‘Pop-Genes’: The Symbolic Effects of the Release of ‘Genes’ into Ordinary Speech

  • Barbara Duden
  • Silja Samerski


Within the last two decades the word ‘gene’ has migrated from science into ordinary conversation. Gene-talk has spread epidemically in political and professional arguments and ethical debates, but references to ‘genes’ have also entered personal deliberations. ‘Genes’ have now reshaped not only political, social, or medical concepts, but the very perception of the self. The intrusion of the term into common parlance and particularly the drastic encroachment of ‘genes’ into personal deliberation prompted our research project on ‘genes’ in ordinary prose: ‘genes’ have now even come to impose themselves as the ultimate answer to such primordial questions as, ‘Where do I come from? Who am I? What is my future?’ In the shadow of human genetics the first person singular or the personal pronoun, the ‘I’ of the speaker, is subtly, profoundly, and probably irreversibly affected because ‘genes’ in ordinary speech have the capacity to blend incompatible spheres of meaning. Outside the walls of laboratory science and DNA mapping the word has acquired an extraordinary alchemistic power: it refers to the most concrete, personal, and intimate – the soma of the speaker – but simultaneously also invokes statistical probabilities and aggregate risk profiles of populations. The alchemistic potency of the term makes it well-suited for exercising a crucial symbolic social function: references to ‘my genes’ and ‘your genes’ implant population statistics, probability calculations, and the demand for risk management in the corporeal makeup of the person using these terms or the person identified as a gene carrier. ‘The gene’ in ordinary prose imparts bodily substance to the nature of personhood in an era of dependence on professional guidance and the denigration of common sense perception and self-perception.


Pop gene risk management genetic counseling public understanding of genetics 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.BremenGermany
  2. 2.BremenGermany

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