Laypeople Are Strategic Essentialists, Not Genetic Essentialists

Hastings Center Report 49 (S1):27-37 (2019)
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In the last third of the twentieth century, humanists and social scientists argued that attention to genetics would heighten already‐existing genetic determinism, which in turn would intensify negative social outcomes, especially sexism, racism, ableism, and harshness to criminals. They assumed that laypeople are at risk of becoming genetic essentialists. I will call this the “laypeople are genetic essentialists model.” This model has not accurately predicted psychosocial impacts of findings from genetics research. I will be arguing that the failure of the model can be traced to its inability to recognize the complexity of laypeople’s attitudes; its incorrect theory of how beliefs, attitudes, and discourse function; and its blindness to how academics’ own interests can override the available evidence. More specifically, I suggest that the substantial data about laypeople’s deployment of genetics supports what I will call the “laypeople are strategic essentialists model” better than the “laypeople are genetic essentialists model.” The strategic essentialists model holds that people tend to store multiple categories, including multiple causal forces, that they deploy “strategically” to serve context‐dependent goals. It will be difficult for academics to reorient ourselves to model laypeople as sophisticated strategic essentialists rather than as naïve genetic essentialists. Perhaps a little shift, however, will be of value.



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