviors linked to DNA in these accounts range from the trivial - a preference for flashy belt buckles - to the tragic - a desire to murder children.
Such popular constructions of behavior draw on the increasing public legitimacy of the scientific field of behavioral genetics. Behavioral geneticists have been able to demonstrate that some relatively complicated behaviors - certainly in experimental animals and possibly in human beings - are genetically determined. Studies of animals reveal the genetic bases of survival instincts, mating rituals, and certain aspects of learning and memory. Border collies herd sheep in a unique characteristic way whether they have been trained or not, even if they have never seen sheep before. Some behaviors associated with particular hormones have been indirectly linked to genes: both aggressive and nurturing behaviors - in mice - can be manipulated with adjustments of hormone levels. Though such research highlights the biological events involved in some behaviors, it does not support the popular idea that genes determine human personality traits or such complex phenomena as success, failure, political leanings, or criminality.
Nonetheless, the claims that genes control human behaviors have received significant support from some behavioral geneticists who have positioned themselves as public scientists. Among the most cited and widely promoted scientists in this field is University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard. Bouchard, a student of Arthur Jensen, has studied identical twins reared apart in order to determine the relationship between genetics and IQ, personality, and behavior. Bouchard's work has attracted significant popular attention since he began promoting his findings in 1982, but it has been controversial in the scientific community. Identical twins growing up in different families have long been seen as "natural experiments" in human genetics, even by the eugenicists of the 1920s. Bouchard, like others before him, has concluded that all similarities in identical twins reared apart are caused by their shared genes. But Bouchard's research subjects were self-selected (he advertised to find them) and interested in being twinlike. Some of them had also been reared together for several years before they were adopted into different families, therefore sharing at least an early environment. In addition, in any population a certain number of similarities will appear by chance. The fact that two people enjoy the same soft drink - in a culture in which soft drinks are widely consumed - is not evidence that they share a gene for the consumption of that soft drink.
For years Bouchard had problems getting his papers accepted for publication in scientific journals. Convinced of his work's importance, however, he submitted his findings to the press before they were peer-reviewed, or even when they had been rejected by scientific publications. The media responded with extraordinary interest, attracted to the drama in "the eerie world of re-united twins" and the potential for controversy over the sensitive issue of genes and IQ. U.S. News and World Report reported on the twin studies by describing the character traits that are "bred in our bones." Quirks such as wearing flashy belt buckles, liking particular television programs, or drinking coffee cold and problems such as addiction or eating disorders were all described as originating in the genes. The "Donahue Show" began a program on the twin studies with films on animal behavior, suggesting that, like animals, we "get a push before the womb." Time magazine criticized the political liberals who explained crime and poverty as byproducts of destructive environments. An article in Science Writer magazine argued that the twin studies were "one more proof that parenting has its limits." And the Boston Globe announced that "geneticists now have ascendancy in the nature-nurture debate."
In October 1990, Science became the first major professional journal to publish Bouchard's work. There followed a media blitz. The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined its front-page story "Personality mostly a matter of genes" and welcomed the "landmark" study that proved that personality is put in place at the "instant" of conception. Even religiosity and church attendance, the article said, were determined by genes. Magazine articles touted Bouchard's research as part of the swelling tide of evidence for the importance of genes.
Since 1983, when behavioral genetics first appeared as a category in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, hundreds of articles about the relationship between genetics and behavior have appeared in magazines, newspapers, and fictional accounts, often presented as the cutting edge of current science. Included among the traits attributed to heredity have been mental illness, aggression, homosexuality, exhibitionism, dyslexia, addiction, job and educational success, arson, tendency to tease, propensity for risk-taking, timidity, social potency, tendency to giggle or to use hurtful words, traditionalism, and zest for life.
Many of the stories of good and bad traits address a common and troubling contradiction. Why do some individuals, despite extremely difficult childhoods, become productive, even celebrated members of society, while other children, granted every opportunity and advantage, turn out badly? What accounts for the frequent disparity between achievement and hard work? Genetics appears to provide an explanation. Individuals succeed or fail not so much because of their efforts, their will, or their social circumstances but because they are genetically programmed for that fate.
Evil in the Genes
The existence of evil has posed problems for philosophers and theologians for much of human history. Religious systems have personified evil as a supernatural being; folklore has located it in natural disaster, mythical beasts, or the "evil eye." Evil can be seen as the cosmic con, sequence of fate (the bad "luck of the draw") or the result of voluntary human action or moral failure. The agents invoked to explain the presence of evil are commonly powerful, abstract, and invisible - demons, gods, witches, a marked soul, and, today, the biochemistry of the brain. Environmental contingencies, similarly powerful and abstract - such as patterns of authority discussed by Stanley Milgram in "Behavioral Studies of Obedience" (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology) or social reinforcements advanced by B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity - have also been seen as the sources of evil. But the belief that the "devil made me do it" does not significantly differ in its consequences from the belief that "my genes made me do it." Both seek to explain behavior that threatens the social contract; both locate control over human fate in powerful abstract entities capable of dictating human action in ways that mitigate moral responsibility and alleviate personal blame.
