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Biological determinism

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Attempts to import biological theories into sociology, from social Darwinism of the 19th century to the race theories of the 20th, have a justifiably bad reputation.
—John Maynard Smith[1]

Biological determinism (often shortened to "bio-determinism" and used synonymously with biologism or genetic determinism) is a common fallacy that implies that biology does and should completely dictate human behavior or the behavior of a certain subset of humans, such as Black people or males. A frequent formulation is along the lines of, "Humans evolved to do this; it's natural." It is considered to be a form of pseudoscience or folk science.

It is a fork of both the naturalistic fallacy (it is true that humans have biological differences, therefore there ought to be a difference in outcome) and the appeal to nature (it's natural for us to behave like this, so it's desirable to behave like this) when used as a normative. When used as a positive it is just factually wrong.

A large amount of scientific evidence has indicated that a great many human traits are influenced by both genes and non-genetic influences — although some traits, such as certain genetic diseases, are entirely genetically-determined. The opposite extreme to biological determinism is cultural determinism or "blank slate"-ism — the idea that genetics has no role in an individual's life. As just stated, this is also incorrect. Usually, "blank slate" believers do not seek to deny the genetic determination of, say, eye colour — so in practice, "blank slate"-ism is about human behaviour and psychology.


Philosophical problems with biological determinism[edit]

On the moral level, this is a classic case of the naturalistic fallacy, the notion that what is "natural" is also what is moral or desirable. Biological determinism is also a violation of Hume's law; an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is." In this way, the problems with this approach should be immediately evident in the flawed reasoning underlying the idea.

However, the issue becomes more complex in the actual application of moral principles. Hume did not argue that facts have no bearing on moral decisions, but that facts needed to be combined with an ethical principle to be meaningful in making said decisions. Thus, a biological fact may have bearing on how we make decisions, but cannot ultimately decide our values.

The claim that biological determinism must not be true because of Hume's law itself is an argument from adverse consequences. No, 'is' does not entail 'ought'. What Hume's law actually suggests, assuming that some form of biological determinism is true, is that some biologically determined behaviors and drives may be morally wrong. It does not follow from this premise that those moral judgments are bad. But it does follow from this premise that certain forms of moral wrong are encouraged and sustained by biology.

If this is true, then biology sets limits on the practicality and enforceability of moral judgments that implicate biologically determined behaviors. There's a limit to how saintly we can ever become, set by animal nature. Certain moral ideals will always be only imperfectly achievable. People will never fully internalize these moral beliefs, and a constant level of violations can be expected. There will be ongoing costs of surveillance and enforcement to enforce morality on biology. This account resembles most human societies with formal laws and law enforcement; it is a tragedy but not a disaster. But this situation, if true, puts human perfectibility out of reach and is galling to the inventors of utopias.

By this logic, some critics of biological determinism have argued that the naturalistic fallacy may sometimes be wrongly invoked to avoid ethical considerations of biological research.[3] It can sometimes be difficult to parse out the crude nonsense of biological determinism from useful science. For example, people of sub-Saharan African descent are more likely to develop sickle-cell anemia, because a tendency towards malformed red blood cells was helpful in combating the rampant malaria.[4] It might be uncomfortable to acknowledge such biological differences, but to dismiss them or paint them crudely as racism ("Are you saying all Black people are sickly?") is not helpful.

Scientific problems with biological determinism[edit]

Statistical fallacies[edit]

On the scientific level, it often comes packaged with numerous fallacies common to the fields of biology, statistics, and psychology. Biological determinism usually involves the fallacy of division, i.e. the application of a statistical trend to pre-judge an individual case. The fact that Chinese people tend to be short,[5] however, does not mean that basketball superstar Yao Ming should hang up his shorts and go home. Other common fallacies generally revolve around misinterpretations of the biological science of the day.

A "gene for" x[edit]

The phrase "the gene for x" is often used in discussions of genetics. This terminology may be confusing for laypeople and is often misrepresented in popular science. It is rare that a trait will be monogenically determined. Take disease, for example. So far, only about two percent of diseases with a genetic component have been able to be linked to a single gene.[6] The expression of a genotype is usually described by a norm of reaction, i.e., the pattern of phenotypes produced by a single genotype due to environmental variation.[7] This environmentally induced variability is known as "phenotypic plasticity."[8] Thus, the phrase "gene for" is usually shorthand for "a gene that increases the likelihood of inheriting trait x" and not a statement that trait x is monogenically determined.[9]

