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Biological determinism refers to the idea that all human behavior is innate, determined by genes, brain size, or other biological attributes. This theory stands in contrast to the notion that human behavior is determined by culture or other social forces. Inherent to biological determinism is the denial of free will: individuals have no internal control over their behavior and dispositions, and thus are devoid of responsibility for their actions. Often implicit in this line of reasoning is the idea that because humans lack responsibility for determining their own lives, they are rightfully subject to the control of persons biologically determined in more socially acceptable ways. While few biologists fully believe in the idea of biological determinism, the theory has had cultural and political currency both in the shaping of human racial history and in current debates over the relative importance of our genetic qualities (i.e., nature) versus our socialization process (i.e., nurture) in determining our individual physical and behavioral characteristics.
Although the first traces of biological determinism are suggested in Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) proclamation in Politics that “there are species in which a distinction is already marked, immediately at birth, between those of its members who are intended for being ruled and those who are intended to rule,” (Baker, 1950, p. 14) it was Enlightenment thinking that ushered in the most robust and politically salient strains of this line of thinking. Using what would consistently prove to be a faulty scientific approach among racial determinists, Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) was the first to divide the human race into four categories (red, yellow, white, and black) in 1735. He also began what was to be a trend: racial determinism has never been a project of merely answering questions based in curiosity about human variety; it has always carried a belief in the characteristics associated with these racial categorizations. These beliefs, without fail, served to justify white supremacy in a political context.
Every method of determining a racial hierarchy within the human race has failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nonetheless, such supposed justifications have included measurements of brain size, stature, hair texture, genetic analysis of heredity, and many other measurable attributes. Perhaps the most well-known analysis of this type was Samuel Morton’s (1799–1851) Crania Americana (1839), a selective study of more than eight hundred skulls undertaken to try to prove the innate superiority of Caucasians. A similarly popular work, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853) by Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), makes an argument in regard to the inherent superiority of the same group, whom he identified as Aryans: “Everything great, noble, and fruitful in the works of man on this earth, in science, art and civilization, derives from a single starting-point, is the development of a single germ and the result of a single thought; it belongs to one family alone, the different branches of which have reigned in all the civilized countries of the universe” (Gobineau  1970, p. 113). In each examination of racial determinism undertaken by nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century scientists, it has been established that a racist bias at the outset had an impact on the scientist’s findings. Indeed, the history of biological determinism is a prime example of how science is a deeply political practice, despite its claims to universal knowledge.
At the same time, some scientists’ findings have been manipulated by interested parties in order to justify power relations. For example, even though Charles Darwin (1809–1882) refers to “civilized” and “savage” races as different from one another in On the Origin of Species (1859), he does so as an aside to his major argument that a long process of natural selection has differentiated humans from animals. This claim, however, did not alter the racial determinism of his contemporaries. In fact, his theory became something of a metaphor for those who practiced racial determinism. Darwin’s notion of struggle was generational, and depended on species’ interrelationships rather than isolation. However, social Darwinist thinking developed in order to argue that this struggle was actually among races. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), in particular, jumped on the idea of the “survival of the fittest” to argue not only for white racial superiority, but also for justification of segregationist policies and a lack of social support for nonwhites. For social Darwinists, science had provided a basis on which moral arguments could be made; to create any form of social support (be it charity or state support) for nonwhites would be to contradict the laws of nature. Many social Darwinists felt comfortable with the idea that the inequality of races was a pity, but something that would inevitably lead to the decline and disappearance of nonwhite, and implicitly inferior, races.
Eugenics policies were also based on the ideas of racial determinism. However, unlike the social Darwinists who wanted to allow nature to take its course, eugenicists were more active in their belief in white supremacy. Belief in certain human stock as superior to other human stock (in terms of intelligence, creativity, capacity for self rule, and many other areas) almost always took a racial or ethnic form. While the fascist policy of Nazi Germany is an obvious example of eugenicist thinking, the United States and many other nations have also enacted policies based on eugenics. In the United States, this has meant everything from sterilization of Jewish women upon immigration to the United States, antimiscegenation policies whose selective enforcement prevented white women from bearing children with black and Asian men, and sterilization policies affecting Puerto Rican women after Operation Bootstrap, among many other examples. Many race and gender scholars argue that current policies affecting reproductive rights for poor nonwhite women, while not overtly racist, carry implicit strains of eugenicist thinking.
Biological determinism, while proven to be scientifically invalid in terms of racial categorization and racial meaning, is still present in contemporary debates concerning sexual orientation, genetic research as part of the Human Genome Project, and various overt international policies, such as China’s Maternal and Infant Health Care Law. In fact, an unexpected resurgence of biological determinism has taken place since the mid-1980s, most noticeably with the controversial publication of Richard J. Herrnstein (1930–1994) and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). In their book, Herrnstein and Murray argue not only that intelligence is genetically heritable, but also that there are racial and ethnic differences that account for why whites are better off socioeconomically compared to blacks. More recently, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt argue in Freakonomics (2005) that there is a correlation between crime rates and access to abortion. More specifically, the authors argue that greater access to abortion has led to a decrease in the criminally predisposed population. Although a number of scholars, including a few economists, have disputed Dubner and Levitt’s claims, the controversial argument has received national attention and even political notoriety. One example of such political incongruity, based on Dubner and Levitt’s claims, can be witnessed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett’s comment in 2005 on his radio show Morning in America that “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”
While scientific research about hormones, genes, and other human biological characteristics warrants continuation, social scientists largely accept the idea that social rather than biological or genetic forces drive human choices, human diversity, and the various ways in which difference is both perceived and translates into issues of equality. Of the scholars whose work has stood in opposition to biological determinism, most notable are Ashley Montagu (1905–1999), a distinguished British anthropologist whose early writings in the 1940s and 1950s questioned the validity of race as a biological concept; Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), an American evolutionary biologist who refuted many of The Bell Curve’s claims in his 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man; and Joseph L. Graves Jr., an American biologist who argues that “the traditional concept of race as a biological fact is a myth” (Graves 2005, p. xxv).
- Baker, Earnest. 1950. The Politics of Aristotle. London: Oxford University Press.
- Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.
- Dubner, Stephen J., and Steven D. Levitt. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: HarperCollins.
- Gobineau, Joseph-Arthur de.  1970. Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. In Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau, ed. Michael D. Biddiss, p. 113. New York: Weybright and Talley.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. ed. New York: Norton.
- Graves, Joseph L., Jr. 2005. The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. New York: Plume.
- Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
- Montagu, Ashley, ed. 1964. The Concept of Race. London: Collier.
- Tucker, William H. 1994. The Science and Politics of Racial Research. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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