A. Genetic Determinism
Genetics, as a scientific discipline since Mendel (1865), studies the way biological inheritance is transmitted from generation to generation and affects the physical make–up of the body. ‘Genetic Determinism’ is the notion that genes determine not only our physiology but also our behavior and, by extension, the dynamics of society. This idea has been broadly utilized as one of the pillars of the adversarial myth of origin, that is, that human beings are selfish and aggressive by nature and that conflict and struggle are therefore inherent in society. Below we will see arguments for and against genetic determinism in general and its use to support such adversarial assumptions in particular.
A Double Reductionism: Genetic determinism is actually based on a double reductionism, or a double epistemological borrowing. First of all, it says that human behavior––the domain of psychology––is genetically programmed. In this way, genes would actually determine our ‘destiny’, which has lead to defining genetic determinism as the “false belief that a person's fate is determined solely by his or her genes.”1 We would be, to use Richard Dawkins’ metaphor, “gigantic lumbering robots” created by our genes “in body and mind.”2
The second step is that genetic determinism poses that the sum of these individual behaviors determines the nature of society. The upshot, then, is that genes would control society. Lewontin develops this topic in depth and forcefully refutes its arguments. He states that there is no proof that genes determine even human behavior, let alone social dynamics.3
Universality of Features: One of the arguments that have been used the most in support of genetic determinism is that the universality of a cultural feature proves its genetic origin. For example, taking an illustration from the division of work along gender lines, Wilson states: “In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies, and on that ground alone appears to have a genetic origin.”4
Lewontin objects that this is a circular argument, as it “confuses the observation with its explanation.”5 It would be like saying that the fact that 99% of all Latin Americans are Catholic proves that they have a gene that determines their religion. It would be anti-scientific to try to force such a direct relationship between statistical data and their interpretation. Furthermore, since not everyone follows the norm, we would be obliged to say that the exceptions are infrahuman, or that DNA is not as all-powerful in determining human behavior as once believed.
Genetic Continuity: A second argument that is submitted in defense of genetic determinism is that similar features among some animals and human beings are proof of a ‘genetic continuity’ in the evolution of both. For example, observing that ants take ‘slaves’ and name ‘queens’, and that chimpanzees smile and kiss, genetic determinism concludes that these behaviors have been genetically inherited by man from his animal forbears, since the same behavioral patterns are seen in the human kingdom.
Lewontin clarifies that such designations are no more than labels people use for linguistic convenience, but that there is little similarity between an ant ‘queen’ or ‘slave’ and a human queen or slave. The problem is that it confuses the homologous (having a common biological origin, such as a bat wing and a human arm) with the analogous (having a similar function, such as the bat wing and the insect wing). This is another circular argument: attributing human categories to animals by analogy and then ‘discovering’ a genetic linkage in them.6
Inherited Personality: A third argument used to say that human behavior is genetically determined, is the assumption that certain characteristics such as temperament, talent and preferences are inherited. Once again, Lewontin holds that “the evidence for the heritability of these traits is totally absent,” since their similarity may have causes such as culture, education and upbringing.7
Statistically, what parents and children have most in common in Latin America is their religion, but few would make so bold as to suggest its genetic inheritance. Once again, observation is confused with cause in a circular argument. In practical terms, no direct relationship has yet been established between specific genes and physiology (except for a few diseases associated with isolated genes), much less their linkage with behavior.
Genetic Capacity: When DNA was discovered, the idea of a genetic code filled the defenders of genetic determinism with new hopes of finding there the roots of behavior. However, as that code is mapped, the likelihood of finding a gene that determines even the most basic of behaviors is becoming increasingly slim. There simply is not enough genetic material for it. Lewontin explains that the function of DNA is to code the exact sequence of amino acids in our protein, where in the body it is produced, and at what stage in our development.8
Human beings have enough DNA to produce some 30,000 genes, which is barely enough to develop the body, including sufficient brain cells to learn from the environment. This number would have to be multiplied by several thousands in order to code the complex neural connections that it would take to predetermine even the most basic tendencies. In sum, we only have enough DNA to provide us the capability and flexibility needed to decide how to act in each case and learn from the outcomes a posteriori, not to genetically program our behavior a priori.
