I love it when Private Eye introduces a new feature and skewers something which has been annoying me too.
I first encountered this metaphorical use of the term ‘DNA’ in Army recruiting, when Capita were talking about their strategy for finding ‘the right candidate DNA’. What they meant was defining a set of characteristics that a candidate must possess to be suitable for the Army. It was obvious why they were using the term – the same reason anyone uses corporate buzzwords – to make it sound like what they were doing was much more complicated and skilled than it actually was, a facade which it was especially important to maintain in front of their client, the Army. Judging by Private Eye’s new feature, the DNA metaphor is currently the trendiest bit of corporate jargon and journalese nonsense doing the rounds.
I always thought it was rubbish, and especially inappropriate for the Army, for three reasons:
1. It’s scientifically inaccurate.
DNA is being used as a metaphor for the fundamental qualities of a thing, a modern, scientific equivalent of ‘essence’. But that isn’t what DNA is at all.
DNA is a molecule. It contains a code, written in the order of the molecule’s sub-components. That code – called a ‘genotype‘ – comprises the instructions for building a living thing. But ‘DNA’ itself is not the code, but the medium in which the code is recorded. It’s like paper and ink, or the magnetic film of a hard disk – as distinct from the data contained on it.
So, should corporate buzz-speakers be talking about finding the right candidate genotype, instead? Not really. There’s another important distinction, between genotype (an organism’s genetic code) and phenotype (an organism’s manifested characteristics). The development of an organism, starting with its genotype and influenced by its environment, results in its phenotype: all of its observable characteristics, from size and shape to behaviour. What the Army’s recruiters are looking for is surely the right candidate phenotype, ie, the right set of observable characteristics, rather than the right instruction code (genotype), and definitely not the substrate that code is recorded on (DNA).
2. It makes undesirable implications, by analogy.
The metaphor is even more ridiculous if you have a basic understanding of genetics. For one thing, much of an organism’s genome consists of noncoding DNA (popularly known as ‘junk DNA’). So when a recruiting company talks about defining a candidate’s ‘DNA’, there’s the unfortunate implication that a lot of the work they’re doing is a waste of time and doesn’t distinguish anything of relevance about the candidate at all.
Another problem with the idea that DNA is the ‘definition’ of an organism is that the genetic code by itself, like any code, is meaningless without interpretation. DNA only produces an organism within a particular embryological environment and context: this is the first point at which environmental factors begin to play their equally important role in shaping the organism’s development and ultimate form.
Then there’s the whole realm of epigenetics: ways in which the inherited features of an organism, encoded within the DNA sequence, can change without changes to that DNA sequence. If a change is made to cellular mechanisms which interpret the genetic code, then parts of the code can end up being interpreted differently, resulting in changes to the phenotype, even though the underlying code remains the same.
So, as well as wasting time on junk, a recruiter using the DNA metaphor is also implying that the work he’s doing isn’t sufficient to define the right candidate, as it leaves plenty of ambiguity open to differing interpretations.
3. It has problematic connotations of bigotry and nepotism.
We are constantly hearing news stories about the latest discoveries in genetics. Our contemporary context includes an awareness of genetic profiles of different races, genetic markers for disease and constant speculation about the genetic basis for homosexuality. The zeitgeist is represented by the film Gattaca, expressing fears over genetic determinism and profiling.
In that context, it seems odd that the recruitment sector, which needs to work hard to avoid any suggestion that such characteristics are influencing its decisions, should decide to use DNA as a metaphor for its selection process. It seems odder still that it would do that when its client is the Army, an organisation which is still struggling to overcome a reputation, and a reality, of institutionalised bigotry, particularly regarding race and sexuality.
Also, there are certain parts of the Army – the Cavalry and Guards regiments in particular – which suffer another problematic reputation: that entry to these regiments as an officer (which, as a form of employment selection, is presumably subject to the same legislation as any other) is dependant on, or at least eased by, a family connection. By suggesting that ‘DNA’ is the deciding factor, Capita are unwittingly bolstering that reputation for nepotism.