The response to research on the so-called criminal chromosome suggests the appeal of this view. In 1965 the British cyto-geneticist Patricia Jacobs found that a disproportionate number of men in an Edinburgh correctional institution, instead of being XY (normal) males, were XYY males. Jacobs suggested that the extra Y chromosome "predisposes its carriers to unusually aggressive behavior." Other researchers later questioned whether XYY males were more aggressive, suggesting instead that they suffered from diminished intellectual functioning that made it more likely that they would be incarcerated. And the original estimate of the rate of XYY males occurring in the population in general was later revised upward, so that the difference in the prison population and the general population appeared to be less great than it had once seemed.
But the "criminal chromosome" had a remarkable popular life, first attracting the attention of the press in April 1968 when it was invoked to explain one of the most gruesome crimes of the decade. A New York Times reporter wrote that Richard Speck, then awaiting sentencing in the murder, one night, of nine student nurses, planned to appeal his case on the grounds that he was XYY. This story - which was incorrect (Speck was an XY male) - provoked a public debate about the causes of criminal behavior. Newsweek asked if criminals were "Born bad?" ("Can a man be born a criminal?") Time headlined a story "Chromosomes and crime." By the early 1970s, at least two films had featured an XYY male criminal, and a series of crime novels had made their focus an XYY hero who struggled with his compulsion to commit crimes.
References to the criminal chromosome continued to shape popular views of violence. In 1986, the New York Times asked, "Should such persons [XYY males] be held responsible for their crimes, or treated as victims of conditions for which they are not responsible, on a par with the criminally insane?" And in 1992, a PBS series on "The Mind" introduced a segment on violence: "Recent research suggests that even the acts of a serial killer may have a biological or genetic basis." Similarly, in February 1993 Phil Donahue advised his listeners on "how to tell if your child is a serial killer." His guest, a psychiatrist, described a patient who had been raised in a "Norman Rockwell" setting but then, driven by his extra Y chromosome, killed 11 women.
News reporters and talk, show hosts refer to "bad seeds," "criminal genes," and "alcohol genes." CBS talk-show host Oprah Winfrey found it meaningful to ask a guest whether her twin sister's "being bad" was "in her blood." In the movie JFK, one character tells another, "You're as crazy as your mama - goes to show it's in the genes." To New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Franklin, evil is "embedded in the coils of chromosomes that our parents pass to us at conception." And Camille Paglia described her theory of nature in Sex, Art, and American Culture as following Sade rather than Rousseau:
Aggression and violence are primarily not learned but instinctual, nature's promptings, bursts of primitive energy from the animal realm that man has never left. . . . Dionysus, trivialized by Sixties polemicists, is not pleasure but pleasure-pain, the gross continuum of nature, the subordination of all living things to biological necessity.
Genetic or biological explanations of "bad" behavior are sufficiently prevalent to serve as a common source of irony. A 1991 segment of the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" featured Calvin's perplexed father asking his son: "You've been hitting rocks in the house? What on earth would make you do something like that?" Calvin replied: "Poor genetic material." In another strip that same year, Calvin described a vicious "snow snake": "I suppose if I had two Y chromosomes I'd feel hostile, too!" And a barroom cartoon by Nick Downes (reprinted in the April 24, 1992, issue of Science) portrayed "Dead-Eye Dan, known far and wide for his fast gun, mean temper, and extra Y chromosome?
Bad genes have also become a facetious metaphor to describe national aggression. James O. Jackson's Time article, "The New Germany Flexes Its Muscles," described the nation as "a child of doubtful lineage adopted as an infant into a loving family; the child has been good, obedient, and industrious, but friends and neighbors are worried that evil genes may still lurk beneath a well-mannered surface." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his New York Times article "Studying Soccer Violence by the Civilized British," blamed the violence on the "genetic drive to wage war against the outlander."
Some individuals, so the media imply, are "born to kill" and will do so despite environmental advantages. In December 1991, a 14-year-old high-school boy was arrested for the murder of a schoolmate. The New York Times account of this event interpreted it as a key piece of evidence in "the debate over whether children misbehave because they had bad childhoods or because they are just bad seeds." The boy's parents had provided a good home environment, the reporter asserted; they had "taken the children to church almost every Sunday, and sacrificed to send them to a Catholic grammar school." Yet their son had been arrested for murder. This troubling inconsistency between the child's apparently decent background and his violent behavior called for explanation. The reporter resolved the mystery through the explanatory power of inheritance; the moral of the story was clearly stated in its headline: "Raising Children Right Isn't Always Enough." The implication? There are, indeed, "bad seeds."