Popular Appeal: Despite the conclusive arguments against it, genetic determinism enjoys great popularity due to its ability to free human beings from the need to change their personal lives and the dynamics of society. If our genes made us act in selfish, competitive, violent ways, and if this behavior in turn determined the make–up of our social structures, then it would be pointless to try to reform them by personal or collective choice. This is how we seek to justify the current culture of adversarialism, by essentializing its psycho-cultural elements and naturalizing the social structures that embody and reproduce them.
Lewontin believes that the great acceptance that genetic determinism enjoys, despite its many faults, is because of the justificatory role of science:
The claim that all of human existence is controlled by our DNA… has the effect of legitimizing the structures of society in which we live, because it… claims that the political structures of society––the competitive, entrepreneurial, hierarchical society in which we live and which differentially rewards different temperaments, different cognitive abilities, and different mental attitudes––is also determined by our DNA, and that it is, therefore, unchangeable… That is, to make the ideology of biological determinism complete, we have to have a theory of unchangeable human nature, a human nature that is coded in our genes.9
The Seville Statement on Violence responds to the implications of genetic determinism as a justification of adversarialism in human society:
It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature. While genes are involved at all levels of nervous system function, they provide a developmental potential that can be actualized only in conjunction with the ecological and social environment. While individuals vary in their predispositions to be affected by their experience, it is the interaction between their genetic endowment and conditions of nurturance that determines their personalities. Except for rare pathologies, genes do not produce individuals necessarily predisposed to violence. Neither do they determine the opposite. While genes are co-involved in establishing our behavioral capacities, they do not by themselves specify the outcome.10
Sociobiology appeared in the mid-1970s and found its highest expression in Edward O. Wilson’s work “Sociobiology – The New Synthesis.”11 It arose as the latest form of naturalist ideology regarding human nature, which used an accumulation of evolutionary and genetic theories to put together what Lewontin qualified as “the latest and most mystified attempt to convince people that human life is pretty much what it has to be and perhaps even ought to be,”12 and what Karlberg characterized as a “justification of existing social injustices and inequities.”13
Sociobiology theory is arrived at by three basic steps. The first requires a description of human nature based on simple observation of contemporary society, as well as historical and anthropological records. The second is to suppose that when these features are widespread, it is because they are coded in our genes or DNA (genetic determinism). The third is to assert that this nature was programmed into our genes through natural selection (social Darwinism). In this way an attempt is made to stamp the theory with the seal of scientific legitimacy, universality and invariability.
The problems with this theory are many. The first and most obvious is that it incurs in a reductionist fallacy, according to which the characteristics of society would be determined by the nature of its individual members. Following the logical consequences of this concept, there would be racial discrimination in the world because human beings are genetically programmed to be racist, male chauvinism would be widespread because men dominate women by nature, and the nations would make war because their soldiers are inherently violent. In sum, if you can define the individual, you can define society. This does not take into consideration the fact that racism is a structural remnant of past ages, that machismo is learned from both parents and the larger society, and that making war depends on mandatory drafting and indoctrination of once friendly, peaceful youngsters.
Additionally, how to be sure that our observations are not biased by our own culture, or by our expectations? Sociologists or anthropologists convinced of social Darwinism, for example, would tend to interpret their observations through that filter; they would see what they expected to see, or what they thought a ‘good scientist’ would see. This is because Sociobiology itself is already an “ideological commitment to modern entrepreneurial competitive hierarchical society” with individual causality, which perceives the properties of society as an effect of the characteristics of its individual members.14 As Karlberg says that if “that is all you are looking for in the archaeological record, then that is what you will tend to find” and that some researchers have found “evidence for a degree of peace and cooperation that has typically been overlooked by other anthropologists.”15
Finally, observing human behavior may tell us about our current status, but not about our inherent nature. It may tell us what we have been, but not what we can be, much less what we should be. Neither can we generalize behavior so easily; sometimes we are aggressive and sometimes peaceful. Who decides whether we are more the one than the other? If violence is a necessary parte of human nature, then does this mean that peaceful people are infrahuman or superhuman? Tracing the range of human behaviors versus their prevalence on a graph produces a normal or bell curve, with the overwhelming majority of the relatively generous, peaceful masses in the middle, the psychopaths at the extreme left and the great life models at the far right. Why should we define our nature by the side of pathology and not by the healthy end? Even if we look to the immense majorities in the middle, we may well be observing a normal or normative pathology.
