When is Biology Destiny

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When is Biology Destiny ...


    When is Biology Destiny? Biological Determinism and Social Responsibility*

    Dr. Inmaculada de Melo-Martín †‡

    St. Mary‘s University

† Department of Philosophy, St. Mary‘s University, One Camino Santa Maria,

    San Antonio, TX 78228-8566; email: ‡ Thanks to Gonzalo Munévar and Craig Hanks for their comments on earlier versions of this

    paper. Some of the arguments presented here are also discussed in a paper forthcoming in

    Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology & Biomedical Sciences



I argue here that critics of biological explanations of human nature are mistaken when they

    maintain that the truth of genetic determinism implies the end of critical evaluation and

    reform of our social institutions. Such a claim erroneously presupposes that our social values,

    practices, and institutions have nothing to do with what makes biological explanations

    troublesome. What constitutes a problem for those who are concerned with social justice is

    not the fact that particular behaviors might be genetically determined, but the fact that our

    value system and social institutions create the conditions that make such behaviors



    When is Biology Destiny? Biological Determinism and Social Responsibility

    1. Introduction.

    Biological explanations seem to have a wondrous appeal for human beings.1 We have

    only to look at the history of science to observe this. From Aristotle to Galton to our present

    day evolutionary psychologists and genetic behaviorists, biological explanations even if

    with different formsseem to be the obvious answer to our quest for understanding human

    similarities and differences. The Human Genome Project has only increased our expectations

    for these kinds of answers. Although we thought that our fate was in the stars, now we seem

    to believe that our destiny is in our genes.

     The appeal of biological explanations of human nature is often counteracted by the

    shadow of, for example, unjust public policies promoted by social Darwinists and the

    eugenic experiments performed by the Nazis. (See, Paul 1998, Kevles 1985) Thus, those who

    now insist on the importance and the need of biological explanations to solve the problems

    that loom ahead from genetic diseases, to social unrestfeel obliged to maintain that their scientific explanations are far from the ideological ones offered by social Darwinists and

    eugenicists. (See Wright 1994, 7-8) They claim, for example, that genetics in itself is never

    evil. It is its use or misuse that constitutes a problem. Certainly everybody would agree, they

    say, that to find the ways to ameliorate the impact of mental illness is inherently good, while

    the killing of German mental patients by the Nazis is the worst of barbarism. (Watson 2000,

    169-208) Furthermore, they argue that if we want for our public policies to solve problems


    such as criminal behavior, alcoholism, learning disabilities, schizophrenia, or war, we ought to pay attention to the evolutionary history of humankind. Failing to do so is a recipe for disaster. (Cartwright 2000, 341-343; Thornhill and Palmer 2000, 199; Daly and Wilson 1996, 22-24; Buss 1996, 309, 315; Wright 1994, 10-14)

     Critics of biological explanations of human nature insist that such explanations presuppose (in spite of the disclaimers continually made by supporters) an unsustainable biological determinism. (See Rose 2001; Lewontin 2000; Oyama 2000, Shakespeare and Erickson 2000, 229-245; Rose 2000, 299-318; Bleier 1985; Kitcher, 1985; Gould 1981) They maintain that biological explanations of human behavior or human disease are reductionist; that genes can only be understood as contributing causes; that organisms are in constant interaction with their environment in complex ways; that organisms select environments just as environments select organisms; and that to look for adaptations in every one of our emotions, behaviors, abilities, is simply to misunderstand how natural selection works.

     However, most critics and supporters of biological explanations seem to agree on one issue, that if biological determinism were correct, then we would be exempt from critically analyzing and maybe transforming our social practices and institutions. (Thornhill and Palmer 2000, 107-111; Buchanan et al. 2000, 24-26; Buss 1999, 18-19, Rothstein 1999, 89-110; Nelkin 1999, 156-169; Nelkin and

    Lindee 1995; Wright 1994, 345-363; Kitcher 1985)