In one particularly egregious case, literally thousands of papers were written over several decades about SLC6A4, a gene that an early analysis found had some correlation with clinical depression. These followup papers focused on all levels of analysis from effects on brain chemistry, to correlating single factors of depression indices, and associating interactions with life events to the gene's variants. A more thorough analysis in 2005 of a much larger population sample found no correlation whatsoever of the gene and its variants to depression. None. The evidence of every paper up to that point had found weak effect sizes, questionable, if technically significant p-values. And no one had questioned whether there was an effect to find at all. Nonetheless, papers continued to be published about it.[10]

Conflation of heritability with genetic determination[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Heritability

Arguments for biological determinism typically conflate the term "heritability" with genetic determination of a trait. Heritability is simply a measure of phenotypic variance within a population that is able to be explained in terms of genetic as opposed to environmental factors. This means that a heritability estimate will change when the environment is changed. Heritability estimates also apply only to a specific population in relation to its environmental context. So, for instance, if a trait is said to be 60% heritable, it means that 60% of the variance of the trait for the population measured can be explained by genetic factors in the context of the environment in which the measurement was taken. It does not mean that the trait is 60% genetically determined in all times and all places.[11][12][13] One particularly interesting case for how correlation with genetics should not be conflated with bio-deterministic effects is that the genes children do not inherit from their parents exhibit substantial predictive power about their life outcomes. Specifically, genes not inherited from parents have an apparent 30% effect size on lifetime education attainment.[14]

The myth of a "state of nature"[edit]

Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and more recently Robert Nozick have long envisioned humans as having lived in a "state of nature," free of culture, during pre-history. Discoveries in human evolution and paleontology have debunked such a notion. Lithic technology created by hominids can be found in the archaeological record dated to more than 2.5 million years ago. This demonstrates the beginning of cultural variation before anatomically modern humans even evolved.[15] Gene-culture co-evolution (also called dual inheritance theory) has also demonstrated the interaction of biology and culture. For example, lactose tolerance in humans originated independently with different genetic mutations that proved adaptive to societies that domesticated cows and other dairy animals.[16]

Recent advances in biology[edit]

Recent findings in a number of areas of the biological sciences have painted a picture of biology that is far more nuanced than biological determinism lets on. One area of research that has generated many new findings is evolutionary developmental biology, or "evo-devo" in geek-speak, which concentrates on individual development and phenotypic change in relation to evolution. Studies of gene regulation and expression in evo-devo conceptualize genes as "switches" that may be turned on or off at certain points in time due to environmental factors.[17][18] Epigenetic factors also play a role in inheritance. Epigenetic inheritance occurs in instances where something is inherited, usually patterns of gene expression, without any change to the underlying DNA or genetic structure. Inherited changes in DNA methylation and histone modification are mechanisms by which epigenetic inheritance can occur.[19][20][note 1] While the phenomenon of neuroplasticity is not a recent discovery and has been known since the first half of the 20th century, current neuroscientific and neurobiological research into this topic continues to chip away at oversimplified notions of hard genetic determination of cognitive capacities and behavioral traits, which has been dubbed "neurogenetic determinism."[21]


Research in cognitive science suggests that biological determinism may be in part the result of certain cognitive biases, psychological essentialism in particular. The posited biological "essence" of humans has shifted over time, from blood to genes. These "essences" are thought to be responsible for determining a person's "innate" potential or constituting the individual's identity.[22]

Excessive extrapolation[edit]

People exposed to news articles about how genes influence one trait are much more likely to falsely conclude that other traits are also heavily influenced by genes afterwards.[23] American political conservatives in particular will react to scientific information showing the unlikelihood of genetic differences explaining racial differences in IQ by increasing their belief that racial IQ disparities are driven by genetic factors.[24] The general term for this kind of negative reaction to new information is known as the backfire effect.



Before biology came into being as a natural science proper, forms of biological determinism existed but not in the same sense that the term is used today. In societies with hereditary social status or caste, blood was a common biological metaphor for social status, e.g., "royal blood".

European imperialism[edit]

The beginnings of modern biological determinism grew out of European imperialism and the slave trade. Early biological taxonomies, such as that of Carl Linnaeus, imported the theological notion of a Great Chain of Being in which people could be ranked hierarchically in a biological sense. This also often invoked polygenic theories positing different "races" of humans, which were believed to be separate species or subspecies.

