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Sociology: Attack On Biological Determinism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1739 words Published: 11th May 2017

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Biological determinism is a theory that tries to explain a person’s behaviour and other aspects of life in relation to his or her genetic makeup. This theory was encompasses the work of various prominent scientists such as Mendel, Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. Biological determinism abnegates the idea of the surrounding influencing the characteristics and behavioural aspects of an individual. For decades, this theory has been expounded in order to explain human behaviour comprehensively. Charles Darwin proposed heritable characteristics are determined through natural selection. Darwin was of the opinion that an individual would inherit the optimal characteristics that would ensure his survival or have a reproductive advantage. However, sociologists have strongly criticized the biological determinism theory because it does not take into account the environmental factors that affect behaviour (Banyard and Grayson, 2000). This article aims to discuss the concept of biological determinism and the opinion of sociologists on this concept.

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Biologists, when referring to different behaviours and roles of individual in the society, agree that a set of predetermined biological process determine these behaviours. Therefore, people think and act in different manner because they have different development in their brains (Velden, 2010). Biological theorists are of the opinion that the chromosomes and hormones in his body control brain cell formation. For example, the male in the society are equipped with both the Y and X chromosomes whereas the women only have the X chromosome. The Y chromosome in men leads to production of testosterone and other male hormones. Therefore, the male brain develops differently from that of a woman due to the difference in genetic material in the sexes. Biologists have gone further to use the differences in male and female brain to explain the difference in behaviours between the sexes (Kronfeldner, 2009).

Biological determinism operates on the assumption that all behaviours have particular causes, which are mainly genetic or related to biological functions and processes. Experiments done by Raine et al (1997) focused in the abnormalities found in the brain of murderers. Raine et al (1997) tried to find determine the common factor in murderers who had put a plea of not guilty by virtue of insanity. In the experiments, Raine et al (1997) looked at the PET scans of murderers and observed their cortical and sub-cortical brains. This experiment aimed to determine whether having brain dysfunction and abnormalities like schizophrenia are linked to the violent behaviours exhibited by the murderers. Raine’s experiment only focused on the innate factors while it ignored the external factors such as the environments that may control the behaviours of an individual.

Biological determinism also focuses on reductionism. Reductionism views individuals as divided into hierarchical groups. Therefore, the biological determinists view the inequalities between sexes, nations, classes as intrinsic rather than extrinsic (Carolan, 2005). Therefore, this theory portrays the picture that if one person is less successful than the other is, it is s not because of the contributing factors in the environment, but because the other person is intrinsically incapable of being successful. Biological determinists therefore believe that men in the society are dominant because they are intrinsically more aggressive and rational than women. According to this theory, biologically inheritable material and not the surrounding environment determine division in the society (Carolan, 2005).

It is the opinion of most sociologist that it is irrational to consider social classification as a genetic factor. This is because human from different divides and social backgrounds have been known to interact and live in similar classes. It is also logical to assume that the environment and the surrounding enforces some traits and leads success or failure of an individual in a society. It is from this mode of thinking that sociologists have formulated their theories on human behaviour and societal interaction. The external environment contributes greatly to the behaviour of a person in the society. In fact, according to sociologist the surrounding environment solely regulates behaviour.

Although biologists believe that only biological processes influence behaviours, there are various flaws in this perspective. Biologists tend to ignore cognitive behaviours exhibited by individuals in their theory of biological determinism. This is where sociologist criticizes the biological determinism theory. Sociologists believe that people exhibit different behaviours depending on the surrounding environment. For decades, the sociologists view on biological determinism has been that of disapproval. Most sociologists are uneasy with the biological determinism theory because it does not fully explain behavioural exhibition in people (Carolan, 2005). Sociologists’ disapproval of determinism is justifiable to a given extend especially when such disapproval is guided by ideologues that seek to validate, and rectify, the status quo of the biological determinism. The argument advanced by sociologist is based on the fact biological determinists have a fear that there is a probability of losing the genic capacity. Therefore, sociologists believe that looking very deep into the realm bio physiology to explain social phenomenon is irrational and rather irresponsible.

Social scientists such Skinner believe that all behavioural aspects of a person are determined by the external stimuli (Boeree, 2006). Skinner in his theory concluded that the concept of free will is just an illusion and a person’s behaviour will usually conform to his surrounding rather than be genetically determined. Skinner’s theory on behaviour was majorly based on operant conditioning. Skinner believed that an organism or a person operated in a specific environment with various stimuli that contributed towards specific behaviours. Therefore, skinner believed that when a person or organism is exposed to certain environment a stimulus known as the reinforcer contributed towards his repeated behavioural exhibition (Boeree, 2006).

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From Skinner’s theory, we can deduce that a behaviour followed by a reinforcing stimulus has a higher likelihood of being repeated or not. Skinner used the example of a rat in a cage with a bar or pedal. In case the rat presses the pedal or the bar, it leads to release of food pellet. Assume the rat is bouncing in the cage and accidentally presses the bar then the food pellet is released. Therefore, this rat will tend to repeat this behaviour not because it inherited such traits but because it there is a reinforcing stimulus in the environment (Boeree, 2006).

Watson John supports Skinner’s opinion by also showing that the surrounding environment governs an individual’s behaviour.  Watson assumes that behaviour exhibited by an individual can be correlated to other observable occurrences in the environment. In Watson’s opinion, there are usually definite occurrences that precede and follow exhibition of certain behaviours. Watson’s behaviourism theory attempts to explain the relation between stimuli in the environment and an individual’s response (behaviour). Watson like Skinner borrowed his idea on behaviour from Pavlov’s conditioning experiments. Watson believed that individual learned through stimuli substitution and similarly behaviours in individual are exhibited according to change in stimuli rather than genetic predispositions (Winfred, 2010).

Watson became one of the many sociologists to oppose the mentalist concept. He believed that the early neuroscientists were very ignorant on how the nervous system and the brain functioned. At that time, biological determinism was widely accepted as an explanation to behavioural exhibitions. However, Watson changed this opinion by using contiguity to explain how organisms learned. Watson’s theory assumed that emotions were complex expression of classical conditioning and therefore complex behaviours only came about due to combination of recognisable reflexes (Winfred, 2010). Like Skinner, Watson believed that repeated activity strengthened the learning process and the learning process is what creates the difference between human behaviour. Despite the fact that Watson’s position did not explain the concept of human learning, his theory is currently considered as one of the pioneers to learning sciences.


In the society, the most obvious feature is inequality. It is obvious that some individuals have great wealth while others are poor Different groups explain these inequalities according t their preferred theory. Biological determinists believe that inequality in the society is as a result of the intrinsic factors. Sociologists on the other hand believe that social differences are as a result of extrinsic factors. Both these arguments are passionate and provide interesting view into the human behaviour and social organization.Sociologists try explaining the relation between human beings and their surrounding while neglecting the concept of biological determinism. However, socialism alone cannot explain some behavioural patterns neither can biological determinism. It is necessary for both the sociologist and biologists to move towards a relatively dynamic theory, which is open to interrelation of theories from both sides of the divide. No matter how much the sociologist may wish to stick to their theory, they cannot evade the complex nature of biological organisms. As much as the environment influences the behaviour, it is necessary to note that chemical reactions and hormonal changes also influence how organisms and human behave. Currently, it would be absurd to support only one theory due to the evidence available. Social theories provide their arguments, which are as compelling as the arguments provided by the biological determinists. It is therefore irrelevant for sociologist to wage war against biologists since booth theories have weaknesses, which can be augmented if the theories are combined to form a grand theory that explains human behaviour.


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