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Do we need DNA to experience empathy?

November 17, 2016

Social background and nationality are often used as markers of group identity.  Saying “I’m Greek” or “I’m Dutch” make us feel like we share a familiar set of cultural traits with others. This creation of an ‘in-group’ has the effect of also creating our ‘out-group’. We feel we are closer than we actually are to “in-group” members and more different than we really are with “out-group” members. This is where things can become risky, when we limit our pro-social stances to our in group and refuse it to others, creating an ‘us’ that is thought of as good, deserving and liked, and a ‘them’ that is far away, unconnected, undeserving and often times perceived as bad.

But what if we learn that your identity is not quite what we think it is? That, even though we feel French, Brazilian or Mozambican – of this or that ethnic origin – our DNA tells a far more complex story?


This 5-minute video recently became viral. We witnessed teachers around the world declaring that it was a great educational resource to prevent prejudice and racism, “because people will know that they are ‘not of pure origin’”. We decided to address this educational position and react to it with our sensitivity. We think it has the potential to actually develop the opposite and contribute to an increase in racist beliefs.

The video follows the reactions of a group of people with different nationalities when their DNA results reveal the unsuspected diversity of their heritage. When we first meet the individuals, they are clear on who they are and who they are not (and even which countries they don’t particularly like!). Yet, when faced with their “DNA world maps” (the countries of their evolutionary/biological heritage), it becomes clear their constructs do not reveal the whole truth about their identities.

The video raises some interesting questions that tell us that it may be a good educational resource but not for the reasons we heard about in social fora:

  • Is prejudice a biological or social construct?
  • Is knowing your DNA a cure for prejudice?
  • Is prejudice in our DNA?
  • Do we really need biological reasons to remind us to be open-minded?

The video has an aim: to create openness to others. We challenge this notion and think that this is not what it does. We think this “experiment” is not uniting. It is again dividing and teaching to respect/like people who are the same as us. The result is “if I don’t have the same DNA as ‘Bulgarians’, then I don’t like them; but if I do, I will start liking them”. It is again that we don’t respect/like human beings in general. The only difference is that before “knowing my DNA”, I only liked  ‘Lithuanians’. Now I will add a few more other “nations”, with whom I share the same DNA, to my “likes”.  

The video raises many other questions, including whether and to what extent can we expect knowledge (even purely scientific as in this video) to have an impact on our attitudes concerning issues that are so emotionally and politically sensitive.

It is for these ethical questions that we find that the video can be a good educational resource, not for the initial reasons professed by commentators. Raising our capacity for empathy, or developing competences for respect, tolerance and realising the interconnectedness of humanity is a value-based activity. Steering us away from that and making us believe that developing these competences is a biologically-based activity is quite a dangerous endeavour that undermines the fact that

no matter who we are, we share a common destiny as humans.


Is DNA so vital? Should we be aware of more defining elements of identity? For example,  sometimes our birth order in our family, or the people we meet, etc. makes a much bigger impact on our lives than our DNA.

If we  say “we all are unique”, there is no more of this this line, DNA or not.

From → Education

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