Biological determinism refers to the idea that all human behavior is innate, determined by genes, brain size, or other biological attributes. This theory stands in contrast to the notion that human behavior is determined by culture or other social forces. Inherent to biological determinism is the denial of free will: individuals have no internal control over their behavior and dispositions, and thus are devoid of responsibility for their actions. Often implicit in this line of reasoning is the idea that because humans lack responsibility for determining their own lives, they are rightfully subject to the control of persons biologically determined in more socially acceptable ways. While few biologists fully believe in the idea of biological determinism, the theory has had cultural and political currency both in the shaping of human racial history and in current debates over the relative importance of our genetic qualities (i.e., nature) versus our socialization process (i.e., nurture) in determining our individual physical and behavioral characteristics.
Although the first traces of biological determinism are suggested in Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) proclamation in Politics that “there are species in which a distinction is already marked, immediately at birth, between those of its members who are intended for being ruled and those who are intended to rule,” (Baker, 1950, p. 14) it was Enlightenment thinking that ushered in the most robust and politically salient strains of this line of thinking. Using what would consistently prove to be a faulty scientific approach among racial determinists, Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) was the first to divide the human race into four categories (red, yellow, white, and black) in 1735. He also began what was to be a trend: racial determinism has never been a project of merely answering questions based in curiosity about human variety; it has always carried a belief in the characteristics associated with these racial categorizations. These beliefs, without fail, served to justify white supremacy in a political context.
Every method of determining a racial hierarchy within the human race has failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nonetheless, such supposed justifications have included measurements of brain size, stature, hair texture, genetic analysis of heredity, and many other measurable attributes. Perhaps the most well-known analysis of this type was Samuel Morton’s (1799–1851) Crania Americana (1839), a selective study of more than eight hundred skulls undertaken to try to prove the innate superiority of Caucasians. A similarly popular work, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853) by Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), makes an argument in regard to the inherent superiority of the same group, whom he identified as Aryans : “Everything great, noble, and fruitful in the works of man on this earth, in science, art and civilization, derives from a single starting-point, is the development of a single germ and the result of a single thought; it belongs to one family alone, the different branches of which have reigned in all the civilized countries of the universe” (Gobineau  1970, p. 113). In each examination of racial determinism undertaken by nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century scientists, it has been established that a racist bias at the outset had an impact on the scientist’s findings. Indeed, the history of biological determinism is a prime example of how science is a deeply political practice, despite its claims to universal knowledge.
At the same time, some scientists’ findings have been manipulated by interested parties in order to justify power relations. For example, even though Charles Darwin (1809–1882) refers to “civilized” and “savage” races as different from one another in On the Origin of Species (1859), he does so as an aside to his major argument that a long process of natural selection has differentiated humans from animals. This claim, however, did not alter the racial determinism of his contemporaries. In fact, his theory became something of a metaphor for those who practiced racial determinism. Darwin’s notion of struggle was generational, and depended on species’ interrelationships rather than isolation. However, social Darwinist thinking developed in order to argue that this struggle was actually among races. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), in particular, jumped on the idea of the “survival of the fittest” to argue not only for white racial superiority, but also for justification of segregationist policies and a lack of social support for nonwhites. For social Darwinists, science had provided a basis on which moral arguments could be made; to create any form of social support (be it charity or state support) for nonwhites would be to contradict the laws of nature. Many social Darwinists felt comfortable with the idea that the inequality of races was a pity, but something that would inevitably lead to the decline and disappearance of nonwhite, and implicitly inferior, races.
Eugenics policies were also based on the ideas of racial determinism. However, unlike the social Darwinists who wanted to allow nature to take its course, eugenicists were more active in their belief in white supremacy. Belief in certain human stock as superior to other human stock (in terms of intelligence, creativity, capacity for self rule, and many other areas) almost always took a racial or ethnic form. While the fascist policy of Nazi Germany is an obvious example of eugenicist thinking, the United States and many other nations have also enacted policies based on eugenics. In the United States, this has meant everything from sterilization of Jewish women upon immigration to the United States, antimiscegenation policies whose selective enforcement prevented white women from bearing children with black and Asian men, and sterilization policies affecting Puerto Rican women after Operation Bootstrap, among many other examples. Many race and gender scholars argue that current policies affecting reproductive rights for poor nonwhite women, while not overtly racist, carry implicit strains of eugenicist thinking.