A 1993 made-for-cable-television movie called Tainted Blood draws on a related set of ironies. A 17-year-old boy from a "stable" family kills his parents and then himself, shocking the community. The case attracts an investigative reporter (played by Raquel Welch) who finds that the boy was adopted and that his genetic mother had been in a mental institu-lion. Suspecting he might have "inherited the gene for violence," the reporter goes to the institution, where an elderly doctor (portrayed as ignorant of modern science) insists that her ideas about heredity are wrong and that teenagers who murder were invariably abused. But it is the doctor who is wrong. The reporter discovers that the mother, like the son, had killed her parents and, eventually, herself. The boy had a twin sister who had also been adopted; thus begins an urgent search for the girl with "tainted blood."
The scene changes to a suburb where Tory and Lissa, two 17-year-olds - both adopted - are best friends. Lissa is badly abused by her alcoholic mother, yet she is an honor student. Tory's adoptive family is stable, kind, and caring but she is rather selfish and mean. When someone murders Lissa's parents, Lissa, as an abused child, is immediately suspect. But it is Tory - genetic sister of the boy described above - who has murdered them both in cold blood. Tory had also once threatened her younger adopted brother with scissors, but, in a struggle between nature and nurture, nurture prevailed; she pulled back before she hurt him. Ultimately, however, "nature" - her predisposition to violence - wins: after threatening her adoptive family again, Tory kills herself. The movie concludes when the reporter writes a book on the incident and dedicates it to Tory; she is not to be blamed for her actions because she had inherited a "genetic disease" she, like her twin brother, was a genetic victim. She had been "born to kill."
This same theme appeared in the news reports of a debate over the body and blood of Westley Allan Dodd, a serial killer of children who was hanged in January 1993. Dodd insisted that he could not be cured and that if he had the opportunity he would kill again and "enjoy it." His ordinary childhood offered no convincing explanation for his monstrous behavior. He had not been an abused child. After Dodd's execution, scientists attempted to obtain pieces of his brain and vials of his blood to determine whether his behavior could be attributed to neurological abnormalities or "gene oddities." Such stories arise from a conflict between childhood experience and adult behavior; when the two seem to conflict, biological predisposition seems to provide a plausible and appealing resolution.
Research that links criminal behavior to biological forces fuels the hope that genetic information will make possible the prediction, and therefore the control, of deviant behavior. Cer-rain scientists encourage such expectations. In a 1992 Science editorial, "Elephants, Monstrosities, and the Law," the journal's editor, biologist Daniel Koshland, told stories about acts of violence: "An elephant goes berserk at the circus, an elderly pillar of the community is discovered to be a child molester, a man admits to killing many young boys . . . a disgruntled employee shoots seven co-workers." Each crime, wrote Koshland, had a common origin - an abnormality of the brain.
Some researchers who study aggression pique media interest by bringing their work directly to the public. In a Psychology Today article called "Crime in the Family Tree," behavioral psychologist Sarnoff Mednick reported that studies of adopted twins demonstrate the importance of heredity as a cause of crime: among those boys with a biological parent who had a criminal record, 20 percent were themselves convicted. Where an adoptive parent had a criminal record, only 14.7 percent had been convicted. In a New York Times Magazine essay called "The Aggressors," anthropologist Melvin Konner stated that the tendency for people to do harm to others is "intrinsic, fundamental, natural." Such reports from scientific authorities imply there is definitive evidence for the importance of genetic predisposition as a cause of criminal behavior.
Studying the media coverage of XYY research, sociologist Jeremy Green has described in his article "Media Sensationalism and Science: The Case of the Criminal Chromosome" (Expository Science, edited by Terry Shinn and Richard Whitley) how scientists fostered images of the "XYY man" through the expository strategies they employed to publicize their work. The press disseminated these images through provocative stories, perpetuating belief in "criminal tendencies" and hope of prediction and control. For example, in response to a reader's inquiry about the possibility of finding out if someone has a criminal tendency, medical columnist Lester L. Coleman wrote (incorrectly) in "Speak of Your Health" (reprinted in Jeffrey Gold-stein's Seville Statement on Violence, 1990): "The genetic code of life has been clearly established by scientists who recently were awarded the Nobel Prize for this brilliant achievement. A part of their study was devoted to the abnormality of an extra X or Y chromosome. The value of this important knowledge may yet lead to the possibility of predicting criminal tendencies." However, the scientists to whom he refers - Watson and Crick - did not study or comment on XYY males.
