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Laypeople Are Strategic Essentialists, Not Genetic Essentialists

In the last third of the twentieth century, humanists and social scientists argued that attention to genetics would heighten already-existing genetic determinism, which in turn would intensify negative social outcomes, especially sexism, racism, ableism, and harshness to criminals. They assumed that laypeople are at risk of becoming genetic essentialists. I will call this the “laypeople are ge­netic essentialists model.” This model has not ac­curately predicted psychosocial impacts of findings from genetics research. I will be arguing that the failure of the model can be traced to its inability to recognize the complexity of laypeople’s attitudes; its incorrect theory of how beliefs, attitudes, and discourse function; and its blindness to how academics’ own interests can override the available evidence. More specifically, I suggest that the substantial data about laypeople’s deployment of genetics supports what I will call the “laypeople are strategic essentialists model” better than the “laypeople are genetic essentialists mod­el.” The strategic essentialists model holds that people tend to store multiple catego­ries, including multiple causal forces, that they deploy “strategically” to serve context-dependent goals. It will be difficult for academics to reorient ourselves to model laypeople as sophisticated strategic essentialists rather than as naïve genetic essentialists. Perhaps a little shift, however, will be of value.

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