Elvis' DNA: The Gene as a Cultural Icon

By Nelkin, Dorothy; Lindee, M. Susan | The Humanist, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Elvis' DNA: The Gene as a Cultural Icon


Nelkin, Dorothy, Lindee, M. Susan, The Humanist


In popular culture, Elvis Presley has become a genetic construct, driven by his genes to his unlikely destiny. In the 1985 biography Elvis and Gladys, for example, Elaine Dundy attributed Presley's success to the genetic characteristics of his mother's multiethnic family. "Genetically speaking," she wrote, "what produced Elvis was quite a mixture. To his "French Norman blood was added Scots-Irish blood," as well as "the Indian strain supplying the mystery and the Jewish strain supplying spectacular showmanship." All this combined with his "circumstances, social conditioning, and religious upbringing . . . [produced] the enigma that was Elvis."

Dundy traced Elvis' musical talents to his father (who "had a very good voice") as well as his mother (who had "the instincts of a performer"). His parents provided a musical environment, Dundy noted, but "even without it, one wonders if Elvis, with his biological musical equipment would not still have become a virtuoso."

Another Elvis biographer, Albert Goldman, focused on his subject's "bad" genes, describing him in Elvis as "the victim of a fatal hereditary disposition." Using language reminiscent of the stones of the Jukes and Kallikaks, the degenerate families of the early eugenics movement, Goldman attributed Elvis' character to ancestors who constituted "a distinctive breed of southern yeomanry" commonly known as hillbillies. A genealogy research organization, Goldman said, had traced Presley's lineage back nine generations to a nineteenth-century "coward, deserter, and bigamist." In Goldman's narrative, this genetic heritage explained Elvis' downfall: his addiction to drugs and alcohol, his emotional disorders, and his premature death were all in his genes. His fate was a readout of his DNA.

The idea that "good" and "bad" character traits (and destinies) are the consequence of "good" and "bad" genes appears in a wide range of popular sources. In these works, the gene is described in moral terms and seems to dictate the actions of criminals, celebrities, political leaders, and literary and scientific figures. Films present stories of "tainted blood" and "born achievers," of success and failure, of kindness and cruelty, all written in the genes. The most complicated human traits are also blamed on DNA. Media stories (for example, Alan Wexler's article in the August 13, 1993, Newsday) feature various jokes about Republican genes, MBA genes, lawyer genes, and public-interest genes. Human behaviors linked to DNA in these accounts range from the trivial - a preference for flashy belt buckles - to the tragic - a desire to murder children.

Such popular constructions of behavior draw on the increasing public legitimacy of the scientific field of behavioral genetics. Behavioral geneticists have been able to demonstrate that some relatively complicated behaviors - certainly in experimental animals and possibly in human beings - are genetically determined. Studies of animals reveal the genetic bases of survival instincts, mating rituals, and certain aspects of learning and memory. Border collies herd sheep in a unique characteristic way whether they have been trained or not, even if they have never seen sheep before. Some behaviors associated with particular hormones have been indirectly linked to genes: both aggressive and nurturing behaviors - in mice - can be manipulated with adjustments of hormone levels. Though such research highlights the biological events involved in some behaviors, it does not support the popular idea that genes determine human personality traits or such complex phenomena as success, failure, political leanings, or criminality.

Nonetheless, the claims that genes control human behaviors have received significant support from some behavioral geneticists who have positioned themselves as public scientists. Among the most cited and widely promoted scientists in this field is University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard. Bouchard, a student of Arthur Jensen, has studied identical twins reared apart in order to determine the relationship between genetics and IQ, personality, and behavior. …

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