Biological Determinism in the Social Sciences: A Systems-based Perspective

by Hugh M. Lewis


In the last quarter century in academic forums of American Anthropology there has been a strong and relatively aggressive trend towards trying to explain human behavior and social phenomena primarily in terms of biological determinants. Many physical anthropologists have crossed the line therefore separating their discipline from that of socio-cultural anthropology, and they have passed into the fields of socio-cultural anthropology with the deliberate intention of foisting their worldview and paradigm upon their colleagues in the other sub-disciplines. They manifest frequently the aim of monopolistic power and control over departmental resources as a principle motivational incentive for their social action and ideological proclamations. The remarkable thing about these theories are not so much what is intrinsic to the theories themselves, which becomes fairly trivial in short order, but the motivations that people demonstrate by adopting such thinking and by the strong sense of obsessive preoccupation demonstrated with extreme analytical reductionism. The positive correlation of this trend with regressive political conservativism on the right is obvious to most though it is strongly denied by those who adopt such frameworks of explanation for human systems.

My first acquaintance with this trend came in the early 1980's, a period of the "moral majority" in American politics, with Freeman's attempt to debunk the work of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead by hypothesizing a "rape prone" genetic profile for the Samoan islanders, and engagement in the hot debate in academic forums that followed.

This kind of thinking has a had a long legacy that goes back at least to the 19th Century with Herbert Spencer's sociologism, and it ties Anthropology and the other social sciences indirectly to an earlier Christian worldview that linked biology and character of people on the Great Chain of Being. In the 80's it took the form of a basic socio-biologism, especially influenced by the writings of Konrad Lorenz and the statements of E. O. "Insect" Wilson, who sought to equate the social patterning of human beings with the social patterning of insects. By the 1990's, this trend had assumed the name of "bio-culturalism" and became expressed in models of gene-culture co-evolution, as put forward for instance by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and others. Later, the concept of "memes" (one should substitute herein the term "genes") as basic units of "memory" that are passed from generation to generation became popularly espoused by the year 2000.

What all these kinds of perspectives share in common are what can be called the biologistic fallacy, or rather the fallacy of biological determinism in attempting to explain one level of phenomena that is culturally and socially based, in terms of a completely different analytical level of natural systems articulation, namely that of biological genetic evolution. The central criticism of any such approach therefore comes from a systems point of view, and states that one cannot invoke the principles found operant upon one level of natural stratification of reality, to directly or indirectly explain the emergent phenomena that are found operating upon another level of systems integration. It is equivalent to attempting an explanation of population genetics in terms of the physical structure of the atoms that compose the organisms being described. Mixing levels of analytical stratification in our explanatory theories of natural systems is equivalent to mixing apples with oranges and rocks, and treating them as the same on the basis of their generally round shape. It results in two unfortunate consequences, the attribution of causal explanation to factors and mechanisms that have no direct bearing on the phenomena in question, and an ignorance of the mechanisms that do have a bearing on the phenomena in question.

The motivation of those who put forward biological explanations of human cultural and social phenomena, to the neglect of theories that deal with such phenomena in terms of systems integration at those levels of articulation, must be called into account and held suspect. It appears that such biologistic arguments are most promulgated during periods of relatively extreme political conservatism. Bio-cultural frameworks in anthropology can really be traced back in time to the period of Hitler's Germany when concerted efforts were organized to demonstrate a biological basis for the differences between different groupings of humanity--to demonstrate and justify a basis of racial inferiority/superiority.

Though most biologically inclined anthropologists are loath to be identified with such an intellectual legacy, they nevertheless happily promote a very stilted and jaundiced form of intellectual conformism and often have assumed a very active and aggressive stance in the posturing of their points of view in anthropology programs and forums.

One of the hallmarks of intellectual conformism seems to me to be the strong predilection and preference for relatively simplistic solutions to complex problem sets, and the foisting of rational arguments in support of an intellectual ideology, whether solid evidence for such an argument exists or not. 

Success in biological genetics, especially as this has impacted the study of DNA profiles in human populations, has had a dramatic impact in the same period of time in lending a sense of superficial credence to such biologistic arguments. By mapping out the human genome, social expectations were raised that one-to-one genetic trait correspondence could be found for all kinds of complex human behavioral patterns, such as homosexuality, alcoholism or other impulse control disorders, criminal behavior, characteriological disorder, mental illness, intelligence, even such relatively vague traits as social achievement, parenting abilities or other socially marginal tendencies.

