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Do genes matter? Families under the microscope

2 June 2014
By Petra Nordqvist
Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 756

There is an increasing tendency to want to explain everything human, from stress, to being gay, or having a zest for life as something that is 'in our genes'. The explosion of biomedical research into genetics recently has had a major impact on popular ideas about what defines a person; 'genetic thinking' has become so hugely influential that human life now seems almost determined by a person's genetic make-up.

This 'geneticisation of society' (1) also filters through to assumptions about family life. There is a tendency to think that genetic relationships are the relationships that really matter in families, whereas non-genetic relationships are less well-recognised as important, and sometimes not even seen as 'real'.

But how do genes and genetic relationships actually matter in the messy and complex world of everyday life? Is there perhaps an argument that we need to think more critically about the supposedly ever-increasing importance of genetic links?

These questions were addressed in the event 'Do Genes Matter? Families and Donor Conception ', co-organised by the Progress Educational Trust and the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchester. It drew together a panel of speakers discussing genetic connections and family life from the legal, sociological and scientific points of view.

The event looked specifically at families through donor conception: families formed using donated eggs, sperm or embryos from a third party. Whereas genetic families might not have to think too hard about what genes mean to them, families by donor conception face a series of questions because they operate outside the framework that family relationships are defined by sharing genetic material. These families therefore offer an interesting viewpoint from which to explore the meaning and importance of genes.

Carol Smart, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, presented findings from our recently finished sociological study 'Relative Strangers', which looked at how parents as well as grandparents experience the impact of donor conception on family life. She suggested that while people do think genes matter, the way in which they understand what genes are and what they do is far from straightforward. There was no consensus at all about how genes matter or why.

We also discovered that people are able to hold entirely contradictory views at the same time, saying that on the one hand, genes are important, and on the other, they don't matter at all. Smart gave the example of a grandmother who felt that it made no difference that her grandchildren were conceived using donor embryos, and yet wondered if perhaps her grandchildren's taste for olives was due to being conceived from a Spanish donor egg.

Erika Tranfield, co-founder of Pride Angel and member of the panel, suggested that parents and donors in non-clinical donor arrangements hold very different views on the meaning of the genetic relationships that ensue from donor conception, thus adding to the idea that the social meaning of genes is in fact very varied.

The idea that there is a need to question the meaning of genetic connections was taken further by Natalie Gamble of Natalie Gamble Associates. Gamble spoke of how courts of law perceive genetic relationships in families; cases involving donor conception and surrogacy present some unique challenges to the courts, which are faced with the task of determining how to prioritise relationships. Gamble showed that in recent legal cases genes are both understood to determine relationships, and carry limited significance.

In the light of this complexity, it might be assumed that at least scientists know what genes are and what they do. However, Anneke Lucassen, professor of clinical genetics at the University of Southampton, persuasively argued that even from a scientific point of view, genes and the way they work are infinitely complex. She noted that only a very small proportion of genes can be relied upon to predict a person's characteristics.

The message that emerged with some force on the evening was that genetic connections operate with extraordinary complexity and that the social, scientific and legal meaning of genes is deeply varied and intricate. How we view them, the meaning we attach to them, and how they are understood to matter, shift and change. What emerged from the discussion was that it is important to view genetic relationships as one factor among a multitude of others shaping life and family relationships. The event thus provided a sobering perspective on the seemingly central significance of genes, suggesting that other things matter too.

1) Finkler K. Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier.
University of Pennsylvania Press |  2000
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1 September 2014 - by Dr Jonathan Ives 
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14 July 2014 - by James Brooks 
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30 June 2014 - by Ari Haque 
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28 May 2014 - by Cait McDonagh 
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12 May 2014 - by Sarah Norcross 
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20 May 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
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29 April 2013 - by Professor Carol Smart 
From my point of view as a sociologist carrying out research in this field, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on donor conception is to be welcomed as a scholarly and balanced contribution to current debates...
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