Biological determinism

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Biological determinism (also biologism) is the interpretation of humans and human life from a strictly biological point of view, and it is closely related to genetic determinism. Another definition is that biological determinism is the hypothesis that biological factors such as an organism's individual genes (as opposed to social or environmental factors) completely determine how a system behaves or changes over time.

Consider certain human behaviors, such as having a particular taste in music, committing murder, or writing poetry. A biological determinist would posit that such behaviours, and personality traits in general, are mediated primarily by biological factors, such as genetic makeup. An extreme variant of biological determinism might assert that an organism's behavior is determined entirely by biological factors, and that all of these factors are innate to that organism e.g. DNA. By asserting that biological factors are the primary determinants of behaviour, biological determinism implies of course that non-biological factors, such as social customs, expectations and education, have less or no effect on behaviour. Similarly, a variant of biological determinism might consider non-innate biological factors, such as the biological aspects of an organism's environment, to have a lesser effect on the organism's behaviour than innate biological factors.

Biologists sometimes regard a charge of biological determinism as a straw man, as there is currently no support for strict biological determinism in the field of genetics or development, and virtually no support among geneticists for the strong thesis of biological determinism. However, individual scientists may disagree as to the role that genetic and environmental factors play. Modern genetics, in large part, is concerned with studying the dialogue between genes and environment.

In terms of the nature versus nurture debate, biological determinism is approximately analogous to the "nature" argument, and social determinism is similar to the "nurture" view-point. However, the tendency to see biological determinism and social determinism as polar opposites is rather misleading. Indeed, the two theories are similar in that they postulate that behaviour is, at least to some extent, pre-determined. In this sense the opposite of the biological and social determinism theories, could be said to be that of randomness i.e. the theory that there are no factors which influence behaviour (c.f. free will). The key difference between the theories of biological and social determinism lies in their appraisal of the extent to which a variety of factors may influence behaviour.

A critique has been developed against the uncritical use of biological determinism or biology as ideology (something that has been termed "biologism"). The most famous book on the subject is Richard Lewontin's Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (1991). Lewontin argued that while traditional Darwinism has portrayed the organism as passive recipient of environmental influences, a correct understanding should emphasize the organism as an active constructer of its own environment. Niches are not pre-formed, empty receptacles into which organisms are inserted, but are defined and created by organisms. The organism-environment relationship is reciprocal and dialectical.

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