Even when scientists emphasize the complexity of biological and environmental conditions that could lead to violence, media accounts highlight the importance of genetics. The press coverage of the National Research Council's 1992 report, Understanding and Preventing Violence, is a case in point. The report said that violence arises from the "interactions among individuals' psychosocial development, neurological and hor-monal differences, and social processes." It stressed the uncertain implications of research when it came to genetic influence on anti-social behavior: "These studies suggest at most a weak role for genetic processes in influencing potentials for violent behavior. The correlations and concordances of behavior in two of the three studies are consistent with a positive genetic effect, but are statistically insignificant." While not ruling out genetic processes, the NRC suggested: "If genetic predispositions to violence are discovered, they are likely to involve many genes and substantial environmental interaction rather than any simple genetic marker."
Only 14 of the 464 pages of the NRC report actually dealt with the biological perspectives on violence, and less than two pages were about genetics. Nevertheless, Fox Butterfield's article on the report in the November 13, 1992, New York Times was headlined: "Study Cites Role of Biological and Genetic Factors in Violence." Genes appear far more news-worthy than social or economic circumstances as a source of anti-social behavior. While genetic theories of violence have been controversial, denounced as politically and racially motivated, some journalists have dismissed critiques as "politically correct." In an April 19, 1993, article in Time, Anastasia Toufexis, looking for the causes of "the savagery that is sweeping America," suggested that society's ills cannot fully be responsible, that violence may be caused by "errant genes." "Science could help shed light on the roots of violence and offer new solutions for society," she added, "but not if the research is suppressed."
Biological theories also appeal as explanations of group violence and war. A 1991 textbook, Social Psychology, uses "genetic similarity theory" to explain "the tendency to dislike members of groups other than our own." Discrimination against those who are different, say authors R. A. Baron and D. Byrne, is part of inherited human tendencies to defend those possessing similar genes. Extending this idea to explain war, Michael Ghiglieri, in a November 1987 Discover article, described a study of chimps and speculated whether "war runs in our genes like baldness or diabetes." Such explanations extend the popular theories of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a spate of books appeared explaining human behavior to a lay audience in evolutionary terms. These included Robert Ardrey's The Territorial Imperative (1966), Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression (1966), Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape (1967), and Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's The Imperial Animal (1970). Promoting a biological model of organized human aggression, these authors explained it as a productive and necessary social activity. The books were fashionable, attracting a wide readership and extensive media coverage. Reviewing the response to aggression research, Temple University psychologist Jeffrey Goldstein found that the media systematically covered studies that offer evidence of genetic explanations of Violence but were less interested in research on the influence of social and economic conditions.
Some biologists and social scientists have criticized research on the genetic predisposition to organized aggression for concealing inadequate methodologies behind quantitative data and for minimizing the influence of social, political, and economic factors on aggressive behavior. In May 1986, Jeffrey Goldstein helped assemble a group of these critics to discuss biological theories about the origin of warfare. Meeting in Spain, they produced the Seville Statement on Violence, which strongly repudiated the idea that war is biologically necessary or genetically controlled. "It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by 'instinct' or any single motivation . . . scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a 'violent brain' . . . scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior." The statement concluded that "biology does not condemn humanity to war. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace."
This brief but unambiguous text was signed by twenty well-known scholars from around the world and endorsed by the American Psychological Association, the American Anthropological Association, the International Society for Research on Aggression, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Yet despite considerable efforts to publicize the statement, it attracted little media attention. A journalist responding to the efforts to disseminate the Seville material expressed the prevailing attitude: "Call me when you find the gene for war."
The interest in "bad genes" - the genes for deviance - reflects a tendency to medicalize social problems. This is especially evident in scientific and social speculation about the nature and etiology of addiction. Definitions of alcoholism have shifted over time from sin to sickness, from moral transgression to medical disease, depending on prevailing social, political, and moral agendas. Debates over the etiology of alcoholism go back to ancient Rome, but the modern conception of alcoholism as a disease is usually attributed to the nineteenth-century theories of Benjamin Rush (1745-1813). Early leaders of the American temperance movement, likewise, defined alcoholism as a disease, but when the movement began to advocate outright prohibition, alcoholism was redefined, along with syphilis and opiate addiction, as a "vice" - a manifestation of immoral behavior. A moral concept of voluntary addiction replaced the model of disease, and the politics of prohibition in the 1920s turned alcoholism into a problem more legal than medical. At the same time, eugenicists were compiling family studies supposedly demonstrating its inherited nature.
