DNA is not destiny: How essences distort how people think about genetics

Room 1120, Level 11
Redmond Barry Building

People the world over are essentialist thinkers – they are attracted to the idea that hidden essences make things as they are. And because genetic concepts remind people of essences, they tend to think of genes in ways similar to essences. That is, people tend to think about genetic causes as immutable, deterministic, homogenous, discrete, and natural. I will discuss several studies showing how our essentialist biases lead people to think differently about sex, sexual orientation, race, ancestry, crime, eugenics, and disease whenever these are described in genetic terms. These essentialistic biases make people vulnerable to the sensationalist hype that has emerged with the genomic revolution and access to direct-to-consumer genotyping services. I’ll also discuss some efforts to reduce people’s essentialist reactions to genetic concepts.

Speaker bio

Steven J. Heine is Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia. After receiving his PhD from the University of British Columbia in 1996, he had visiting positions at Kyoto University and Tokyo University, and was on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to British Columbia. His research focuses on genetic essentialism, how people make meaning in the face of meaninglessness, and cultural influences on motivations. He has authored the best-selling textbook in its field, entitled “Cultural Psychology,” and has written a tradebook called “DNA is not Destiny.” Heine has received the Distinguished Scientist Early Career Award from APA, the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.