The Poetry of Genetics: On the Pitfalls of Popularizing Science

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The role genetic inheritance plays in the way human beings look and behave is a question about the biology of human sexual reproduction, one that scientists connected with the Human Genome Project dashed to answer before the close of the 20th century. This is also a question about politics, and, it turns out poetry, because, as the example of Lucretius shows, poetry is an ancient tool for the popularization of science. "Popularization" is a good word for successful efforts to communicate elite science to non-scientists in non-technical languages and media. According to prominent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, "sexual dominance is a human universal." He meant, of course that men dominate women. Like sociobiology, gene science is freighted with politics, including gender politics. Scientists have gender perspectives that may color what they "see" in nature. As the late Susan Okin Miller suggested in an unpublished paper tracing the detrimental impact of Aristotle's teleology on western thought, scientists accustomed to thinking that men naturally dominate women, might interpret genetic discoveries accordingly. Biologists have good, scientific reasons to fight the effects of bias. One must be critical of how scientists and popularizers of science, like Genome author Matt Ridley, frame truth and theory. Ridley’s "battle of the sexes" metaphor and others have a doubtful place in serious explanations of science.


genetics, genome, science writing, feminist philosophy, sexual reproduction, DNA, sociobiology

Publication Title

Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy

Publication Citation

24 Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 247 (2009)