Biological determinism, while proven to be scientifically invalid in terms of racial categorization and racial meaning, is still present in contemporary debates concerning sexual orientation, genetic research as part of the Human Genome Project, and various overt international policies, such as China’s Maternal and Infant Health Care Law. In fact, an unexpected resurgence of biological determinism has taken place since the mid-1980s, most noticeably with the controversial publication of Richard J. Herrnstein (1930–1994) and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). In their book, Herrnstein and Murray argue not only that intelligence is genetically heritable, but also that there are racial and ethnic differences that account for why whites are better off socioeconomically compared to blacks. More recently, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt argue in Freakonomics (2005) that there is a correlation between crime rates and access to abortion. More specifically, the authors argue that greater access to abortion has led to a decrease in the criminally predisposed population. Although a number of scholars, including a few economists, have disputed Dubner and Levitt’s claims, the controversial argument has received national attention and even political notoriety. One example of such political incongruity, based on Dubner and Levitt’s claims, can be witnessed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett’s comment in 2005 on his radio show Morning in America that “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”
While scientific research about hormones, genes, and other human biological characteristics warrants continuation, social scientists largely accept the idea that social rather than biological or genetic forces drive human choices, human diversity, and the various ways in which difference is both perceived and translates into issues of equality. Of the scholars whose work has stood in opposition to biological determinism, most notable are Ashley Montagu (1905–1999), a distinguished British anthropologist whose early writings in the 1940s and 1950s questioned the validity of race as a biological concept; Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), an American evolutionary biologist who refuted many of The Bell Curve ’s claims in his 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man ; and Joseph L. Graves Jr., an American biologist who argues that “the traditional concept of race as a biological fact is a myth” (Graves 2005, p. xxv).
SEE ALSO Darwinism, Social; Determinism, Cultural; Determinism, Environmental; Determinism, Genetic; Eugenics; Nature vs. Nurture
Baker, Earnest. 1950. The Politics of Aristotle. London: Oxford University Press.
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.
Dubner, Stephen J., and Steven D. Levitt. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: HarperCollins.
Gobineau, Joseph-Arthur de.  1970. Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. In Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau, ed. Michael D. Biddiss, p. 113. New York: Weybright and Talley.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. ed. New York: Norton.
Graves, Joseph L., Jr. 2005. The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. New York: Plume.
Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
Montagu, Ashley, ed. 1964. The Concept of Race. London: Collier.
Tucker, William H. 1994. The Science and Politics of Racial Research. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Meghan A. Burke
David G. Embrick
Genetic determinism is the notion that an individual’s genetic makeup equates to behavioral destiny. This definition is slightly different from one stating that all human beings have the same genetic blueprint. The classic textbook Gray’s Anatomy illustrates and, indeed, medical scientists rely for treatment upon, a genetically determined, universal description of the human body. All normally developed humans have eyes for seeing, hearts for pumping blood, and so on, as specified by this genetic blueprint.
Behavioral genetic determinism is an extreme form of nativism that emphasizes the innateness of knowledge. Historically, nativism has been contrasted with empiricism, which emphasizes the environment as the source of knowledge, learning, and behavior. A modern doctrine of empiricism is found in British philosophy of the 1700s and 1800s, which argued that humans are born with no innate mental content, equating the mind to a blank slate for experience to write upon. Modern nativism did not emerge until Charles Darwin (1809–1882) proposed in 1859 that, through natural selection, humans are descended from other life forms. In the social sciences, initial support for nativism was provided by William James (1842–1910), who argued that humans have more instincts than animals, thus shattering the dichotomy between instinct and reason. At that time it was believed that animals were instinctive and unintelligent, whereas humans were rational and intelligent. The pendulum swung back to empiricism when behaviorism, a new paradigm in psychology, emerged and endorsed domain-general learning through simple conditioning procedures as the source of all knowledge. Psychology, anthropology, and sociology endorsed this position for much of the twentieth century.
Contrasting genetically determined versus environmentally determined explanations of behavior is analogous to the long-standing debate that incorrectly pits nature (genes, instincts, adaptations, biology) against nurture (environment, experience, general learning mechanisms, culture). Anthropologist Edward Hagen (2005) argues, however, that nature is a product of nurture, and that nurture is a product of nature. To illustrate this statement, one must examine evolution through natural selection. Hagen compares natural selection to a learning algorithm that uses information from the environment to select gene combinations that aid in reproduction. These gene combinations are stored in the genome as this learned information forms the basis of an adaptation. Because adaptations are the product of environmental influences, and are designed by natural selection over evolutionary history, it would be uninformed to discuss genes or adaptations without knowledge of the context in which they evolved. In this way, nature is a product of nurture.
At the same time, nurture is a product of nature. It is unlikely that a truly blank-slate version of the mind would be able to learn anything from the environment. This was the nativist argument advanced by anthropologist John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides (1992) regarding the functional design of the mind. Tooby and Cosmides argued that learning and behavior depend on content-dependent information processing mechanisms and that once a specialized psychological architecture is in place, adaptive challenges can be met with ease. All humans have a universal, species-typical mind, in the same way that all humans have a universal, species-typical physical anatomy.