The political implications of Sociobiology include the idea that it excludes all possibilities of a radical reorganization of society. It assumes that there is no opposing human nature, which in turn determines the way society must necessarily be structured. Lewontin says: “The claims that human warfare, sexual dominance, love of private property, and hate of strangers are human universals are found over and over in the writings of sociobiologists, whether they be biologists, economists, psychologists, or political scientists.”16 With this in mind, some biologists have expressed an interest in understanding the true nature of human genetics, in order to know to what extent it might be possible to pass beyond the current limits and achieve a different world. It will be interesting to see what they discover, but again, this way of thinking reflects a reductionist ideology that confuses the characteristics of individuals with those of the social institutions they form part of.
The “Seville Statement on Violence” categorically states that:
It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior. In all well-studied species, status within the group is achieved by the ability to co-operate and to fulfill social functions relevant to the structure of that group. 'Dominance' involves social bindings and affiliations; it is not simply a matter of the possession and use of superior physical power, although it does involve aggressive behaviors.
Where genetic selection for aggressive behavior has been artificially induced in animals, it has rapidly succeeded in producing hyper-aggressive individuals. This indicates that aggression was not maximally selected under natural conditions. When such experimentally-created hyper-aggressive animals are present in a social group, they either disrupt its social structure or are driven out. Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes.17
C. The New Biology
During the 20th Century and beyond, the life sciences have made so much progress, that there is now speech of a full-blown paradigmatic revolution, which has come to be known as the “New Biology”. These developments have questioned deeply the theories on which were based the epistemological borrowings that lent their adversarial features to the social sciences.
For example, the Darwinian theory of natural selection is being replaced by new theories such as the ‘modern synthesis’, neo-Darwinism, geobiology, chaos theory, and the general systems theory. Modern genetics suggests that the DNA structure acts like a self-organizing force, which contradicts the blind action of natural selection. Genes react to environmental pressure in an additive way and in a favored direction.
Lewontin poses a constructionist perspective,18 according to which organisms not only experience their environments, but actually create them from bits and pieces of the outside world. In this way, the environments of organisms are continually reinvented, as a result of their own activities. There never was any alleged natural balance or harmony, but rather the world was always in a state of flux and change. An estimated 99.999 % of all species that ever existed are now extinct, and the rest will follow and be replaced by others.
The social implication of all this is that people can decide how they wish to live and how to organize their world in order to achieve that. We can plan the changes we will make in the world, through appropriate social organization. For example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin holds that preferential factors generate a force responsible for ‘channeling’ the evolutionary topography, like a river finding its course in a natural landscape. He sees a process of increasing organization following a clear evolutionary direction, which will reach its climax in the formation of a global civilization based on universal solidarity.19
1. Baker, Catherine. “Your Genes, your Choice – Exploring the Issues raised by Genetic Research”. Science + Literacy for Health project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). URL: http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/publicat/genechoice/glossary.html.
2. Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 19-20.
3. Lewontin, R.C: “Biology as Ideology - The Doctrine of DNA”. Nueva York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 1991, chapter titled “A Story in Textbooks”.
4. Wilson, Edward O.: “Human Decency is Animal”. New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975b, pp. 38-50.
5. Lewontin, 1991, p. 94.
6. Lewontin, 1991, p. 95.
7. Lewontin, 1991, p. 96.
8. Lewontin, 1991, pp. 97-98.
9. Lewontin, 1991, p. 87.
10. UNESCO, “Seville Statement on Violence,” written and signed by 20 Nobel Laureates for the International Year of Peace in Seville, Spain, on May 16, 2986.
11. Wilson, Edward O.: “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis”. Barcelona: Editorial Omega, 1980.
12. Lewontin, 1991, p. 89.
13. Karlberg, Michael: “Beyond the Culture of Contest – From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence”. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2004, p. 4.
14. Lewontin, 1991, p. 93.
15. Karlberg, 2004, pp. 81-82.
16. Lewontin, 1991, p. 91.
17. UNESCO, 1986 (emphasis mine).
18. Lewontin, 1991, pp. 109-123.
19. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. “The Vision of the Past”. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966.