• 5-minute read
  • 10th September 2020

Academic Writing: How to Avoid the Genetic Fallacy

In today’s post, we look at how to avoid genetic fallacies. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with your genes. Rather, the genetic fallacy is a form of bad argument that arises when we base our ideas entirely on where something comes from. But how does this work? And how can you avoid this fallacy in your academic writing? Read on to find out more.

What Is the Genetic Fallacy?

We commit a genetic fallacy if we make an argument based purely on something’s origin, ignoring all other factors. This can take many forms.

One common form of genetic fallacy is to accept or dismiss an idea based purely on its source. We see something similar in an argument from authority, where we judge the validity of a claim based on the status of the person making it rather than examining their arguments in their own right.

Here, though, we’ll focus on two rarer forms of genetic fallacy:

  1. Etymological fallacies – These occur when we identify the ‘true’ meaning of a word with its origin, ignoring its later and/or current usage.
  2. Fallacies of origin – These occur when we judge a practice, symbol, or idea based entirely on how it began and not its current form.

Let’s look at how these work in a little more detail.

Etymological Fallacies

The etymology of a word is its origin and history. This will usually have something in common with the word’s modern usage. But it is wrong to assume the origin of a word is its true meaning.

A good example of this is ‘decimate’. Nowadays, this word means ‘destroy large numbers of something’. But it started as a form of Roman military discipline involving the execution of one in every ten soldiers. And some insist that ‘decimate’ should therefore mean ‘destroy a tenth of something’.

An illustration of Roman decimation by William Hogarth from Beaver's Roman Military Punishments.
An illustration of Roman decimation by William Hogarth from Beaver’s Roman Military Punishments.

The problem is that language changes over time. And since the fall of the Roman Empire, the way people use ‘decimate’ has also changed, so insisting on its original meaning is wrong. And if we interpret ‘decimate’ based solely on its etymology, we will misunderstand how people use it.

The same applies to language in general: the key to understanding a word is knowing how it was used in context in the time and place you’re studying, or in current usage, not just where it originally came from.

Other Fallacies of Origin

As with words, some claim that the true meaning of a practice or symbol is rooted in its origins. For instance, some people argue against marriage because it has historically been a sexist institution (i.e. something controlled by men, where women had little autonomy of freedom).

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Two wedding rings.
A symbol of eternal love or an outdated relic of patriarchal dominance? You decide!
(Image: qimono/Pixabay)

However, this ignores how practices surrounding marriage have evolved socially, culturally, and legally. And it ignores the fact that most people, when deciding to get married, don’t typically do so in order to explicitly endorse the historically sexist practices associated with marriage.

If we want to understand why people get married in a modern context, then, we need to look at how it has changed as an institution over the years.

This is, of course, a complex issue. Like words, cultural practices are shaped by their histories, so it is difficult to divorce them entirely from their origins. But if we focus only on these origins, we again risk misunderstanding what they mean to people and societies in the present day.

Is Appealing to an Origin Always Wrong?

No! Looking at the etymology of a word or the origin of a practice can tell us important things about how current usages and practices have developed. For instance, if we want to know what a writer from centuries ago meant when they used a word, looking at its history can help.

Likewise, sometimes etymology can help us see why a word may have a specific meaning to some people. For instance, if we look at the etymology of some everyday terms, we see they have offensive origins. And this can help us understand why these words might be problematic.

But appealing to origins becomes a problem when we focus entirely on this at the expense of other factors. We see this in the cases of the meaning of ‘decimation’ and the connotations of marriage. If you are going to appeal to something’s origin, then, make sure to consider the wider context.

Summary: How to Avoid the Genetic Fallacy

Looking at the history of a word or practice can tell us a lot. Nevertheless, we risk committing a form of genetic fallacy if we base our arguments entirely on where something came from. Remember:

  • Something’s origin does not determine its current significance.
  • Historical meanings and practices should be understood in context.

And if you want to be sure your academic writing is always easy to follow, you’ll want to have it proofread. You can even upload a free sample document today to see how our expert editors can help.

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