Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I do not hear as much today the phrase “It’s bred in the bone,” when a behavioral trait is considered familial.  While I was growing up in the 1940s, it implied a deeply ingrained commitment to an idea, career, or moral position.  Instead, I hear today the phrase, “It’s in my DNA” or “It’s in our DNA” to describe an equally strong commitment to a point of view or career.  Humans have often sought an effective phrase to describe their passionate beliefs and sometimes these can be destructive, especially if they are tainted with racism, religious bigotry, or class distinctions. But even if they are innocent of those harmful implications, they can create an illusion of a hereditary basis for what are just social or cultural beliefs. What is really meant by these phrases is more accurate but hardly useful for our conversation.  By saying it is bred in the bone or in our DNA we are saying, “I don’t know why some people have such a deep-rooted commitment to their career or belief, but it makes those persons stand out”.    We have dropped many phrases that used to be uttered a lot when I was growing up: “to Jew it down” meant to bargain for a lower price of a good.  “Nigger in the woodpile” was a horrible phrase for an eavesdropper.     I am glad they are gone.  Those were outright bias-based popular idioms.  “Bred in the bone” and “It’s in our DNA” are more subtle. They create a belief that the hereditary basis for a behavioral trait is taken for granted.  Bred in the bone is even worse because there is an added assumption that Lamarckian inheritance works and if our family does something to excess it becomes hereditary.

              My first encounter with “It’s in our DNA” came in the 1970s when I was I reading and my son Anders’ record player was playing a rock song and a phrase entered my awareness:   “Hey hey hey hey, it was the D.N.A. Hey hey hey hey, that made me ....” That was my first experience of the term DNA entering popular culture.  Anders told me it was the rock group Cream that was performing.  [Cream Lyrics (c) 1977 EMI Music Publishing Ltd/ Queen]. When I looked at the entire lyrics, I found that sexual conquests, drinking, using drugs, and having a good time were all attributed to the singer’s (or lyricist’s) DNA. Unfortunately that unexamined claim of innate cultural behavior is widespread.  I am not saying it is wrong but I would like evidence for it.  Geneticists try to interpret the phenotype (the appearance of a trait) using some scientific analysis (tests for environmental or inherited causes), especially if they are dealing with human behavioral traits. That evidence may come from pedigree analysis, isolating specific genes involved, twin studies and other direct or indirect ways of shoring up a hereditarian interpretation. For those who like their innate claims of behaviors being in our DNA, I have to apologize.  “It’s in my DNA” to refute you.