What are genes?

What are genes was one of the intriguing questions posed in a very thought-provoking presentation by Professor Carol Smart at the first day of a two day conference on New Families and Genetic Identities held at the LSE in London.  She was presenting findings from the Relative Strangers research project carried out by Petra Nordqvist and herself where they interviewed parents by donor conception and grandparents (in different families) of lesbian and heterosexual couples about how they talked about donor conception between themselves and in the wider family.  I blogged first about this very interesting research back in March (link below).  But to return to genes –

As Carol told us, genes are often explained by scientists like Steve Jones by way of metaphor, but these metaphors are rarely neutral…they carry significance in the perspective that they convey.  For instance are genes –

  • A blueprint, as often depicted by the media
  • A set of instructions (to the body to make proteins) as asserted in BioNews
  • Information – intangible, non-material information     or
  • A script…as in a cake-making analogy

Genes will have greater or lesser significance depending on what we think their role is in making people and families.  The language of genes has in recent years overtaken the language of ‘blood’ – blood relations, bad blood etc., but most lay people’s increasingly scientific language is mediated through their own beliefs on –

  • What is ‘natural’
  • Religious teachings
  • Media information  or
  • Existing patterns of kinship within their own family

Kinship itself seems best understood through what modern social anthropologists call a ‘doing’ focus rather than anything to do with lineage, as in –

  • Everyday family practices
  • Family stories, photos, reminiscences
  • Sharing a home or living space
  • Family traditions and rituals

The creation of bonds through shared identity, as above, is what makes kin rather than any need for genetic connection.

In the Relative Strangers research Professor Smart found that many people had very flexible attitudes to genes and, almost certainly without consciously realising it, veered in their views from genetic determinism to seeing nurture as the dominant force in creating identity and bonds within the family.  Far from seeing this as a sign of confusion, Professor Smart interprets this dual focus as donor conception families just trying to do their best with what she named at the beginning of her presentation as ‘the mystery of genetic connectedness’.  Those who see the glass as half full will look for resemblances where they can in order to keep up family connectedness  but may have a tendency to deny the significance of genes (it’s just a tiny bit of data) and those who see the glass as half empty see differences everywhere but may have a tendency to ‘forget’ about donor conception, which can be perceived by others as insensitive or helpful, depending on individual interpretations.

All this resonated very strongly with me and with the approach taken by DC Network over the years.  From the beginning the five founding families recognised that in order to successfully integrate into a family narrative the creation of children by donor conception, parents need to be able to manage the balance between the apparently contradictory perspectives that genes are both very important and not important at all.  Those whose beliefs and outlook tend towards genetic inheritance as being the most important component of family make-up are likely to manage this less well than those who feel that upbringing and environment are what shape genetic  traits and make a family.  As Carol Smart also said, epigenetics only brings more confusion to the picture – on the one hand indicating that environment has an important role in turning genes on or off but at the same time reducing (once again) people to the sum of their genes.

Which all lead to another fascinating presentation on family resemblances, this time from Jennifer Mason, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester.  Using photographs of students with their families at the time of university graduation, Professor Mason demonstrated the potency of family resemblance, recalling the conversations with these families that turned very quickly into something very meaningful as resemblances were welcomed, denied or led to revelations about non-genetic connections in families, particularly adoption.

It is undoubtedly true that family resemblances are a strong force in everyday life, but one that donor conception families can find very uncomfortable and may try to avoid. Carol Smart recalled in her presentation one man saying that he found it very hard when his mother went on about how his nieces and nephews looked so like their father.  He felt it was wrong of her to mention this because there wasn’t a possibility that his children would look like him (because of use of donor sperm).  But talk of resemblances is so common and such a strong ‘pull’ within families that it is hard to recommend that this ‘natural’ tendency should be stunted.  I know I find myself looking hard at our grand-daughter, noting her face shape as coming from my family and her hair and some facial features coming from her mother’s side…although her eyes are definitely her dads’ and those come from my first husband…it’s all so complicated.

All in all a fascinating two days…apart from John Harris who gave us another self-indulgent rant, this time on human cloning, which of course as a libertarian he doesn’t object to at all.  I know one person I definitely wouldn’t be seeking to clone!

I’m lucky enough to be off to the South of France on Monday for a week, along with Walter, son Will and his girlfriend.  No doubt some good old family bonding will take place.  See you in July.


A book based on the Relative Strangers research will be coming out in February 2014. Title: Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception by Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart, published by Palgrave Macmillan.  I know it will make an enormous contribution to our understanding of what donor conception means in the context of wider family life.


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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5 Responses to What are genes?

  1. Kriss Fearon says:

    That attitude towards kinship, that you look for what gives you the relationship outcome you feel most comfortable with, or perhaps start out with, is something I’m thinking through wrt my interviews with sperm donors. Very interesting to hear how people account for their feelings. It is hard to know whether people donate because they believe the genetic link is less important to a family relationship than day to day contact, or whether that’s a reason to justify it and the instinct to help comes first. It’s a complex area and people are capable of feeling two different things which they know conflict with each other. At least that’s my conclusion at the moment – hopefully I’ll get to something a bit more nuanced in the next few weeks 🙂

    And the resemblance thing is hard – but then again people do pick out resemblance whether people are genetically related or not. It must be so hard having this as a constant reminder of something you are sensitive about. Certainly now I’m aware of what it means to some people I find myself biting my tongue a lot more and consciously not talking about whether family members look like each other.

  2. oliviasview says:

    Hi Kriss
    Very interesting that you have found donors having feelings which, at first sight, would appear to contradict each other. This mirrors exactly what the Relative Strangers research found in talking to parents. In my experience at DC Network it is those people who manage to ‘hold’ these apparently contradictory emotions who do best in terms of integrating donor conception into their family story and sharing information with their children and others.
    I do think the whole issue of resemblances is very powerful. I too find myself trying not to talk about how much members of families look or do not look like each other, but the ‘instinct’ (or social pressure?) to do so is very strong.
    I look forward to hearing more about your research with donors.

  3. Kriss Fearon says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this fascinating photo-project on family resemblance: http://genetic.ulriccollette.com/

    • oliviasview says:

      Yes, really fascinating. At the conference, at the end of the session on resemblances, we were shown pictures from another photo-project of people who looked incredibly alike but were not related at all! Equally fascinating.

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