Making Sense of Genetics: The Problem of Essentialism

Hastings Center Report 49 (S1):19-26 (2019)
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Abstract“Psychological essentialism” refers to our tendency to view the natural world as emerging from the result of deep, hidden, and internal forces called “essences.” People tend to believe that genes underlie a person’s identity. People encounter information about genetics on a regular basis, as through media such as a New York Times piece “Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes” or a 23andMe commercial showing people acquiring new ethnic identities as the result of their genotyping. How do people make sense of new scientific findings that are inherently complex if they don’t have years of specialized training and education at their disposal? Given the substantial overlap between a lay understanding of genetics and lay intuitions about essences, we argue that, when most people are thinking about genes, they are not really thinking about genes in the complex ways that good scientists are. Combating people’s essentialist biases can be a formidable challenge. Although we have identified some promising results of trying to reduce people’s genetic essentialist tendencies, there is still much to learn about how these essentialist biases can be countered. It is important to help people understand genetic information so they are able make well‐informed decisions about their lives.



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Heritability and biological explanation.Eric Turkheimer - 1998 - Psychological Review 105 (4):782-791.

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