The 19th century and the birth of social Darwinism and eugenics[edit]

Anatomy is destiny. Sigmund Freud[25]

In the early 19th century, theories of racial supremacy were increasingly rationalized through "science." Phrenology, especially the branch known as "craniology", i.e. the measurement of skull sizes, began to be used in what came to be called "scientific racism". Craniology was also used to rationalize sexist notions about the intellectual inferiority of women. Toward the mid-19th century, popular pseudoscientific works espousing unified theories of bigotry and social Darwinism became common. Social Darwinism, something of a misnomer, became popular before Charles Darwin even published On the Origin of Species. Herbert Spencer, for example, who was one of the best known alleged social Darwinists, borrowed pseudo-evolutionary Lamarckian ideas. Racist, sexist, and classist pseudoscience, however, reached its pinnacle with Francis Galton's formulation of eugenics. Galton advanced the position known as "hereditarianism", in which capacities such as intelligence were alleged to be entirely inherited, innate, and immutable.[26] With the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work and the growth of genetics as a field within biology, genetic determinism and eugenics became the dominant forms of biological determinism.

Inter-war and post-war period[edit]

Much of the Western world remained in the grip of eugenic ideas up until World War II, though eugenics programs began to lose traction just prior to the war as they increasingly came to be viewed as pseudoscientific. Anthropologists such as Franz Boas also challenged biological determinism. In addition, the Soviet Union and other communist countries suppressed or banned Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics in favor of the Lamarckian-derived Lysenkoism. The former ideas were denounced as "bourgeois pseudosciences." During the post-war period, eugenics and biological determinism in general fell out of favor due to their association with Nazi Germany. This also coincided with the rise of the New Left and general counterculture of the 1960s, which led to a further backlash against biological explanations of human behavior.

Resurgence of biological theories[edit]

The 1970s and 1980s saw a revival of a more watered-down biological determinism. Two main scientific factors in this resurgence were the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in the 1950s, and the application of ethological research to humans in the form of sociobiology starting with the 1975 publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The rightward shift in the political climate also contributed to this trend. Newer forms of biological determinism repackaged older eugenic and hereditarian ideas in newer, fancier jargon. Public debate over biological determinism erupted once again in the early 1990s with the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's neo-eugenicist tract The Bell Curve. Many theories coming out of the field of behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology have been accused of biological determinism.[27] However, with the completion of the Human Genome Project in the 2000s, much speculation in this arena has been written off as "genome hype".[28]

Contemporary biological determinism[edit]

Biological determinism is often characterized as a conservative phenomenon due to its association with social Darwinism. However, the truth is more complex than that. The left-wing has endorsed theories of biological determinism in a number of cases. The most notable instance of this is the promotion of eugenics among Progressive Era reformers, even including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.[29] Biological determinism is often used in service of bolstering prior beliefs.

These complicated roots are reflected in the modern era: while liberals are more likely to invoke deterministic explanations for sexual orientation and homosexuality, conservatives are more likely to do so for socioeconomic issues such as class.[30]

One of the proponents of biological determination in modern times, especially in regards to sexual selection, is a forum known as On the forum, it is often argued how much can be done to overcome your genetics. Some advocate plastic surgery. Others believe that one's genetics completely determines one's fate. Despite being considered part of the Manosphere, rejects the majority of the Manosphere pundits as denying biological determinism. Some of the things that the forum argues are attractive to women are things such as having a sharper jaw line and height.[citation needed]

Gender essentialism[edit]

For more information, see: Trans-exclusionary radical feminism

Gender essentialism was an issue that was discussed in the second wave of feminism around the 1960s to 1970s, it wasn't originally about TERF ideology but rather a claim often made that women end up in underprivileged positions due to biological reasons rather than social ones. If you remember any men saying "men are just more naturally inclined to be leaders", congratulations, this is why gender essentialism was challenged in the first place.[31] Gender bioessentialism is a common excuse used by TERFs to encourage the genocide of trans people, especially trans women; they believe that gender is based solely on biological phenotype and nothing else, and that trans women will always behave like men and trans men will always behave like women, despite that being disconnected from reality.

The fact that gender essentialist arguments often justify sexism is one of the reasons that TERFs aren't taken seriously as a real feminist position.[32]

In science fiction[edit]

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, citizens of the World State are born into a caste system; however the World Controllers cannot be predetermined from birth, most are secretly societal outcasts who nevertheless support the system because they believe that abandoning it will doom humankind to self-destruction.

As basis for hereditary social class and monarchy[edit]

Hereditary social class often presumes biological determinism. For those at the highest levels of the society, the monarchs, this is often through a mythical, typically divine ancestor, whose awe-inspiring legend serves as justification for lack of social mobility. In practice, many European monarchs were inbred due to cousin marriageWikipedia and marrying other close relatives — not exactly a recipe for genetic fitness.