In 1935, E. M. Jellinek, reviewing the biological literature on alcoholism for a major Carnegie Foundation report, formulated a medical model that explained alcoholism in terms of the interaction of alcohol with an individual's physical and psychological characteristics and his or her social circumstances. This analysis, later republished by Jellinek as The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, focused attention on what made people susceptible. The same year, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the doctrine that alcoholism was a compelling biological drive that could be cured only by total abstinence and moral rectitude. AA's position contributed to the revival of the medical model, promoting the idea that alcoholics had "predisposing characteristics" that distinguished them from others. This view has persisted, in its contemporary form focusing on the genetic basis of alcoholism.
Common observation shows that alcoholism runs in families. As in the case of violence, however, this in itself does not reveal the cause. Many traits run in families - poverty, for example, or poor manners - without being a consequence of heredity. The prevalence of alcoholism in certain families could reflect role models, the availability of alcohol, or the reaction to abuse. Nevertheless, a common perception was expressed by George Nobbe in his 1989 Omni article, "Alcoholic Genes": "Addicted to the bottle? It may be in your genes." The gene for alcoholism became a theme of the Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue shows. Shifra Diamond's August 1990 Mademoiselle article, "Drinking Habits May Be in the Family," asked: "Do you have a gene that makes you a designated drinker?" and suggested that "even if you have exceptional self-discipline, you could still be at high risk." And Nancy Reagan's famous anti-drug slogan, "Just Say No," provoked a 1991 Christian Science Monitor editorial about the "genes-impelled compulsion" to take drugs.
In the 1990 article "Scientists Pinpoint Brain Irregularities in Drug Addicts," New York Times reporter Daniel Goleman presented several cases to dramatize the genetic basis of alcoholism. A 26-year-old executive had been the class clown as a child and president of his high school class. Always extroverted and outgoing, he partied a lot and, as he matured, started taking drugs in order to stay high. Addiction appealed because of his "natural bent." Another young man had been anxious as a child until he discovered that alcohol made him relax. His father was an alcoholic, so he had easy access to liquor; Goleman, however, quoted sources that explained his addiction in terms of biological vulnerability.
Goleman's stories suggested one reason for the appeal of genetic explanations: they implied that biological markers will make it possible to identify those at risk of addiction. He quoted a scientist who optimistically claimed that genetic engineering will eventually eliminate the gene and therefore the problems of addiction. In effect, like genetic explanations of violence, identifying an "alcoholism gene" offers the hope that addiction can be controlled - not through the uncertain route of social reform but through biological manipulation.
Assumptions about the genetic basis of alcoholism have extended to other addictions: smoking, overeating, shopping, and gambling. Some news reports on diet control begin from the assumption that genetics is the underlying reality that determines obesity; "Where Fat Is a Problem, Heredity Is the Answer," read a May 24, 1990, New York Times headline. In another story, "Smoking: Is It a Habit or Is It Genetic?" (New York Times Magazine, October 4, 1992), Laura Mansnerus wrote: "Smoking has to do with genetics, and the degree to which we are all prisoners of our genes. . . . You're destined to be trapped by certain aspects of your personality. The best you can do is put a leash on them." And in an April 7, 1993, "Dear Abby" column in the Delaware County Times, a lifelong smoker announced that he had no intention of stopping. His reasoning? "Heredity plays a major role in how long we live - not diet and exercise, jogging and aerobics, or any of the other foolishness that health freaks advocate." His father was 86 and in perfect health, so he felt free to smoke, "eat ham and eggs fried in butter," and "steak and baked potatoes with plenty of sour cream."
Self-help books devoted to coping with addiction speculate on why some people are affected by their circumstances more than others. The answer: biological predisposition. Addicts (those who shop, eat, love, or drink too much) are "victims of a disease process," and the disease - the tendency toward compulsive behavior - is transmitted by their families, says expert Lee Bar in Getting Control - Overcoming Your Obsessions and Compulsions. We read that "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is partially genetically transmitted. . . . Most researchers agree OCD will develop only if an individual is genetically predisposed to it." Similarly, in Behind the 8-Ball: A Guide for Families of Gamblers, Linda Berman and Mary Ellen Sigel say that some people have a "biological temperament" that makes them "especially susceptible to addictions."
To explain addictive behavior in absolute genetic or biological terms is to extract it from the social setting that defines and interprets behavior. There are no criminal genes or alcohol genes, only genes for the proteins that influence hormonal and physiological processes. And only the most general outline of social behavior can be genetically coded. Even behaviors known to be genetically inscribed, such as the human ability to learn spoken language, do not appear if the environment does not promote them. Children do not learn to speak unless they hear spoken language, even though the ability to speak is genetic, a biological trait of the human species. In the case of alcoholism, for example, any biological or genetic predisposition that may exist can only become a full-blown pattern of behavior in an environment in which alcohol is readily avail, able and socially approved. As this suggests, there are many interests at stake in the etiology of addiction, for causal ex, planations for addiction imply moral judgments about the responsibility and blame.