    Biological determinism points to natural limits constraining individuals and therefore, tends to de-emphasize the influence of social circumstances. Thus, if biological determinism were true, it would seem that no possible social system, educational policy, or nurturing plan could


    change the status quo, or at least that doing so would require too great a cost. (Wilson, 1978,

    pp. 132-134) Biology turns out to be a way to justify existing social institutions and to relieve societal guilt. Critics accuse those who use biology to explain every possible human trait of presupposing the truth of biological or genetic determinism. Thus, they try to debunk this doctrine, and with it presumably the claims made by sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, or behavioral geneticists. All the while, proponents of these disciplines agree with the claims made by the critics that genetic determinism is false and has problematic implications for our society. Sociobiologists and genetic behaviorists, however, deny that the biological explanations of human nature that they put forward are based on the assumption that human behavior is genetically determined.

     The focus of this paper is to show that those who criticize biological explanations of human nature might be granting too much to those who propose such explanations when they argue that the truth of genetic determinism implies the end of critical evaluation and reform of our social institutions. This is so because when we argue that biological determinism exempts us from social critique we are erroneously presupposing that our social values, practices, and institutions have nothing, or little, to do with what makes biological explanations troublesome. My argument is then that what constitutes a problem for those who are concerned with social justice is not the fact that particular behaviors might be genetically determined, but the fact that our value system and social institutions create the conditions that make such behaviors problematic. Thus, I will argue that even if genetic determinism were correct, the requirement of assessing and transforming our social practices


    and institutions will be far from superfluous. Biology is rarely destiny for human beings and

    the institutions they create.

2. Do Biological Explanations Diminish Social Responsibility?

     Many people seem to believe that the answer to this question is a resounding, ―yes.‖ If we believe that our genes determine intelligence, then there are no good reasons to keep

    investing our societal resources in improving the intelligence level of those who cannot do

    better. Similarly, if the differences between men and women are an inextricable part of

    human nature, then claims of gender equality are entirely misguided.

     Contrary to these common beliefs, I want to defend here that societal moral

    responsibility does not decrease with the truth of biological determinism. I will show that

    genetic determinism does not require that we relinquish our moral and social accountability.

    It does not have power enough, even when we might desire for it to have it, to blind us to the

    simple fact that many of our most severe problems are the consequence of our social

    practices and institutions. In what follows, I will analyze some of the human traits that have

    been presented implicitly or explicitly as being genetically determined. Note that my point is

    not to deny that such traits might be biologically determined. I want to argue that the

    consequence i.e. that it prevents social responsibility does not follow. Nor am I claiming

    that those who offer biologically based explanations for these traits believe that they are

    biologically determined; on the contrary, as I have said earlier, most of them go to

    painstaking lengths to argue that they are not claiming such a thing. And they do so because,


    along with their critics, they consider biological determinism not only scientifically but also

    morally problematic. The human traits that I will evaluate are intelligence and reproductive

    strategies in men and women. I will discuss them in order.

    2.A. Intelligence.

    One of the most contentious claims in the dispute over biological explanations has been the affirmation that intelligence is inheritable and to a high degree immutable. These

    claims are normally associated with evidence that allegedly shows that whites are more

    intelligent than African Americans. (See Jensen 1998; Herrnstein and Murray 1994)

    Presumably the differences in intelligence explain the differences in the social ladder: those

    who are more intelligent tend to be more successful. The high rates of poverty that afflict our

    western societies are determined more by intelligence than they are by socioeconomic

    background. Thus, the argument often goes, using social resources to enrich the education

    of those at the low end of the cognitive distribution is an inefficient way to distribute our

    money. It doesn‘t matter how many resources we provide for these children, their cognitive

    abilities and their chances of succeeding in our world, are not going to improve significantly.

