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The DNA Mystique

The Gene as a Cultural Icon

Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee

Publication Year: 2004

The DNA Mystique is a wake-up call to all who would dismiss America's love affair with 'the gene' as a merely eccentric obsession. --In These Times "Nelkin and Lindee are to be warmly congratulated for opening up this intriguing field [of genetics in popular culture] to further study." --Nature The DNA Mystique suggests that the gene in popular culture draws on scientific ideas but is not constrained by the technical definition of the gene as a section of DNA that codes for a protein. In highlighting DNA as it appears in soap operas, comic books, advertising, and other expressions of mass culture, the authors propose that these domains provide critical insights into science itself. With a new introduction and conclusion, this edition will continue to be an engaging, accessible, and provocative text for the sociology, anthropology, and bioethics classroom, as well as stimulating reading for those generally interested in science and culture.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Conversations in Medicine and Society


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p. ix

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Preface to the Second Edition

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pp. xi-xxviii

The spring of 2003 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, and the celebration, including dozens of elaborate public events, was a mass media bonanza tempered only by the hovering threat of an American invasion of Iraq. A story in a February issue of ...

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Preface to the First Edition

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pp. xxix-xxxii

In the course of our work on the history of human genetics, on biological testing, and on the relationship between media images and public policy, we have repeatedly been struck by the powers ascribed to the gene in American culture. 1 At the same time, it became ...

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1. The Powers of the Gene

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pp. 1-18

A full-color advertisement boasts that a new BMW sedan has a "genetic advantage"-a "heritage" that comes from its "genealogy."1 A U.S. News and World Report article on the Baby M custody dispute states that it will not make much difference which family brings up the child since her personality is already ...

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2. The Eugenic Gene

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pp. 19-37

In 1907 the "plant wizard" Luther Burbank wrote that "stored within heredity are all joys, sorrows, loves, hates, music, art, temples, palaces, pyramids, hovels, kings, queens, paupers, bards, prophets and philosophers. . . and all the mysteries of the universe."1 In his popular 1934 eugenics ...

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3. Sacred DNA

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pp. 38-57

In Stephen Spielberg's popular 1982 film E. T., the extraterrestrial hero, apparently dying, lies on an operating table; suddenly a scientist runs in shouting, "He's got DNA!" Like many other cues in the widely admired movie, this reference ...

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4. The Molecular Family

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pp. 58-78

A fertility handbook proclaims that "the desire for a family rises unbidden from our genetic souls." Infertile couples feel "uncontrollable devastation of their lives" when they cannot bear genetic children. And a genealogy search firm promises ...

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5. Elvis’s DNA

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pp. 79-101

In popular culture, Elvis Presley has become a genetic construct, driven by his genes to his unlikely destiny. In a 1985 biography, for example, Elaine Dundy attributed Presley's success to the genetic characteristics of his mother's multiethnic family: "Genetically speaking," she wrote, "what ...

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6. Creating Natural Distinctions

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pp. 102-186

Biological explanations have long been used to justify social inequalities by casting the differential treatment and status of particular groups as a natural consequence of essential, immutable traits. In the 1990s the language of genetic essentialism has given new legitimacy to such ...

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7. Absolution: Locating Responsibility and Blame

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pp. 127-148

Political debates over the state of the environment, the declining standard of living, the imbalance of trade, urban violence, single mothers, and the "war" on drugs employ a language of crisis and catastrophe. Illegitimate births are a "plague," crime is "out of control," the environment is ...

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8. Genetic Essentialism Applied

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pp. 149-168

In his 1992 suspense novel A Philosophical Investigation, Philip Kerr describes a twenty-first century society ravaged by an epidemic of violent crime. Social planners, who in 2013 had given up on environmental controls after the "failure of schemes which claimed to ameliorate the ...

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9. Genetic Futurism

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pp. 169-191

1991 letter to the New York Times reiterated an old theme: human society, the writer warned, had taken a "Darwinian U-turn" - "humankind has done little to improve its own breed.... Worse, our social programs encourage many less genetically endowed to breed."1 A conservative ...

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10. The Supergene

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pp. 192-205

The newest applications of DNA are marketed directly to consumers, often in ways that reflect social anxieties. Advertising on the Internet and requiring only that buyers send in a mouth swab, DNA companies exploit cultural concerns about race ...


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pp. 206-268


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pp. 269-27


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pp. 304-317

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025077
E-ISBN-10: 0472025074
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472030040
Print-ISBN-10: 0472030043

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 13 drawings
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Conversations in Medicine and Society
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OCLC Number: 588251593
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The DNA Mystique

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • DNA -- Social aspects.
  • Genetics in mass media.
  • Genetics -- Social aspects.
  • Genes -- Social aspects.
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