One way to illustrate this universal architecture is to examine fear. In an experiment designed by psychologist Susan Mineka and colleagues (1980), infant rhesus monkeys were exposed to one of two videotaped scenarios, one depicting a monkey reacting in terror to a snake, the other depicting a monkey reacting in terror to flowers. Monkeys that viewed the tape showing the reaction to a snake quickly acquired a fear of snakes, but monkeys that viewed the tape showing the same reaction to flowers did not acquire a fear of flowers. It appears that humans also are prepared to learn quickly which features in the environment are threatening and ignore those features that are not. Common phobias in humans include spiders, darkness, and snakes, all of which were adaptive threats in ancestral environments. Learning is not an explanation of behavior, but behavior requiring explanation. The explanation lies in an evolved psychology and the specific problems this psychology has been designed to solve.
Disgust also provides an example of the nature/nurture interaction. Psychologist Paul Ekman (1980) demonstrated that disgust is an emotion that is experienced universally, and the facial expression showing disgust is a reaction that is recognized universally by others. Paul Rozin and April Fallon (1987) hypothesized that disgust is a human adaptation designed to prevent parasites and disease from entering the body. Rotten meat is disgusting to all humans because if consumed it would probably lead to illness. Many species of flies, however, find rotten meat appealing because flies have different evolved mechanisms. Not all cues are as obvious to the human senses as rotten meat, however. With thousands of potentially edible fruits and plants, it would have been beneficial to use the reactions of others when deciding what to eat, rather than relying on a trial-and-error learning system. If a harmful substance is sensed, the body will expel and withdraw from the substance and the disgust face will be made. Other individuals will benefit from this disgust reaction only if they are equipped to pair the disgust face to the disgusting substance, and learn to avoid it. Again, learning is guided by a universal psychological architecture and explained according to the adaptive challenges it has been designed to solve.
If all humans have the same design of the mind, does that mean human behavior is genetically determined? Adaptations have a genetic basis. However, Hagen argues that because the mind contains many adaptations, all of which respond to cues in the environment, the mind could encompass an enormous number of states with an enormous number of behavioral outcomes. Because humans have an evolved fear of snakes does not mean that everyone is destined to fear all snakes in all situations. Many people have an affinity for snakes, even allowing them into their home as pets. Adaptations do not limit behavior, but instead enable behavior and create behavioral flexibility because a larger set of adaptations can respond with a greater array of behavioral outcomes. Insights from biology, cognitive science, ecology, anthropology, and psychology have been combined to examine genes from an adaptationist perspective in the emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology. Strict genetic determinism is rejected in favor of an account of human behavior that includes both genetic and environmental influences.
SEE ALSO Determinism; Determinism, Reciprocal; Evolutionary Psychology; Nature vs. Nurture; Phenotype
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: Murray.
Ekman, Paul. 1980. The Face of Man: Expressions of Universal Emotions in a New Guinea Village. New York: Garland STPM.
Hagen, Edward. 2005. Controversial Issues in Evolutionary Psychology. In The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. David Buss, 145–173. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
Mineka, Susan, Richard Keir, and Veda Price. 1980. Fear of Snakes in Wild- and Laboratory-reared Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Animal Learning and Behavior 8: 653–663.
Rozin, Paul, and April E. Fallon. 1987. A Perspective on Disgust. Psychological Review 94: 23–41.
Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The Psychological Foundations of Culture. In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, 19–136. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lucas D. Schipper
Todd K. Shackelford
With rising public attention given to the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s, there grew an increased belief in genetic determinism. Scholars referred to this widespread belief variously as geneticism, the strong genetic principle, genetic essentialism, genetic fatalism, and the gene myth. Generic determinism was fed minimally by molecular biology but maximally by behavioral genetics and sociobiology. In the classic war between nature and nurture, genetic determinists sided with nature.
The gene myth can be dissected into three subtenets: puppet determinism, promethean determinism, and the commandment against playing God. The first is seemingly fatalistic; DNA defines human beings, and the genes, like a puppeteer, pull the strings that make people dance. The second, promethean determinism, assigns to scientists the task of understanding just how the genes work plus that of developing appropriate technologies based upon this understanding, giving humans control over what nature bequeaths. The third subtenet voices an ethical maxim: Thou shalt not play God. This sub-tenet derives from the Frankenstein fear of the mad scientist who, in trying to take control of the mysterious forces of life, oversteps the invisible boundary intended by nature to contain human pride and lets loose uncontrollable destructive forces.
See also Behavioral Genetics; Determinism; DNA; Freedom; Genetics; Human Genome Project; Nature Versus Nurture; Sociobiology
hubbard, ruth, and wald, elijah. exploding the gene myth. boston: beacon, 1993.
peters, ted. playing god? genetic determinism and human freedom. london and new york: routledge, 1997.