Business That's Good

Genetics, Human Dignity and Sales Reps

Ethan Hawke in Gattaca

I was having lunch the other day and paging through the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review when the following (disturbing) piece caught my eye. It’s a quick little side-bar article on salespeople and genetics.

Does Your Salesperson Have the Right Genes?

A genetic marker, the 7R allele of the DRD4 gene, is associated with “customer orientation”—a willingness to interact with customers and learn about their problems in order to meet their needs. A team led by Richard P. Bagozzi, of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, found this correlation during a genetic study of 65 salespeople. The team also found that the A1 variant of the DRD2 gene, sometimes considered to make people cognitively inflexible, is associated with a “sales orientation”—the tendency to try to persuade customers to buy a given product rather than listen to their needs.

I could not help immediately playing the import of that piece forward. I had visions, in between bites of my roast-beef sandwich, of a dystopian future where corporations modify their employees through gene therapy. Somebody call Christopher Nolan.

Maybe my future world of sinister overlords controlling a servile population through genetics never happens. After all it’s just one paragraph in a magazine. But even so, there is something inherently wrong about that article and it has to do with an assumption it makes. It assumes that it’s good to use science to identify the genes in a human being that will cause him or her to be good at sales.

If you’re a materialist or an atheist the article is just science and science is always good. Of course, you will question some applications of scientific discovery—nuclear bombs, pesticides, airport millimeter wave scanners—but you will never question the scientific pursuit of knowledge. So, distilling human traits to their genetic source is fine.

If you have faith in God, however, this article should take on a whole other meaning. You know that man was created in the image of God, that we are supposed to be worthy of a certain dignity just based on our humanity, that humans have intrinsic worth. To reduce our behavior to a certain gene, all in the name of finding a better salesperson, is below us.

I’m not railing against science, material knowledge or understanding. What I am asking is this: Is it right and good to reduce our humanity to a series of genes all in the service of commerce?

How is it that we, the pinnacle of creation, see fit to put ourselves lower than business and commerce? Because what’s really happening here is our genetic code is to be understood so that a company can sell more widgets. To hack the human gene to identify who will perform a task better dehumanizes us and puts the servant in charge of the master.

In the Old Testament, God, through His prophets, spends a fair amount of time decrying idolatry. It’s easy to assume that He does this because He’s jealous. But, one reason I think God finds idolatry so offensive is because it requires man, the image-bearer of God, to lower himself before a hunk of wood or stone made to look like a cow or bird—it's a mockery of God’s creation and ultimately of God.

I can’t help but think there’s a parallel between decoding our genes to find the ideal sales rep and a man groveling before a pig.

Mike is an entrepreneur, strategic marketing consultant, writer and speaker. Read more about him: or connect on Twitter: @mikegastin or Google+: Mike Gastin.


Interesting. I fear we will soon use genetics to create “perfect” children who will follow our ideals for looks, gender, personality and now job abilities. What happens when we all create doctors or salesmen and there are no humanitarians, service people or farmers?

Lisa, you're right. If you combine our culture's insistence that individual happiness is a right (as opposed to the right to pursue happiness), our dedication to the aesthetic life and our disregard for the life of the unborn, then designer babies does not seem all that far fetched, does it?

And, I'd be stunned if people chose the "sales rep" gene for their kid. Everyone will go for the "great leader" or "genius" genes paying proof to the idea that when everyone is awesome, no one is awesome.

You've made some good points there. I checked on the web for more info about the issue
and found most people will go along with your views on this

"Is it right and good to reduce our humanity to a series of genes all in the service of commerce?" This, to me, is the crux of the matter (at least for the moment; I suspect that there is much more to this).

It always comes down to manipulation, doesn't it? It seems every scientific advancement results in a new means to exploit people.

Perhaps a group of scientists could examine that phenomenon some day.

Manipulation. Alasdair McIntyre in his classic on moral philosophy, After Virtue addresses the very issue you raise. He argues that in a post-enlightenment materialist society humans have no worth and there is no good or right. So, one is left with manipulation to get people to do what you want them to, as there is no truth, no good to aspire to. And, to add insult to injury, since man has no intrinsic worth in a world lacking the transcendent, manipulation is fine because after all we're just an accident of matter and chemistry.

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