DNA as Destiny? 8 December 2013

Chris Bateman examines how modern attitudes towards genetics can influence discussions about discrimination.

Do the arguments mounted against religion rely upon a naive understanding of DNA?

Few people today appreciate being called a bigot, and for most of us racism is something to be judged harshly. Yet we have become accustomed in recent decades to reading diatribes against religion as a whole from individuals who purport to hold liberal ideals of equality and diversity. Are the people espousing such views not guilty of a kind of bigotry?

The argument mounted in their defence rests on the idea that to be prejudiced against (say) skin colour or gender is a genuine kind of racism whereas religion, as something potentially subject to change, is open to unlimited critique. But this claim runs counter to the understanding of the United Nations, which makes no distinction between ethnic and racial discrimination. And yet it seems to many people to have an intuitive justice behind it.

To be prejudiced against a black woman because she is black or because she is a woman (the argument runs) is irrational, but to be prejudiced against a black woman because she is Muslim or Christian is not to be bigoted towards her but rather to pursue rational criticisms against those faith traditions. The tacit basis for this kind of claim is that those aspects of our selves that are not subject to change or choice are the fixed points of reference for our identities, whilst everything else is open to appraisal and can be rejected if it is irrational. While rationality is certainly part of the ideal being applied here, beneath this sort of argument lies a dependence on genetics to resolve questions of diversity.

Misunderstanding DNA

The role of DNA in such accounts is seldom –  if ever – noticed. To say that gender, skin colour, and other physical aspects of ethnicity are inviolable aspects of an individual, and that any prejudice against these kinds of traits is bigotry, seems so completely obvious that few people consider the implications of understanding racism in these terms. All of these aspects of a person’s being originate in genetics, and hence in DNA. Religion, on the other hand, is clearly not genetic, which is precisely why it is judged to be something amenable to change and choice, and hence why rational arguments mounted against religions are taken to not constitute racism, no matter what their content.

Unfortunately, this argument rests upon a mythological understanding of ‘DNA as destiny’. It relies upon a division into those things that are unchangeable because they are genetic, and those things that are a matter of individual choice because they are not. Yet our genes do not possess the incredible powers that are being claimed here, nor is the power of choice so great that it can remake us entirely. Our existence as individuals cannot be so neatly divided into fixed genetics on one hand and variable culture on the other. There is of course a trace of scientific fact behind this perspective – but it quickly exceeds the boundaries of the factual and becomes something rather different.

Nature vs nurture

A False Dichotomy

The clearest way of seeing this problem is to look at that other great cultural battlefield – gay rights. It is, I suspect, no coincidence that the conflict over homosexuality in the United States and elsewhere has ended up being couched in terms of ‘lifestyle choices’. As with opposition to religion, the same genetically-influenced premises are being brought to bear upon the situation: if being gay is a matter of personal choice (this argument goes), then opposition to homosexuality can be made a matter of critique, whereas if it were shown that people were gay as a matter of genetics the case would be foreclosed. This, at least, is the assumption. Liberal voices in support of the gay community have tended to assert that the people in question were ‘born this way’, and that we must therefore accept them – to do otherwise is bigotry. How ironic that this depends upon the same premises as the argument mounted against religion by certain liberal agitators!

The problem here is that no-one is ‘born gay’ (since babies have no sexuality of any kind) and neither is homosexuality purely a ‘lifestyle choice’. In the case of sexuality, the nice clean lines of unchangeable genetics against mere choice don’t stack up with the evidence. Scientists have never been able to identify a ‘gay gene’, and twin studies have demonstrated quite convincingly that, even though genes have an influence on how sexuality develops, homosexuality is not simply a matter of genetics. Yet research goes on (now turning to the emerging sciences of epigenetics) in order to secure some scientific basis to include being gay in that list of physical traits that are immune from criticism because they are genetic. Again, the idea of ‘DNA as destiny’ is in play here – and on both sides of the debate, since both liberals and conservatives are depending on this idea, albeit in different situations.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider what would have happened if the situation had turned out differently – if a gay gene had been discovered, and homosexuality had been revealed to be an unequivocal product of genetics like skin colour or gender. Would conservative resistance towards the gay community have been resolved in this situation? Absolutely not. Indeed, it was not long ago that the prevailing narrative in respect of homosexuality was that it was a disease – which might even have been the fallback position for the ‘lifestyle choice’ camp had this link been made as robustly as had once been expected. Traits that originate in genetics are not, after all, automatically subject to uncritical acceptance: sociopathic behaviour has been linked to DNA by some researchers, but no-one would defend sociopaths from criticism on this basis.

