January 2012

The phrase ‘in our DNA’ has replaced ‘community’ as my Number One linguistic bugbear. A few years ago, people might have said that something was ‘in their blood’, as a weak metaphor for a) a somewhat dubious show of behaviour that they were unable or reluctant to eliminate (such as cock-fighting or fox-hunting), or b) a practice in which they took some tribal and differentiable pride in (such as folk-dancing or idol-worship). And sometimes these emotions of self-esteem and sheepishness merged. Of course, a devotion to such practices is not inherited: it is a purely cultural phenomenon. After the Double Helix was decoded, however, the phrase ‘in our blood’ was gradually replaced by ‘in our DNA’, giving such claims an utterly spurious but more impressive-sounding scientific cachet. For example, Silicon Valley firms boast about certain principles or commitments of their business model that are ‘in their DNA’, as if they were something that will inevitably endure.

But such claims are nonsense. DNA may pass on biological tendencies – such as a susceptibility to certain diseases, or a general aptitude for athletic activity, but anyone who was transplanted from one country to another at an early age will confirm how hollow the pretense is that cultural traits are passed on genetically. The day on which I started to write this piece, an article appeared in the New York Times about an adopted child who did not discover that she had been adopted until she was an adult in her 40s.  She had “always believed that she had inherited her looks and mannerisms from her father, and that her appreciation for tradition and old-fashioned gentility stemmed from her parents’ Southern roots” – until the secret came out. In the January 2012 edition of the magazine Prospect, the biographer of Margaret Thatcher rolled out the following mumbo-jumbo: “Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher is in the DNA of everyone in Britain over the age of 35.” What neo-Lamarckian claptrap! Margaret Thatcher may have got under many peoples’ skins, but there is no way that she entered their DNA. Abuse of the term just weakens any argument.

As for my January reading, it turned out that Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live or A Life of Montaigne, which I read at the end of last year, was an excellent hors-d’oeuvre to The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt (the Shakespearean scholar who wrote the excellent Will of the World), which puts the re-discovery of an original copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things by an obscure medieval papal officer in a rich historical context. Also stimulating was Adam Sisman’s biography of that flawed genius, scourge of mysticism, and crispest of debunkers of Marxist historians, Hugh Trevor-Roper, which for some reason was retitled An Honourable Englishman in the US.  In his essay “Macaulay and the Glorious Revolution”, Trevor-Roper wrote: “The crown of  a man’s career is his biography”. This work does great justice to such an aphorism. Please see a new Commonplace folder started for 2012.                                                                                                                                                                                        (January 31, 2012)

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