If defined as a sin, alcoholism represents an individual's flaunting of social norms; if defined as a social problem, it represents a failure of the community environment; if defined as intrinsic to the product consumed, it represents the need for alcohol regulation. But if defined as a genetically determined trait, neither society nor the alcohol industry appears responsible. And if behavior is completely determined - either by genetics or environment - even the addicted individual cannot really be blamed.
Just as addiction, crime, and war appear to be molecular events writ large, so, too, are special talents, the remarkable success of celebrities, and even the qualities of inanimate objects such as automobiles, perfumes, or magazines.
Sixteen-year-old Judit Polgar is the youngest chess grand master ever and the first female chess player considered to have the potential to be a world champion. Her parents insist that her talent is a consequence of family training. She and her two sisters, all world-class chess players, have never attended school but are tutored at home by their multilingual mother and their psychologist father, who believes that "every child is a potential genius." He raised his children as an "experiment" in the power of environment, and it seems to be a successful experiment: Judit and her sister Zsuzsa are grand masters, ranked respectively as the first and second female chess players in the world; their middle sister Sofia is ranked sixth. But according to Bruce Weber's August 1992 New York Times account of the remarkable Polgar sisters ("Chess Moves Are Planned, Birthdays Happen"), their father's environmental explanation is "looked upon with skepticism" in the chess world. Another grand master is quoted as saying: "I think they were born gifted, and one is a genius."
There are many possible explanations for success: hard work, persistence, talent, the exposure to role models, the availability of contacts and professional opportunities, the social pressures from family or peers, or simply good luck. Ubiquitous American narratives of success draw on the Horatio Alger myth to suggest that any person who puts in the effort can "make it." The myth of the "Jewish mother" constructs guilt in the Jewish family as a driving force in the success of children. And the recent success of Asian students has evoked stories about parental and ethnic community pressures stressing hard work and achievement.
But another set of narratives suggest that achievements have genetic origins, that success is biologically determined. Just as children from "good" families may turn out "bad," so those with limited opportunity can, with the proper genes, rise above their circumstances. An NBC television newscaster in 1988 described a teenager named Mike who, though raised in a poor family with no father, became captain of his track team and won a college scholarship: "He has a quality of strength and I guess it has a genetic basis." David Gelman's 1991 Newsweek article, "The Miracle of Resiliency," explained how poverty, physical impairment, or abuse affects children: some kids have "protective factors that serve as buffers against the risks." They have "natural resilience" or "built-in defenses." It is the "genetic luck of the draw."
Genetic explanations of socially valued traits also frequently appear in stories about popular personalities - whether scientists, actors, sports heroes, politicians, or rock musicians. The gene is appropriated in accounts of famous parent, child pairs, in stories of famous scientists, and in the voyeuristic reporting about the spectacular ascent of media personalities. We read abut Elvis' genes and Einstein's DNA.
In a culture obsessed with fame, money, and personal success, the cause of exceptional achievement is a matter of widespread curiosity. Why are some people more successful than others? What accounts for extraordinary achievements? Genetic explanations of success reflect widely held beliefs about the importance of heredity in shaping special talents. Such explanations imply a change in the "bootstrap ideology" that has pervaded American folklore, for they undermine the myth that an individual's will or hard work alone determines his or her achievement or success. Neither individual actions nor social opportunity really matter if our fate lies in our genes.
The range of special talents attributed to genetics is remarkable. In a story about the Ginsberg brothers, both of whom are poets, Barbara Delatiner referred to their "poetry genes" ("For Brothers, Poetry Is in Their Genes," New York Times, May 26, 1991). Mervyn Rothstein, an obituary writer for the New York Times, explained the secret of Isaac Asimov's success: "It's all in the Genes." Richard Stengel's story about a promoter of rap music described his style: "Charlie Stettler has no embarrassment gene" ("The Swiss School of Rap," New York Times, October 18, 1992). Robert Kennedy's body-building book, Beef It: Upping the Muscle Mass insists on the "natural genetics of muscular men. The mesomorphs are chosen people" with "superior genetics." An April 12, 1992, New York Times fashion headline asked, "Is Good Taste in the Genes?" Former New York City comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman explained why she was attracted to social causes: "It's in my genes."
