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Genetic determinism, essentialism and reductionism: semantic clarity for contested science


Research linking genetic differences with human social and behavioural phenotypes has long been controversial. Frequently, debates about the ethical, social and legal implications of this area of research centre on questions about whether studies overtly or covertly perpetuate genetic determinism, genetic essentialism and/or genetic reductionism. Given the prominent role of the ‘-isms’ in scientific discourse and criticism, it is important for there to be consensus and clarity about the meaning of these terms. Here, the author integrates scholarship from psychology, genetics and philosophy of science to provide accessible definitions of genetic determinism, genetic reductionism and genetic essentialism. The author provides linguistic and visual examples of determinism, reductionism and essentialism in science and popular culture, discusses common misconceptions and concludes with recommendations for science communication.

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Fig. 1: Alternative visualization of the same data implies less or more genetic determinism.
Fig. 2: Anti-essentialist representation of genetic variation.

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K.P.H. is supported by a grant R01HD092548 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She is a Faculty Research Associate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is supported by NIH grant P2CHD042849 from NIH/NICHD.

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Correspondence to K. Paige Harden.

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Nature Reviews Genetics thanks Abdel Abdellaoui, Peter M. Visscher and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Harden, K.P. Genetic determinism, essentialism and reductionism: semantic clarity for contested science. Nat Rev Genet 24, 197–204 (2023).

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