It is really in your DNA?

Corporations might be legal persons but they don’t have DNA.

This expression ‘in our DNA’ is a thorn in the eye of my scientist’s sensibilities when it’s used to describe organizations. I know, it’s just an expression that means something fundamental to behaviour, beliefs or actions. Fair enough as a metaphor.

But, I don’t like it. Because of my propensity to analyze seemingly factual statements to determine if they indeed are factual – a propensity likely influenced by both my genes and my environment.

These are the top hits I found in a google search for ‘in our DNA’:

A company that develops marketing campaigns, has ‘innovation is in our DNA’ as a tagline1

They’re not the only ones who claim innovation is in their DNA. The University of Waterloo says the same.2

Boston University’s claim of what’s in their DNA: “It’s in our DNA: an inherent desire in each of our students, faculty, and staff to vigorously and dauntlessly pursue knowledge—and embrace the unlimited possibilities that come with it.”3

At Princess Margaret Hospital, a cancer-focused treatment and research facility, there’s a ‘why’ gene in their DNA4 while at the Texas A&M University School of Law success is in their DNA5.

Recent news stories suggest that fear of spiders is in human DNA6, while others speculate that space travel is in DNA7, or that our DNA is made of collapsing stars8.

Perhaps the reason ‘in our DNA’ grates on me is that no one completely understands what’s in our DNA.

The genome project has made tremendous inroads into sequencing and mapping human DNA. We have identified all 25,000 odd human genes and given them names and can classify them into functional groups9, but that’s sort of like taking apart a house and being able to classify its parts into nails, pipes, wires and 2’x4’s – useful information but still lacking an explanation of how it all fits together and what it does when it’s assembled.

As far as gene function goes, information is sparse: a few mutant human genes causes diseases such as cystic fibrosis or sudden cardiac death. Another handful are for simple traits, such as eye colour or tongue rolling. Generally, there is no linear map between a complex process, like innovation, and a gene or set of genes.

We are far from understanding how most human behaviours are influenced by genes. Studies on identical twins [genetically identical by definition] investigated the genetic basis to behaviour10 and found about half of any given behavioural response is determined by what’s ‘in our DNA’ and the other half a result of our environment. However, studies to link specific genes to specific behaviours haven’t been as illuminating as hoped, according to Psychology Today11. A thoughtful article on this topic, which considers studies on the propensity of a human populations to explore and migrate to new areas, the so-called restless or explorer genes, is here12. My crude summation is: there’s a tendency, it probably has a genetic component but that doesn’t fully explain the behaviour.

Might innovation be in DNA? Since there’s an on-going controversy in the business literature13 over whether entrepreneurs are born or made, I’m willing to add ‘don’t know’ the behaviour influences of all genes to ‘don’t know’ what makes entrepreneurs and surmise maybe entrepreneurship is in some people’s DNA. But not organizations.

Is it fair for me to object to ‘in our DNA’ when I don’t have an  explanation to offer? We don’t know if innovation or entrepreneurship or the ability to choose killer marketing approaches is in our genes. That’s a joy of human nature – there’s mystery in what people will come up with, given the chance.

Perhaps we should leave the mystery of what’s in our DNA for artificial intelligence to discover, much to its dismay.

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10for example Wright, W. (1998) Born That Way. Genes. Behavior. Personality. Knopf. New York or Steen, R. G. (1996) DNA & Destiny. Nature and Nurture in Human Behavior Plenum Trade New York.

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