Michael in the last pot here, is pointing to a book review “No Big Deal, but This Researchers’ Theory Explains Everything about How Americans Parent” in Slate.org that describes something that is self-evident to anthropologists, i.e. that whatever is defined as “cognitively advanced” is in fact culturally determined. This is a point which I tried to make, apparently unsuccessfully, to commenters on this article, which was posted in Ethnography.com in March. What can I say, I just don’t get it how a culturally determined characteristic like “cognitive ability” which is specific to a time and place is determined by DNA. I also don’t trust the tools of the psychometricians when they are used indiscriminately across national, temporal, and cultural boundaries. (Note the operative word: “indiscriminate.”)
Along these same lines, though on an unrelated subject, there was another pair of articles about DNA I read today, one by the conservative columnist George Will in today’s Washington Post, “Obama is Right on Syria “. In an outbreak of comity, the conservative Will is complementing the prudence of President Obama for not taking military action in Syria. In making this argument, Will is in effect pointing out that there is not always an American solution for every foreign policy problem. He contrasts this with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim in a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Throughout our history, through hot wars and cold, through economic struggles, and the long march to a more perfect union, Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.” So up pops yet another biological metaphor: DNA determines that Americans always rise to challenges, and makes us believe that all can be achieved.
Now for my major stretch in logic. Science, testing, DNA, and the genetic revolution have become a metaphor which stretches way beyond where, from a scientific perspective, it should be. Scientists are not at fault, as Rajiv Khan seems to be pointing out to me in his comments. However, as the book review in Slate points out, cognitive ability is perceived by American culture as being ever manipulable by parents, foreign policy by Secretarys of State, and so forth. This is why such metaphor is so appealing—there is indeed a culturally grounded belief that “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved” by Americans. Geneticists and others have of course taken advantage of this cultural bias toward explanation via DNA, and pumped the federal government for ever-larger grants in ways that anthropology can only dream of.