Genetic Facts, Genetic Reality, Genetic Imaginaries

Biopolitical Times

Review of Genes and the Bioimaginary: Science, Spectacle, Culture, by Deborah Lynn Steinberg.  Ashgate, 2014. 191 pp. [Ashgate; Amazon]

Decades before the advent of molecular biology, genes occupied a central role in “the bioimaginary.” From the early 1900s on, although they could not fully define it, biologists, eugenicists, physicians alike increasingly placed the gene at the center of the enterprise to explain bodies and behaviors. After the elucidation of the double helix, researchers conceived the project of explicating the structure and function of genes and DNA as the grail of modern science (especially handy as nuclear physics proved so problematic an exercise). Public and private institutions devoted to genes proliferated, such that one study in 2013 estimated the genetics and genomic industry had a trillion-dollar impact on the U.S. economy.

To challenge the collective assumptions, values, and narratives of those—from academics to entrepreneurs—who labor in that increasingly ubiquitous and powerful industry, is to undertake a huge task. Indeed, the genetic realm of the bioimaginary has expanded so far beyond science that it has infiltrated the social sciences, humanities, and arts, not to mention pop culture—everyone from Nigerian Christian gospel singer T# to highbrow dance schools deploy the DNA trope even when its relevance is unclear.

In Genes and the Bioimaginary, Deborah Lynn Steinberg, professor of Gender, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Warwick, UK, has carried out a masterful, far-ranging analysis of how the gene has come to dominate Western discourses of identity, justice, psychology, and medicine, and the ways in which projections about how genes shape our agency, wellbeing, and social worth have seduced us into placing more belief into the power of genetic science than is warranted and have thus granted it a good deal of sway in our lives.

Steinberg brings to bear multiple social scientific, philosophical, and rhetorical tools to deconstruct the language, metaphor, imagery, narratives, and spectacle of the genetic bioimaginary. She examines an array of scientific and popular texts, from Introducing Genetics, a 2011 illustrated primer by Steve Jones and Borin Van Loon that is rife with racist, sexist, and imperialist jokiness; to the wildly successful CSI television franchise (with series set in Las Vegas, Miami, New York); to the infamous 1996 CIBA Foundation Symposium, “Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior” [paywall]; to Nancy Kress’s feminist sci-fi Beggars trilogy.

Women, criminals, gays, Jews, and people of color are, in these texts, the embodiment of genetic “error.” Women in particular, as maternal “carriers”—both of faulty genes and embryos—are again and again a focus of “anxieties about sexual morality and familial and reproductive ‘fitness’” and a locus of risk in need of medical and social “correction,” domination, and intervention. Geneticists, Steinberg finds, often figure forth as allegorical heroes on a quest with noble purpose, which sometimes takes the form of crafting a “safe” eugenics—one chosen by individuals rather than imposed by states. In the future, all traits will be testable, goes the story, and available to all. 

In such a narrative “a significant contradiction emerges,” writes Steinberg:

On the one hand, a drift to inequality is seen as inherent in genetic screening. At the same time, genetic science is held to herald substantive potentials for democratisation. The extraordinary number of sweeping ‘ifs’ that must be satisfied in order that genetics does not [emphasis hers] reinforce inequalities, indeed, in order to make a world safe for genetics, is a testament to the tragic absurdity of such wishful thinking. (p. 49)

Steinberg’s chapter including the 1996 CIBA Foundation meeting that purported to explain crime and antisocial behavior as rooted in genetics is especially elucidating. She points to the multiple methodological and conceptual problems inherent in work that attributes such behaviors to genes—most pointedly, that different cultures define crime differently and that even the same culture may categorize the same act differently at different times—and shows how racial and class stereotypes run through the report of the CIBA meeting:

[F]or example, none of the studies refer to white-collar crimes, or to large-scale violent crimes committed by the affluent or extremely powerful. It is interesting in this context, that while many authors note that genetic research has a danger of contributing to negative social labeling and discrimination, none go on to consider how genetic research can be constructed either to avoid or to mitigate against such adverse consequences. (p. 97)

Throughout, Steinberg demonstrates how “the biological facts of genes are often attached to the most cloudy of concepts as if there were a one-to-one correspondence” (p. 164). Although the scientific descriptions of the functions of genes at the level of the organism over time is fraught with “instabilities” and “illogics,” not to mention uncertainties, these aspects go largely unmentioned in the ongoing collaboration of science and culture that is the bioimaginary. In this process, while genetic fact may become obscured, genetic reality does not, as the power we believe genes have—whether they do or not—drives individual and collective decisions that have major ethical and economic impacts.

Steinberg’s prose does not always make for easy slogging—it is densely theoretical and intensely scholarly in its approach—yet Genes and the Bioimaginary is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the ways in which contemporary genetics has covertly and overtly revived old notions of racial science and eugenics; participated in media spectacle to “sediment” its ideas “into popular idiom and wider cultural commonsense”; promulgated and commercialized “utopian tropes” about the perfectibility of organisms; and promoted the “deep [phantasmic] investment in the notion that we can know what is unknown and by that knowledge, control that which appears to be uncontrollable”  (p. 162).


Gina Maranto is a fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. She is Professor and Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy and Coordinator of the Environmental Science and Policy program at the University of Miami's Leonard and Jayne Abess Center. Her articles, opinion pieces, and reviews have appeared in Discover, The Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: