Biological determinism

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"Biological determinism" is a term used in some literature[1] to describe the belief that human behavior is controlled solely by an individual's genes or some component of physiology.

In context

Gender assignment

Lynda Birke's In Pursuit of Difference argues that the discipline of human biology often presents "clear-cut differences"[2] between sexes with regards to chromosomes, genetics, and inheritance. However, while obvious physical differences between males and females exist and develop during puberty, hormonal differences are "not absolute".[3] There is a broad range of reproductive anatomy that doesn't necessarily fit the "gender definition" of male or female. According to the Intersex Society of North America,[4] "a person may be born with mosaic genetics", differing in their chromosomal configuration.


Though scientists are unsure as to whether homosexuality can be attributed to biological or social factors, LGBT rights activists have used the theories of biological determinism to support their cause. This has become a frequent point of dissension between pro-gay individuals and anti-gay individuals. Because a single cause has not been determined as the cause of homosexuality, many scholars theorize that a combination of biological and social causes determine one's sexual orientation.[5] Gay rights advocates believe that proving that homosexuality has a definite biological basis will prove it to be an unchangeable characteristic, thus allowing homosexuals to be protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.[6] One area of research that has been a valuable tool for gay rights activists has been Dean Hamer's work studying the "gay gene". Another researcher who worked with Hamer in finding evidence for biological influence in male homosexuality was Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist. In 1991, LeVay published an article in Science journal that detailed the difference in hypothalamic structures between homosexual and heterosexual men. His findings in studying the INAH-3 implied that "sexual orientation has a biological substrate".[7] Though his research showed that there was a biological basis in sexual orientation, LeVay cautioned against people interpreting his article to say that he found that homosexuality is genetic, emphasizing that he had not "locate a gay center in the brain--[as] INAH3 is less likely to be the sole gay nucleus of the brain than part of a chain of nuclei engaged in men and women's sexual behavior.[8]" He merely hoped that his work would serve as a catalyst in working towards finding more evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic.


Nina Jablonski, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, notes that while some people assert that race is a social construct, racist beliefs that one's skin color is somehow associated with one's moral, social, and intellectual characteristics persist. Although there is "no scientific evidence to support substantial differences between groups",[9] the belief that one's race makes one innately superior over another endures as an unavoidable influence in today's world.[10] Racism that stems from the belief of biological determinism appears to be detrimental to both parties, according to Jablonski. For the person with the racist ideals, it often plants the idea into their head that their own race is inarguably superior in every aspect and for the race being targeted, it puts into their mind the idea that they are somehow inferior, weaker, or less intelligent. This categorization “becomes determinative of personality and individual experience, and is itself a destination.[10]


The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, in his 1984 book Not in Our Genes, explored how biological determinism worked in the scientific and academic realm. He argued against the view that determinism had a logical basis in differences such as that men statistically have larger brains, are stronger, are more likely to hold higher positions in the work place, and are recognized more often for their academic contributions.[11] Lewontin argued that these statements for the most part went undisputed, and were viewed as being dependent on "underlying biological differences between males and females at the level of brain structure".[11] Furthermore, the paradigm that frames most of the research on sex differences in the field of brain and behaviour is inherently distorted, as it is based on the belief that hormones labeled male and female determine male-specific and female-specific behaviours in humans (and assumes those behaviours are different) calling hormones "male" and "female" is inaccurate and misleading, since both types are found in human males and females and since the hormones affect many things beside the development of secondary sexual characteristics.[12]

In "Nineteenth-century craniology: the study of the female skull", Elizabeth Fee, a historian of health and medicine discusses what many anthropologists of the 1860s viewed as a "social problem". In a time where the women's rights movement was viewed as a legitimate hazard, anthropologists of the Anthropological Society set out to undermine gender equality in the educational and scientific realm. They believed that women were assigned a specific role in nature and should never stray from that role. This role was motherhood, to which all women were "biologically destined."[13] The Anthropological Society emphasized that women were to wholly accept and embrace this role because motherhood was supposedly completely "incompatible with intellectual pretension, economic competition, or the vote."[13]


