Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth

By Jefferson M. Fish | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
4

Folk Heredity
Jonathan Marks

The overarching theme I would like to develop here is the conflict between different theories of heredity that coexist in modern society. There is, on the one hand, genetics, a 20th-century science, with modern literature that can generally be recognized through a vocabulary of “blots, ” “bands, ” “gels, ” and “probes.”

On the other hand, there exists a set of commonsense theories of heredity, generally expressed in adages such as “like begets like” and “blood will tell.” These are, of course, much older than the science of genetics, and although they are somewhat diverse, they can be conveniently grouped as a set in contrast to genetics, as theories of folk heredity.

Folk heredity comprises a belief in the importance of inherited constitutions in everyday life, in explaining social relationships, in applying formulas for interpreting and improving our world, in the taint of “blood, ” and in the condemnation of large groups on the basis of qualities inscribed in their natures. These beliefs form the justifications for hereditary aristocracies, for example, and the justification for “isms” of many kinds—although most notably racism.

Importantly, however, contemporary folk heredity draws legitimacy from genetics. Genetics speaks with cultural authority on matters of heredity in the modern world, and consequently its sanction is important. Thus, instead of an archaic phrase like “inherited constitution, ” we frequently see the same thought expressed with the technical term gene, although there is usually little or no overlap between the gene as material, transcriptional entity studied by molecular geneticists and the gene as commonsense explanation of “why-you-are-such-a-jerk” (Marks & Lyles, 1994).

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