Desiring Certainty

The likely reason that people get caught up on questions of genetics in the context of prejudice is that the sciences are among the few practices left that seem to have the power to answer questions in a manner beyond dispute. Thus both liberals and conservatives hope that the work of researchers will end political stalemates in their favour. But this is almost never the case – there is very little that scientists can report that has this strange power to trump ethics and politics. When it comes to prejudice, it doesn’t matter if a trait originates wholly in genetics – what matters is our moral commitments towards the trait in question, not its origins. This is obviously true in the case of liberal support of homosexuality – no scientific evidence is going to weaken the commitment towards the acceptance of gay people in our societies – and it is equally true in the case of religion. It’s just harder to see it, because the underlying assumptions about DNA aren’t in play in these cases.

Religious Nurture

Oddly, the idea of being ‘born this way’ does apply in the case of religion – it simply doesn’t have any genetic component. When a child is born into, say, a Hindu family in India, it is an utterly unchangeable part of their life that their parents are Hindu, and that they will be raised in a cultural context that includes the traditions of this religion. Of course, the child may grow up and reject Hinduism – but nothing they do will change who their parents were, and what their family was like. This rather obvious point is obscured only when people get hung up on the idea that DNA is the only true determinant of diversity; the only solid, factual basis for celebrating individuality. This appears to be why liberal activists were so keen to demonstrate a genetic basis for homosexuality – it would purportedly secure its protection from critique. But this mythic idea of ‘DNA as destiny’ overstates the power of biology to shape individual lives, which have long been known to be a product of both environment and genetics. Indeed, two seeds with identical DNA become different plants when they are grown under different conditions. Who we are is never just a matter of genes; it is always a matter of place and time, of people and things.


Those of us who are committed to accepting diversity and seek to minimize the amount of bigotry in the world cannot afford to cede the moral dimension of this struggle to the sciences. Indeed, it would be foolish to do so because the rhetorical force of the opposing concepts of ‘disease’ and ‘choice’ are always available as putative justifications for prejudice. It should be noted that arguments against religion have even managed to utilise both of these complaints in parallel – conceptualizing religion as a disease some of the time, and justifying bigoted opinions at other times by painting religious identities as a pure matter of choice. The only constant is the commitment to demonizing religion, or, equivalently on the other side of the political fence, to demonizing homosexuality. The unstated reliance on DNA in all these conflicts is little more than post-hoc justification for pre-existing enmity and discrimination.

Does this mean that religious traditions are immune from critique? Certainly not. Neither is the gay community immunized from criticism, or for that matter black communities, scientific research groups, or even nations. We are all subject to moral judgement for our actions, but this must not be confused with the many aspects of our personal identities, and we certainly should not make the mistake of thinking that we can replace ethical discussions about how we shall live together with simple genetic tests. This is a horrific simplification of the difficult task facing us. Prejudice against religion as a whole is a form of bigotry just as much as skin colour prejudice or homophobia, and turning to DNA as arbiter does not evade this. That anyone ever thought genetics could serve as the index of acceptable diversity illustrates that even those who are well-educated in the sciences are capable of making horrendous moral errors.

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About Chris Bateman

Chris Bateman is a game designer, outsider philosopher and author, currently working on a trilogy of philosophy books concerning the role of imagination in human life. The books are titled Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution and Chaos Ethics and are due for publication in 2014. He is also researching the neurobiological basis for play preferences at the University of Bolton.

all, Commentary, Ethics, Philosophy