Sociobiology emerged in the 1970s with E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The existence of a putative altruism gene is debated. Kaplan and Rogers claim "Most sociobiologists agree that no such gene could exist for so long in a population as it would soon be lost because it would not compete successfully against the 'selfish' genes", and argue that "Genes and environment are not discrete opposites; they are both entirely integrated aspects of the developmental process." Consequently, genes can’t be "selfish", as "genes are expressed as biochemical processes; behavior is expressed by the whole organism."[14]

Social construction

Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin were interested in the way that biological determinism was present in science. They wanted to figure out how much of it was true, and how much of it was socially constructed according to certain beliefs and societal norms and determined gender roles within society. In their book Not in Our Genes they explore the possibilities of biological determinism. In their studies, they found some very interesting evidence that points to the fact that biological determinism in science is actually greatly affected by certain norms and tendencies within society. According to them, biological determinism is more constructed by society than by anything else. In a study that was performed on girls who were relatively "masculinized", biological determinists John Money and Anke Ehrhardt looked for ways to describe femininity that fit into the common definition of it, such as clothing preference or using makeup. Although these scientists believed that they were providing evidence to support their definitions of femininity within nature, they fell into the trap of labeling these girls according to Western social standards. As Lewontin points out, this experiment not only embraces the stereotypes that already existed, but it also “ignores the existence of societies in which women wear pants, or in which men wear skirts, or in which men enjoy and appropriate jewelry to themselves.”[15] Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin realize that biological determinism is clouded and, can in fact, be shaped according to the standards and norms of the society one lives in. Therefore, they choose to take a different approach. They decide to look at numbers and statistics instead of simple social experiments which can be easily misinterpreted. When they look at the numbers and statistics of men and women over the years, they discover that the differences between men and women are no longer as pronounced as they had been in the past. All of a sudden, there are more women in the work place holding higher ranking jobs. More women are excelling in areas that used to be male dominant, such as sports. And, even biologically, women are beginning to catch up to men in height while men are beginning to catch up in life expectancy. However, these changes are mostly visible in numbers and statistics, and social differences between men and women are still easily observed. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin argue, however, that these differences are imposed by society itself.

The standard model for the difference between sex/gender states that there is a clear-cut dichotomy between males & females, with no overlap. Because of this norm, we have a historically constructed viewpoint of “average”, meaning that society holds the idea that one must be either male or female, feminine or masculine. Anne Fausto-Sterling's article “Of Gender and Genitals”[16] discusses how this standard model shapes doctors’ ideas about gender and what is socially acceptable. She claims that (according to the standard model) “Bodies in the "normal" range are culturally intelligible as males or females, but the rules for living as male or female are strict”, meaning that we are culturally “trained” in believing that there is a sexual binary and anything outside of those confines is rejected.

See also


  1. Feminist Frontiers, Ninth Edition, by Taylor, Whittier, and Rupp; How Societies Work, Fourth Edition, by Joanne Naiman
  2. In Pursuit of Difference by Lynda Birke, 1992
  3. Laurie, Timothy (3 June 2015), Bigotry or biology: the hard choice for an opponent of marriage equality, The Drum<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Intersex Society of North America
  5. Paul R. Abramson, ed. (1995). Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture (1 ed.). University Of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 0226001822.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Brookey, Robert Alan (2001). Argumentation and Advocacy. 37. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Spanier, Bonnie (1995). NWSA Journal. 7 (1): 54. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Nimmons, David (March 1994). "Sex and the Brain". Discover Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Do Races Differ? Not Really, DNA Shows". The New York Times. 22 August 2000.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Jablonski, Nina (September 2012). "The Struggle to overcome Racism". New Scientist. 215 (2880): 26–29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lewontin, Richard; Steven Rose; Leon Kamin (1984). Not in our Genes. Pantheon Books. p. 132.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Spanier, Bonnie (1995). "Biological Determinism and Homosexuality". NWBA Journal.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 Fee, Elizabeth (1979). "Nineteenth Century Craniology-The Study of the Female Skull". Bulletin of the HIstory of Medicine. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 53: 417.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Gisela Kaplan & Lesley J. Rogers, Race and Gender Fallacies, Routledge, 2001
  15. Lewontin, Richard, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. "The Determined Patriarchy", Chapter 6, pp. 131–163
  16. Fausto-Sterling, Anne, "Of Gender and Genitals" in Sexing the Body, Of Gender and Genitals, Basic Books, 2000, pp. 44–77

Further reading