See also[edit]

  • Discrimination
  • Environmental determinism, a theory that comes to similar conclusions, but is based on the physical environments that various human cultures formed in, rather than genes or biology per se. The two theories can be combined - some claim that the environment of different cultures caused different genes to be selected for or against over thousands of years, resulting in alleged genetic differences in average clannishness, intelligence, etc. between ethnic groups or nations.
  • Just world hypothesis
  • Noble savage
  • Other
  • Racialism
  • Eugenics

External links[edit]



  1. This is indeed something of a quasi-Lamarckian phenomenon, though natural selection is still in play in relation to these epigenetic factors, so it is not opposed to or a challenge to Darwinian evolution.


  1. Smith's review of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology in New Scientist, Aug. 28, 1975
  2. "Secrets of the Phallus", Scientific American. See also Jerry Coyne's Evolutionary Psychology for the Masses for a debunking.
  3. David Sloan Wilson, Eric Dietrich, and Ann B. Clark. On the Inappropriate Use of the Naturalistic Fallacy in Evolutionary Psychology. Biology and Philosophy, 18: 669-682, 2003.
  4. Wellems, Thomas, Karen Hayton, and Rick M. Fairhurst"The impact of malarial parasitism". Journal of Clinical Investigation 119:9.
  5. "Average Height by Country (Males <20 Years)",
  6. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb. (2005) Evolution in Four Dimensions, p. 58.
  7. Norm of Reaction, Steven Carr, Memorial University
  8. Douglas W. Whitman and Anurag A. Agrawal. (2009) What Is Phenotypic Plasticity and Why Is It Important? Ch. 1 in Phenotypic Plasticity of Insects: Mechanisms and Consequences (ed. D. W. Whitman and T. N. Ananthakrishnan), pp. 1-63.
  9. Are There "Genes For" Traits? John Dupre, BioNews
  10. The Atlantic, A Waste of 1,000 Research Papers, May 2019
  11. James B. Holland, Wyman E. Nyquist, and Cuauhtemoc T. Cervantes-Martinez. Estimating and Interpreting Heritability for Plant Breeding: An Update. Plant Breeding Reviews, vol. 22, 2003
  12. NC Manson. Presenting Behavioral Genetics: Spin, Ideology, and Our Narrative Interests. J Med Ethics 2004;30:601-604
  13. Robert C. Bailey. Hereditarian Scientific Fallacies. Genetica, vol. 99, nos. 2-3, 1997, pp. 125-133
  14. The nature of nurture: Effects of parental genotypes Science 26 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 424-428 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan6877
  15. Jonathan Marks. The Biological Myth of Human Evolution. Contemporary Social Science Vol. 7, No. 2, 139–165, June 2012
  16. Timo Vuorisalo, Olli Arjamaa. Gene-Culture Coevolution and Human Diet. American Scientist, Volume 98, Number 2, 2010
  17. Gerd B. Muller. Evo-Devo: Extending the Evolutionary Synthesis. Nature Reviews Genetics, Nov. 2007
  18. Turned On, H. Allen Orr, The New Yorker
  19. Jablonka and Lamb 2005
  20. What's Not In Your Genes, H. Allen Orr, New York Review of Books
  21. Steven Rose. The Rise of Neurogenetic Determinism. Soundings, no. 2, Spring 1996
  22. Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine. Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA. Psychological Bulletin, 2011, Vol. 137, No. 5, 800 – 818
  23. Morin-Chassé, Alexandre. 2014. Public (Mis)understanding of News about Behavioral Genetics Research: A Survey Experiment. BioScience 64(12): 1170–1177 DOI:10.1093/biosci/biu168
  24. Morin-Chassé, Alexandre, Elizabeth Suhay, and Toby E. Jayaratne. 2017. Discord over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race. Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 2(2): 260-299 DOI:10.1017/rep.2017.17
  25. Sigmund Freud,
  26. Hereditarian Ideology and European Constructions of Race, Encyclopedia Britannica
  27. Ronald F. White. Toward the "New Synthesis": Evolution, Human Nature, and the Social Sciences. Choice, Sep. 1998
  28. The Human Genome Project: Hype Meets Reality, Respectful Insolence
  29. Thomas C. Leonard. Retrospectives: Economics and Eugenics in the Progressive Era. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 19, Number 4—Fall 2005—Pages 207–224
  30. Suhay, Elizabeth and Toby E. Jayaratne. 2013. Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution. Public Opinion Quarterly 77(2): 497-521 DOI:10.1093/poq/nfs049
  31. Monique Wittig One Is Not Born A Woman 1980
  32. Charlotte Witt Vol. 23, No. 2, Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge, and Reality (FALL 1995), pp. 321-344 (24 pages)