Genetic explanations appear in unlikely places. Peter Costello's biography, James Joyce: The Years of Growth, contained a diagram of Joyce's "genetic make-up." Horoscope columnist Rob Brezsny announced in "Real Astrology" (New York Press, August 1992) that she was "genetically coded" with impeccable social instincts. Martha Smith celebrated her "gardening genes" in Beds I Have Known: Confessions of a Passionate Amateur Gardener. Mother's Day cards use quips about genetics: imperfections "must be the genes from Dad's side of the family." Or "Congratulations to a daughter who turned out to be a fine mother. Aren't Genes Wonderful?" A 1993 Maybelline cosmetics commercial featured the fashion model Christy Turlington while two questions flashed on the screen: "Is it in her genes?" and "Was she born with it?"
The metaphorical power of the gene is especially striking when inanimate objects - particularly automobiles - are marked as "successful" by virtue of genes. A Sterling's remarkable handling is "in its genes"; a BMW sedan has "a genetic advantage"; a Subaru is a "genetic superstar"; and a Toyota has "a great set of genes." The Infinity has DNA that defines its authenticity: "While some luxury sedans just look like their elders, ours have the same DNA."
Genes mark the quality of other products as well. A Nike sneaker "has inherited its own set of strength . . . resilience . . . stability, and a true intelligent fit." A Bijan perfume called "DNA" is advertised as "a family value," inspired by the "power of heredity." It is "the stuff of life." A blue jeans ad exploited the obvious pun ("Thanks for the genes, Dad"), while implying their superior quality. Edwin Diamond's article in the July 20, 1991, New Yorker asked: "Can You Change a Magazine's DNA? . . . A magazine's underlying character remains - unchanged and enduring, a DNA-like set of fingerprints - and lasts through the years and reinventions. . . . Tina Brown has much to reckon with, starting with 67 years of DNA."
If good genes appear in popular culture to describe the quality and value of consumer products, they can also turn people - in particular, children - into products as well. Magazine stories entitled "The Baby Shoppers," "Babies for Order," or "Looking for Mr. Good Genes" portray the infant as a commodity. Pascale Le Draoulec described a sperm bank in his September 1991 California Magazine article as "a specialty shop . . . for people who want to do boutique shopping." The search for the right sperm in these stories becomes a kind of catalog shopping; potential parents scan lists of desirable traits. Sperm donor profiles read like personal ads, providing detailed information about the donor's favorite colors, ability to carry a tune, and hobbies. Sperm bank sagas deal with reproduction as an abstract and commercial transaction. Women are hosts or breeders, responsible for creating good stock. Sperm donors, as one Self writer put it, become "prize bulls" or "nuclear age studs."
Shopping for good genes has also become a soap-opera plot device. In 1991 and 1992 on "The Young and the Restless," Leanna wanted to have a baby with certain desirable characteristics, so she searched for "father prospects" who would donate their sperm. On "Santa Barbara," Gina applied for a job at a sperm bank because "what better way to find the daddy of her dreams?" And in a 1992 episode of the television program "Doogie Houser, M.D.," a female doctor pursued the 17-year-old genius not because she was interested in him sexually but because she "wanted" his genes.
This depiction of children as products of their genes continues as they develop interests and careers. The media are attracted to celebrity families with similar professional interests. Children do often enter the professions of their parents, and they are attracted to these professions for many reasons, including social expectations, family pressures, the availability of unique opportunities, and personal contacts. But many accounts of children who follow the career paths of their parents emphasize the genetic heritage. As in the earlier narratives of the eugenics movement, a trait that is shared by both parent and child is assumed to be genetic. For example, Steve Futterman's May 13, 1993, Rolling Stone review of two jazz saxophonists, Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane, focused on their similarities to their fathers, both of whom had been sax players. The social influences on the boys' career choices were clear; they had listened to jazz and developed strong family contacts who, "Hot Jazz Artists" noted, had helped them get jobs. But the review was about their DNA: "Maybe it's in the genes."
When Ringo Starr, former drummer for the Beatles, was interviewed on the August 2, 1992, "Arsenio Hall Show," the host commented on the interests of Starr's son. "He's a drummer, too? He must have the drummer gene." A host of the October 21, 1992, "Today Show" introduced the daughter of singer Marvin Gaye as having her father's "talent genes." And in the CBS coverage of the 1992 Olympic ice skating competition, Scott Hamilton said that Japanese skater Yuko Sato had a "genetic advantage" because her parents were skaters, too.
Even William Safire, among the most self-conscious users of language, has been affected by the popular fascination with genes for success. In a September 7, 1992, New York Times column about the romance between Albert Einstein and Miliva Maric, Safire speculated about what happened to their daughter, who had been given up for adoption: "We can presume she grew up to have a family of her own and that humanity has been enriched by the propagation of the genes of a genius."
