The Chronicle Review

The Social Life of DNA

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

This summer, the 10th anniversary of the decoding of the human genome was marked with cautious optimism. Even Nicholas Wade, The New York Times's typically sanguine science writer, said that the biomedical objectives of genomics remain "largely elusive." If the therapeutic utility of the genome is somewhat intangible, the social life of DNA is unmistakable.

A defining aspect of the coming decade, the social life of DNA, signals the growing presence of genetic science in both predictable and unforeseen sites. Genetic analysis may indeed lead to personalized medicine. Yet it will also mediate identification, community formation, and citizenship. Justice and restitution will continue to be sought via the rungs of the double helix, as the Innocence Project and recent slavery-reparations suits make clear. Moreover, DNA will become a social lingua franca, standing in for a range of ideas and aspirations—including destiny, progress, well-being, memory, beauty, and truth.

This transformation presents both benefits and challenges, as in the case of criminal justice. With familial searching, when authorities are unable to find a match to a suspect's DNA in a database containing genetic profiles of convicted offenders (and, in some cases, also arrestees), they may pursue a partial match. This "familial" match may indicate that someone related to a known offender could be a crime suspect. The introduction of this controversial form of genetic analysis into law-enforcement practice could have a devastating impact on groups already disproportionately under surveillance (particularly black and Latino men) as well as on due process.

The effects of genetics on society will not lie solely in its medical or scientific providence, but also in its meanings and consequences for broader lived experience. Acknowledging DNA's widening influence is not acquiescing to genetic determinism. Rather, it is recognition that the "prism of heritability"—to use the sociologist Troy Duster's term—will have unprecedented ubiquity in our lives. In the next decade, the proliferating social life of DNA will mean that many scholarly fields—in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences alike—will be reckoning with the genomics zeitgeist.

Alondra Nelson is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University.