DNA: the latest corporate buzzword

I love it when Private Eye introduces a new feature and skewers something which has been annoying me too.

Private Eye 1363, 4 – 17 Apr 2014

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.

5 thoughts on “DNA: the latest corporate buzzword

  1. This has been around for years when talking about football clubs as a short hand for culture. As an ex Biology student who spent a full two years focusing on Molecular Biology it was an odd choice. But anything that made biology even a bit more cutting edge than the other two sciences and less about atriums and stamens was fine by me.

    • It’s not so much a shorthand (‘it’s in the culture’ is one syllable shorter than ‘it’s in the DNA’) as a way to make the statement seem more insightful and clever than it really is, and also to imply a pattern, or an explanation, which doesn’t really exist.

      For example, if you translate the third item in DNA Samples out of the DNA metaphor you get, simply, ‘Celtic FC tend to win titles.’ Which doesn’t say anything beyond spotting what everyone already knows, that Celtic have won a few titles. Maybe there’s an explanation for that, in terms of players’ skills, training programmes or just club income. Or maybe there’s not, and it’s just a fluke. Either way, Lennon doesn’t appear to have done the work of finding out.

      If you want biology to be cutting edge, don’t rely on football pundits for it. Try reading the bio of Greg Winter, current Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and multimillionaire biotech entrepreneur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Winter

  2. For Celtic it is because there is a lack of competition for resources and no known natural predator that helps them to thrive.

    It is a toss up between misuse of DNA in football writing and face cream adverts talking of Boswelox as to which makes biology more trendy.

  3. Laboured biology analogy. Sort of genetics in that selection pressures are removed so the DNA remains consistent and doesn’t have a genetic drift leading to fixation of an certain allele. This explains why they are crap in Europe where increased selective pressure result in crashing out the league as they are not suitable adapted. Bit more evolutionary biology than genetics again and probably crap from a decade away

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