Safire's comment reflects the considerable professional and popular curiosity about the origins of genius. Just as Dodd's brain was coveted as a way to understand his criminal fate, so Einstein's brain has been preserved and the fragments studied to discover the biological peculiarities of his genius. In 1993, Skeptic magazine published a special section on genius, asking people they felt had special insights to share their thoughts. Comedian Steve Allen was confident that science will show that genius is genetic. Marilyn Vos Savant, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person with the highest IQ, said that "genius must begin in the genes." Biochemist Elie Shneour said that she expected genius to be mapped in the human genome.
Genes are also commonly used to characterize the foibles of successful politicians. Journalists described former President George Bush as missing an empathy gene and presidential candidate Ross Perot as possessing a "frugal gene" (Perot had insisted that his children take their own popcorn to the movies rather than wasting their allowance on overpriced theater concessions). When Pat Buchanan was running as a presidential candidate, New York Times reporter Steven A. Holmes referred to one of his aides as a "genetic conservative." Before the 1992 election, a political joke suggested that Democratic men in Washington were dating Republican women in order to replenish their gene pool so that they could produce a winner. Describing the role of the wives of presidential candidates, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen defined the "missing gene theory of political marriages: she must provide something he lacks." Thus, she suggested, Nancy Reagan carried Ronnie's retribution gene; Barbara Bush carried George's compassion gene. "Mrs. Quayle has more to do; it's said she carries the brain for the couple. The idea is that spliced together the husband and wife form a much more perfect union."
The gene has also been appropriated to explain the personalities of those in business. Business writer Diane Cole described successful entrepreneurs in Psychology Today as having inherited business tendencies. And in an article on the dispute over the ownership of the New York Post, Deborah Sontag characterized the controversial candidate Abraham Hirschfeld as lacking "the gene for self-censorship, as he is constantly saying - or spitting - the wrong thing at the wrong time."
The media often suggest that successful people pay for their genetic legacy: genes are elements in a tragedy, since human greatness inevitably has a price. As in the story of Elvis, writers draw an association between genius and mental illness or alcoholism. Stories about actress Drew Barrymore, the daughter of John Barrymore, Jr., for example, blamed her problems on her biological heritage. Drew, a former alcoholic, was described in the March 1990 issue of Ladies Home Journal as "the latest inheritor of her family's dark legacy of alcoholism and addiction." Her mother had left John Barrymore, Jr., when she was pregnant; Drew, according to the media, had an unhappy family life. She remembered her father hurling her against a wall and putting her hand through candle flames. But in the stories about her addiction, such traumatic childhood experiences were not the cause of her drinking - rather, genetic alcoholism blighted the thespian family tree. Drew herself described her problem: "I believe it is genetic. I was somehow destined."
The appropriation of DNA - the good or bad gene - to explain individual differences recasts common beliefs about the importance of heredity in powerful scientific terms. Science becomes a way to empower prevailing beliefs, justifying existing social categories and expectations as based on natural forces. The great, the famous, the rich and successful are what they are because of their genes. So, too, the deviant and the dysfunctional are genetically fated. Opportunity is less important than predisposition. Some are destined for success; others for problems or, at least, a lesser fate. The star - or the criminal - is not made but born.
This is a particularly striking theme in American society, where the very foundation of the democratic experiment was the belief in the improvability - indeed, the perfectibility - of all human beings. Belief in genetic destiny implies there are natural limits constraining the possibilities for both individuals and for social groups. Humankind is not perfectible, because the species' flaws and failings are inscribed in an unchangeable text - the DNA - that will persist in creating murderers, addicts, the insane, and the incompetent, even under the most ideal social circumstances. In popular stories, children raised in ideal homes become murderers and children raised in difficult home situations become well-adjusted high achievers. The moral? No possible social system, no ideal nurturing plan can prevent the violent acts that seem to threaten the social fabric of contemporary American life. Only biological controls, it seems, can solve such problems.
The idea of genetic predisposition encourages a passive attitude toward social injustice, an apathy about continuing social problems, and a reason to preserve the status quo. Genetic explanations, however, are malleable. They can be appropriated to justify prevailing stereotypes and maintain current social arrangements, but they can also be used to promote group identity or to celebrate human differences. The diverse social, political, and moral dimensions of such explanations become more transparent as they appear with growing frequency in stories and debates about the social meaning of sex, race, and sexual orientation.
Dorothy Nelkin is a professor at New York University, where she teaches in the Department of Sociology and the School of Law. M. Susan Lindee is assistant professor of history and the sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. This article is adapted from a chapter in their new book The DNA Mystique: The Gene As a Cultural Icon ([C]1995 by W. H. Freeman and Company).
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|Title Annotation:||Elvis Presley|
|Author:||Lindee, M. Susan|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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