DNA is not what makes you you

DNA is not what makes you you.

Recently, I was in Washington, D.C. No matter how often I visit the States, it always amazes me how obsessed Americans are with race. During a conference I attended, the other millennials spent their lunch hour going around the table sharing the breakdown of the ethnic percentages from their recently conducted home DNA tests. This struck me as a rather odd way of making introductions.

In the wake of such DNA tests becoming a top Christmas gift, the Federal Trade Commission issued this statement, saying: “Although most tests require just a swab of the cheek, that tiny sample can disclose the biological building blocks of what makes you you.”

Wait a minute! In what sense could “biological building blocks” possibly be said to disclose that which “makes you you”? Aristotle understood essence as that which makes something that thing and not some other thing. The essence of a person is certainly not reducible to biology.

Dietrich von Hildebrand recognized the catastrophic danger of understanding humans primarily biologically. In 1937, he delivered a lecture in Vienna in which he argued against the idea that biology is the decisive factor in the formation of personality:

The assertion that the distinctive character of a people and its individual members is unambiguously determined by its blood has unfathomable consequences and fundamentally denies the essence of the human being as a spiritual person.

In the first place, it excludes the decisive factor in the formation of personality, namely freedom. In their moral character, in their dispositions and actions, in their virtues and vices, human beings are viewed here as determined by their biological structure. Yet without freedom there is no responsibility, and without responsibility, no morality. If moral qualities are just the inevitable effects of biological factors, as with physical height or with hair color, then they cease to be moral qualities; their particular moral character, which lends them such unique significance and which is inseparable from guilt and merit, would be totally destroyed. […]

Aside from the fact that it is in principle impossible unambiguously to derive the spiritual character of a human being or a people from biological factors, the concept of “race” is as such extremely unclarified and questionable. Do geographical surroundings have an impact on the distinctive character of a race or not? Can racial difference be maintained as a constant factor in the face of all the historical and environmental influences? Are not all the peoples of Europe, despite possessing a very definite spiritual countenance, a racial mix? It is well known that the terms “Aryan” and “Semite” are linguistically rather than racially oriented. The great philologist Max Müller said that it is as ridiculous to speak of an “Aryan” or “Indo-Germanic” race as it would be to speak of a “long-skulled” grammar. Can one ever demonstrate a definitive relationship between race and spiritual characteristics? Does not each ethnic character––expressed as it is in ways of living, in customs, and in prominent characteristics––lead instead to a completely different grouping along lines of spiritual kinship than that of purely biological racial lines? In general it is only by a very circuitous route that one can determine to what race a person belongs. Race therefore does not play a decisive role in the organic formation of a community. The rise and development of national communities has roots entirely other than race, and within the European racial mixture race alone can never truly offer a sufficient foundation for the formation of a community. A purely racial perspective would burst the borders of virtually every European nation.

Hildebrand’s speech also brings to mind Emmanuel Mounier’s book Personalism, in which he says of the personalist philosophy: “But its central affirmation being the existence of free and creative persons, it introduces into the heart of its constructions a principle of unpredictability which excludes any desire for a definitive system.” We can see how fiercely this philosophy opposes the determinism and prejudice inherent in every form of racism and eugenics. If you are primarily your genetics, “defective” genetics means a defective self, a defective person, a defective you. Personalist philosophers expose and shatter this dangerous error.

Last summer, at the Free Society Seminar, participants studied Russell Hittinger’s essay in which he discusses: family, polity, and Church as the three natural and essential societies for human flourishing. Dr. Robert Royal then explored with us the “unholy trinity” that corresponds to the three necessary societies and that some would like to see usurp these: gender, race, and class. Identity politics is a counterfeit attempt to become situated in a rootless, existentially chaotic world. Segregation along ideological lines is an attempt to compensate for a loss of stable community life in enduring institutions.

Consider what motivates Americans, or anyone else, to submit their email addresses in a pop-up window with the invitation to: “Start your genetic journey.” It seems that people take DNA tests out of a subtle desire to know “who they are” and they think that this will give them some kind of answer. This may seem harmless enough, but the language and the drive is reductionist; it is looking for the answer to my identity under a microscope. And while biology is one among many anthropological facts, if we let DNA tests give the mirage of providing answers to our existential questions then we are going down roads that lead to a defective you.

What, then, might Hildebrand say to those getting DNA tests these days? I think he would gently remind: “Factual membership in a particular people does not, after all, even prove clearly that a given person is a typical representative of the people to which he belongs, or that the particular character of his people even comes to expression in his individuality; even less does it say anything about his true worth, which from our standpoint is the only legitimate criterion.”

This only legitimate criterion is that to which Martin Luther King Jr. referred when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It remains our task to affirm that the results of the moral tests we face will always be more meaningful and important than any genetic tests we take. And they make for better lunchtime conversation, too.


Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta in Canada. She recently completed an MA in John Paul II Philosophical Studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and has participated in programs hosted by: the Acton Institute, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, the Hildebrand Project, and the Philos Project.