Needless to say, when such biologistic arguments are put forward in cultural anthropological forums, there is then a built-in need to play down the importance or role for instance that environment will play in human learning, the question of the plasticity of the human mind or the plasticity of human cultural adaptation, the role of cultural transmission and social construction in the development of human cultural patterning, and the wide spectrum of variability of either human personality or human cultural patterning that occurs in the world. The concept of world-openness of human nature, not being bound by any strong instinct, and the importance the role of enculturation plays in shaping the human child's behavior and character, are largely ignored or considered insignificant in such thinking. The symbolic foundations of human consciousness and behavior underlying human social and cultural patterning, rooted as this is in the enormous complexity of the human brain, is generally construed as far too complex an issue to be dealt with in purely biologistic fashion, except through the over-simplistic invocation of such things as "memes" encoded by genes

We may refer to such theories based upon arguments for the biological determinism of human culture and social patterning for what they in truth are, and these are essentially folk theories and pseudo-scientific ideologies of the importance and value of biological inheritance and of the ethno-centric naturalization of cultural pattern. The danger of the promulgation of such theories, and their legitimization as received science, comes from the teleological and functional implications of such legitimization for certain policies or agendas, usually put forward by a political elite in relation to some social underclass or counter-reference "other."

To reiterate, the exclusive biological explanation of cultural and social phenomena suffers the fallacy of biological determinism and naturalization of constructed, reified cultural realities. This fallacy comes from the failure to apprehend basic principles of systems stratification and integration, and consequently depends upon the overemphasis upon a form of analytical reductionism carried to the extreme. Rules that apply to systems integration and emergent properties at one level of natural stratification, cannot be sufficiently explained in terms resorting to the rules and principles applying upon another level of natural stratification. While all phenomena may be systematically reduced to constituent forms and subsystems, all the way down the line, the behavior and properties of systems at one level of natural integration and stratification cannot be fully explained in terms of the patterns found below it, especially if removed at more than one or two levels of reductionist analysis.

This is not to say that biological factors do not indirectly influence and affect human patterning in general, but these factors cannot become thereby either the primary or ultimate causal explanation for why human psychological, cultural or social systems occur or develop as they do in the course of natural history. The question of the role of biology in human evolution is a non-trivial problem, and certainly the fact that human beings must meet certain basic biological requirements for survival and for achieving reproductive success are scientifically significant to understanding how humans organize themselves into groups and seek to perpetuate and extend themselves in the world. But answers to these kinds of questions by themselves cannot go far enough in the explanation of human cultural patterning and social behavior.

To a great extent, cultural and social patterns appear to occur largely independent of specific biological determinants. Direct evidence of cross-cultural adoptions and severe cultural deprivation demonstrate clearly the role played by culture in the determination of human behavior. This evidence cannot be explained by resorting to genetic or other biological factors. We can say for instance that human aggression and violence are so common place and widespread in the world because their are no if any instinctual inhibitions or constraints to the expression of human aggression, and this aggression is readily shaped through symbolic transformation, and learned through cultural transmission. Therefore control or explanation of widespread human violence cannot be sought or found upon a biological level of determination, but rather must be found upon a cultural and social level of institutional constraint and sublimation.

In conclusion we may say that all living organisms are biological systems that are made up of atoms and molecules, but these organisms possess properties of living systems that are not possessed of other physical entities like rocks or water. Similarly, human cultural and social systems are indeed made up of biological organisms with functional biological needs and requirements, composed of cells, in turn composed of complex organic molecules, in turn composed of atoms, in turn composed of subatomic energies and particles. But we do not thereby seek to explain human cultural behavior or social phenomena purely or exclusively in terms of the molecules that constitute the actor's body, or only in terms of the atoms the make up these molecules. Certainly, the element lithium dramatically affects a manic-depressive's behavior, as do many other kinds of chemical compounds, but this association does not constitute an explanation for the behavior of a manic depressive person or that of any other kind of individual in the first place.

Arguments based upon biological determinism are easily dismissed and disprovable from a Systems based perspective. They represent analytical attempts to explain socio-cultural phenomena reductionistically by resort to biological systems, and hence violate a basic principle of general systems theory that natural systems stratify upon multiple levels. It therefore comes as no surprise that Ludwig von Bertallanfy, founder of general systems theory, was himself a biologist and easily identified the symbolic basis of human culture and social patterning.

I suggest that such thinking and ideology persists and continues in the name of social science and anthropology because the conservative and backward looking political regimes and authoritarian administrative orders continue to exist that seek and find justification for their policies and practices in such narrow lines and modalities of thought. As long as people see something they think can be gained by intellectual conformism to some ideological status quo, we will have to contend for scientific research resources with ideologues who espouse self-serving ideologies. 


General Systems Essays, Vol. II


Hugh M. Lewis

Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/18/05