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  • The Double Helix and Other Social Structures
  • Elizabeth Freudenthal (bio)
Review of: Judith Roof, The Poetics of DNA. Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 2007.

In 2000 the Human Genome Project, a consortium of privately and publicly funded researchers, drafted the first full sequence of the DNA in the human genome. Since that event, genes and DNA have exploded in public consciousness. Genes and DNA are not the same, and both determine plant and animal nature more than heredity and far less than total biological causality. Still, both are now understood as the overlapping, nearly-unitary source of biological as well as social and cultural determinism. Though this conception of DNA is not factual, it predominates in discourse about science and society. These popular misconceptions provide simplistic answers to complex social questions about the nature of gender, sexuality, and race, and the role of scientific knowledge in human life. To counter these misconceptions, we need scholars such as Judith Roof, who has channeled her formidable knowledge of gender theory and media studies into The Poetics of DNA, a pioneering cultural studies analysis—alongside cultural studies work on genetics by scholars like Dorothy Nelkin and Donna Haraway—on the narratives of DNA. Roof argues that the language about DNA circulating in the public has adverse effects on our ideas about identity, in particular about gender. However, this language persists because it is rooted in some of our most deeply held ideas about knowledge and about human life. Roof’s book outlines how this circular relation has worked in the history of genetics, and demonstrates that the way we talk about DNA reveals more about society than it does about the biological functions of deoxyribonucleic acid.

Roof’s central and most powerful argument is historical: DNA was discovered at an eerily perfect moment of scientific and philosophical change, just before structuralism gave way to post-structuralism. Roof describes how early geneticists incorporated structuralist language and concepts into their work on DNA and heredity, though more scientifically accurate models, such as systems and complexity theories, were newly available to them. The physical form of DNA fuels this curious fidelity to structuralism: DNA is a twinned chain of nucleotides that reproduces itself by splitting down the middle and duplicating its matching other half, reproducing biological information in the process of self-replication. DNA is a self-contained knowledge system whose structure equals its function: a perfect example of structuralism. Roof explains, “self-contained and self-identical, DNA does what it is by making more of itself. . . . It links agents of heredity directly to the life processes of living organisms. Structure melds with function in a self-reproducing strand of nucleic acids” (30). However, this structuralist paradigm is misleading; because DNA’s “self-identical functional structure [was] regarded as almost infinitely meaningful, it masks a shift to the contemporaneous emergence of less structuralist, less dialectical (or more poststructuralist) ways of thinking about phenomena” (32). Roof argues that scientists and philosophers fixated on a conception of DNA as structuralist and dialectical at the expense of scarier but more compelling notions of unpredictability, complexity, and indeterminacy that were emerging in the mid-twentieth century. In the sciences, theories of complexity, systems theory, and relativity were emerging at the time; complex systems theory in particular better describes DNA’s role within reproduction and heredity processes. In literary philosophy, post-structuralist models better suit the ways identity is formed by a still-unknowable interplay of culture and biology. However, Roof argues, the discovery of DNA helped preserve the more comforting and long-standing, if inaccurate and misleading, modes of knowledge crystallized in structuralism. Roof’s shorthand for the structuralist conception of DNA as a simplistic agent of heredity and biological determinism is “the DNA gene,” a phrase that describes the way popular discourse erases the difference between DNA and the gene and, by extension, other complicated biological processes associated with DNA and genes. Roof argues that “if there hadn’t been such a thing as a DNA gene, we would have contrived it anyway” —because “the DNA gene is the point at which many long-lived ideas about the order of the universe converge,” because we are already conditioned to...

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