Biological determinism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Biological determinism, also known as genetic determinism is the belief that human behaviour is controlled by an individual's genes or some component of their physiology, generally at the expense of the role of the environment, whether in embryonic development or in learning. Genetic reductionism is a similar concept, but it is distinct from genetic determinism in that the former refers to the level of understanding, while the latter refers to the supposedly causal role of genes. It has been associated with movements in science and society including eugenics, scientific racism, the debate around the heritability of IQ, the biological basis for gender roles, and the sociobiology debate.

In 1892 August Weismann proposed in his germ plasm theory that heritable information is transmitted only via germ cells, which he thought contained determinants (genes). Francis Galton, supposing that undesirable traits such as club foot and criminality were inherited, advocated eugenics, aiming to prevent supposedly defective people from breeding. Samuel George Morton and Paul Broca attempted to relate the cranial capacity (internal skull volume) to skin colour, intending to show that white people were superior. Other workers such as H. H. Goddard, and Robert Yerkes attempted to measure people's intelligence and to show that the resulting scores were heritable, again to demonstrate the supposed superiority of people with white skin.

Galton popularized the phrase nature and nurture, later often used to characterize the heated debate over whether genes or the environment determined human behavior. Scientists such as ecologists now see it as obvious that both factors are essential, and that they are intertwined.

Late in the 20th century, the determinism of gender roles was debated by geneticists and others. Biologists such as John Money and Anke Ehrhardt attempted to describe femininity and homosexuality according to then-current social standards; against this, the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin and others argued that clothing and other preferences vary in different societies. The biologist E. O. Wilson founded the discipline of sociobiology, founded on observations of animals such as social insects, controversially suggesting that its explanations of social behaviour might apply to humans.




Biological determinism is the belief that a human’s behavior is controlled by a person’s genes and inherited traits. It dates back to the 1800s. Stephen Jay Gould has spent his career tracing the roots of this “western” thought because it is more involved than anyone could have assumed. Gould suggests that the main theories of biological determinism are based on bad biology and bad use of the scientific method. When a scientist says they used the scientific method to gather their data, the readers automatically assume that the information given must be correct.

Gould presents three key ideas that have influenced biological determinism. The first is that measurement and quantification have changed science over the past century and without context, these measurements are useless. If something is assigned a number, then it must be real, true, and scientific. If these numbers and measurements are given without context, then the data can be given many different meanings. The second is that reinfication, the idea that certain qualities (intelligence, race) are valid because we put a name on it. One could separate a group into different components and give a name to these divided groups and have it be true, but actually, there is nothing scientific about intelligence being used as a unitary quality. The third problem is that the main thought behind biological determinism is that traits are inherited. Scientists have traced certain traits through families lines and found that some are inherited. Gould suggests that these studies merely restate the original assumption. Gould points out that various theories of biological determinism have no evidence or science to back them up, and even though these ideas are very flawed, people still widely accept them.

However, Gould is thought to be flawed in his own way because readers believe he is simply disregarding certain aspects of science. Gould questions that since the scientific aspects of the works themselves are so flawed that why is it so widespread accepted. Gould suggests that there could be some social, political, and economic forces which could explain why these biological determinism theories are so widely accepted, but he fails to go further deep into the topic. Gould shows that these biological determinism theories have many consequences for human life and scientists in the future can see these and use his book to continue trying to show the people that biological determinism, is in fact, false.

In this review of Gould’s essay by Garland E. Allen, Allen writes that Gould has helped future scientists examine social, economic, and political values of this time regarding biological determinism. Biological determinism is still prominent in scientific works, past and present, that have been regarded by the public as true and believable. Gould wants his readers to understand that biological determinism has roots all throughout science, even though it has been proven false. .

Genetic determinism

Genetic determinism is the belief that genes, along with environmental conditions, determine morphological and behavioral phenotypes. The term is sometimes mistakenly applied to the unscientific belief that genes determine, to the exclusion of environmental influence, how an organism turns out. As CH Waddington wrote in The Strategy of the Genes (1957), "It is of course a truism which has long been recognised that the development of any individual is affected both by the hereditary determinants which come into the fertilised egg from the two parents and also by the nature of the environment in which the development takes place."

In fiction

  • Children of the revolution, a comedy about Stalin's son's inescapable path into rebellion and eventually a revolution of any sort
  • Andromeda, a television series in which the nietzschean species was genetically programmed to be ambitious, treacherous, and brutal
  • Gattaca, a 1997 film starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Biological determinism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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