In this essay, Catherine Bliss discusses the issues which motivated her 2018 book Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics.
We all know our DNA makes us who we are. But it’s clear that culture, personal history, and life experiences matter too. For centuries, scientists and philosophers asked whether it was nature that really determined who we were or whether it was nurture. Most came to agree that it was both.
As new DNA sciences came down the pike with a focus on gene-environment interactions, it seemed like we were finally moving away from the nature versus nurture mantra toward a nature plus nurture concept of life. Yet even these new-fangled sciences have perpetuated the idea that nature trumps nurture, and many imply that aspects of our identity, such as race, are rooted in our DNA. They insidiously embed race as a reality into science and give the very thing we’re supposed to be discrediting a scientific sheen of credibility.
I first got interested in genetics when I was doing graduate studies in Sociology in New York City. I had been looking at America’s persistent faith in a biological basis to race for some time, the idea that each and every one of us hails back to some continent on the planet, and that we can know what kind of person you are based on that heritage. Being of mixed race, I knew that race was something slippery and impossible to pin down. My identity couldn’t be broken down into halves, and there was no way that my many life-altering experiences could be read from my cellular material. In fact, if we were taking a long historical view, there would be so many places my ancestors had stopped along the way that everything about my heritage could be seen as mixed. The idea that my mom and dad and their families were genetically distinct to their core, and of a different race than me, was simply ludicrous.
Rather than being fixed, and rooted in my DNA, I was learning from my studies and my own personal experiences that my racial identity was based in a cultural belief that certain aspects of my appearance could be read as a shortcut to who I was internally. Sociologists call this kind of phenomenon “social construction,” or how humans make facts out of the beliefs that they share. People saw the shape of my eyes and the color of my skin as representative of my character. And as a result of treating me a certain way, I came to share experiences with others treated that way. In this way, my race became socially real for me, even though it was based off of a set of malleable, ever-changing ideas, cultural fictions that nonetheless spurred my own relationships, choices, and life chances.
Just as I was discovering the wild history of biological ideas about race, I saw something that floored me. It was a new issue of Scientific American in which geneticists were debating whether race was determined by our DNA. “Does Race Exist?” the magazine asked. World leading scientists replied, “well, sort of.” You could group people by genetics into quasi-continental races, but that information wouldn’t necessarily tell you about their medically interesting traits. Genetic races? Really? It dawned on me that this debate was another instance of social construction, emerging right before my eyes. I decided to focus my research on new genetic theories of race and their implications for society.
For the next years, I flew around the world interviewing geneticists about their understandings of race. I wrote about this in my first book, Race Decoded. I found that, while scientists didn’t believe that DNA differences directly mapped onto common folk categories of race, those categories were still meaningful to scientists. They were especially useful for recruiting study subjects, so that researchers could make sure to represent the different social groups that predominated in their home countries. For example, scientists called on blacks, Asians, and whites to participate in their research so that they could be sure to cover all bases.
But this practice has a deep downside. In doing so, they made it all too easy for interpreters of their studies to compare these groups as if they were mutually exclusive, or completely distinct and divergent. It wasn’t a surprise then that companies were starting to make drugs for different races. The cultural belief in the reality of race made scientists stick to it in their scientific work, making it a fact of DNA science.
Society was being taken over by a new paradigm, that of sociogenomics, the belief that everything we want to know about ourselves is part social and part genetic. This paradigm was fast becoming ubiquitous in biomedicine, but in other sciences too. The more I looked, the more I learned that the “nature + nurture” view wasn’t just pertinent to topics like race. It was being applied to all kinds of social phenomena, everything from religiosity to making it through high school.
When Race Decoded came out, gene-environment science was just getting started. It was clear that it would be the preeminent science for decades to come. What I didn’t see coming was the explosion in gene-environment research within the social sciences, and the camp where I sit, the field of Sociology. A group of sociologists, political scientists, and economists working independently in countries all over the world had been introducing new ways of combining genetic investigations with social ones for several years. They sought genetic culprits for a range of social outcomes, things like the ability to make it through college, the proclivity for violence, and the tendency to end up in debt. I was struck by this new way of looking at human being. Could sociogenomics be so pervasive that it was crystallizing into a field? And what did this new way of looking at ourselves mean for our ideas about things like race? Or gender? What about sexuality?
Social by Nature has been my attempt to answer these questions. What I’ve found is that the sociogenomic way of perceiving the world is becoming a real science. And it is changing how science is done.
This has some benefits. For social scientists to do the work of gene-environment research, they need to make partnerships with many different kinds of researchers. This is revolutionary for science, because it transforms it into something boundless and free from the strictures of typical disciplines.
At the same time, many problematic ways of handling race, gender, and sexuality come with the territory of genetics, like treating races and sexes as discreet genetic populations, and sociogenomics hasn’t yet moved us away from the biologically fixed notions of these elements of human difference. This science is reproducing the common idea in our culture that DNA determines these aspects of ourselves. It has not delivered on its promise to bring us to a more enlightened understanding of these social phenomena.
I hope that my spotlight of these issues will be a wake-up call to the field and to science writ large. We need greater attention to the social nature of race, gender, and sexuality, to their social construction as cultural beliefs. If we keep perpetuating the idea that these characteristics are mere nature, we will feed into stereotypes and prejudices that maintain that racial groups are inherently a certain way, and should be treated accordingly. We will also support a system of separate but equal medicine, wherein minorities get second-class treatment.
We also need greater attention to the nurture part of the equation, the environment. There are social and cultural reasons for our life outcomes, like where we end up living, who we end up with, and what we do with ourselves. There are environmental causes for the ways that we build our identities and group ourselves with others, and these are especially critical to highlight when it comes to aspects of our lives associated with privilege and privation. We need gene-environment models to capture the inner workings of the social production of inequalities, so that we move away from the notion that inequalities are just a fact of our DNA.