The Cultural Bias of Genetics

All cultures impose on their members ideas about who they are, how they came to be, and where they fit in socially. For example, pre-modern Europe believed that a woman who had sex before marriage might carry the imprint of her lover within her, so that her child born in wedlock would resemble the earlier lover, rather than the husband. This served to justify the premium placed on female chastity.

Folk ideas about heredity are a particularly powerful cultural tool, but they are not unique to pre-modern societies. Even contemporary science has its own cultural ideologies about heredity, which are often difficult to disentangle from the complex data and high technology that we believe produces objective, value-free glimpses of nature.

In the field of human origins, it is well-known that a human DNA sequence is nearly 99% identical to the corresponding part of a chimpanzee’s DNA. From there, it is not uncommon to hear the conclusion that we are ”nothing but” chimpanzees (and fated to be aggressive, or to possess whatever attributes are being imputed to apes these days), or that apes merit human rights. Once again, social meanings are enmeshed within beliefs about heredity.

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