    Society is then doubly exculpated. First, we don‘t need to feel responsible for those individuals who do not ―make it.‖ After all, no matter how much we did for them, it would

    not improve their chances. And second, we do not need to be critical of social practices and

    institutions that appear to increase the chances that some people are not going to be able to


    ―make it.‖ After all, if you are smart enough you will, sooner or later, overcome those


    But do these consequences about abdicating social responsibility follow from the claim that intelligence is genetically determined? I will argue here that they do not. Let‘s

    forget, for the sake of the argument, some of the serious problems that have been pointed out

    about the concept of intelligence. (Devlin et al 1997; Fraser and Fraser 1995; Jacoby and

    Glauberman 1995, Rose et al 1984; Gould 1981) Let‘s forget that the concept of heritability

    is a local concept and heritabilities cannot be compared between different populations. Let‘s assume that the notion of human intelligence is uniform, that intelligence can be described by

    a single number, that it is capable of ranking people in some linear order, that it is clearly

    measured by IQ tests, that it is genetically based, that it is immutable, and that there is a

    black-white differential in IQ. Let‘s also assume that those who do well on IQ tests tend to occupy high positions in academia, in the business world, and in politics. And, that those

    who do poorly on IQ tests tend to occupy lower positions on the social ladder. This means

    that there will be a correlation between IQ and wealth and social status: the higher your IQ,

    the better the chances you have to became wealthy and respected; the lower the IQ, the

    higher the chances you will be poor. Now, we have presupposed that IQ is immutable, and

    therefore special education programs to try to increase people‘s intelligence levels will not do

    the job. At this point, it seems that all is lost for those concerned with social equality.

    Nevertheless, this is the case only if we believe that not only intelligence but also our social context, value system, and political institutions are immutable. But such a


    presupposition is quite questionable. If such social factors are changeable, then there could be a few things that a society committed to social justice could do. For example, we could decide to pay better those who now occupy low-wage jobs (presumably because they are not smart enough to do any better); this might go a long way toward improving the lives of people who are less smart. Or, we could change the kinds of things we value most. Instead of valuing wealth, we could begin to value things such as the ability to care for others, to keep promises, to enjoy other people‘s company, to be concerned with our environment, or to be able to grow a garden. Presumably these traits would be distributed more or less equally across populations, and we could certainly do things to improve them. Or, we could also begin to realize that academics, CEO‘s, and scientists, did not get to where they are just by themselves, and just because they happen to be intelligent people. They would not be able to do much without the help of the people who pick up their garbage, clean their houses, or who harvest the vegetables and fruits they eat. Changing our value system and social institutions could certainly go a long way toward improving the lives of those who happen to be less intelligent. Those changes could go as far as to wrest importance from the fact that some people might be more intelligent than others. For example, imagine that tomorrow a new scientific study shows conclusively that the strength required to be able to become a first rate wrestler is hereditary. No matter how much one trains, no matter how many social programs we implement to help people to become better wrestlers, the result would be the same: those

    2who have the necessary genetic material will succeed, those who don‘t should give up. Now,

    it is unlikely that in our present social context this would cause too much of a stir. Why?


    Well, because in our value system wrestling does not rank too high: if you can and want to

    do it, fine; if you don‘t, there are plenty of good things, maybe even better things, that

    humans can do with their lives. Thus, in a social context in which intelligence is not seen as

    a necessary condition to have a meaningful life, those who happen to be less intelligent will

    still have chances. There might be many other traits they do have that might be valued by our

    society. If my argument is correct, genetic determinists‘ claims about intelligence make

    critical evaluation of our social institutions and values even more important and necessary.

2.B. Sex Differences.

    Biological explanations have also been prominent, and highly controversial, in matters of sex differences. (See Fausto-Sterling 2000; Tuana 1993) Although trying to

    explain the differences between women and men in biological terms is far from a new

    scientific approach, of late sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists occupy a top

    position in the field. (See Badcock 2000, 149-187; Cartwright 2000, 92-156, 212-260;

    Mealey 2000; Thornhill and Palmer 2000, 31-52; Buss 1999, 97-185; Wright 1994, 33-151;

    Daly and Wilson 1983, Wilson 1978, 121-148) According to these disciplines, the different

    physical constitutions of the sexes would provide different strategies for maximizing their

    fitness through the reproduction of the largest possible number of offspring. The

    psychological characteristics that make males effective reproducers are likely to be different

    from, and to some extent in conflict with, those that make females effective. If this is so, then

    genes that are successful in transmitting copies of themselves into future generations are

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