Commentary Magazine

Is It All in the Genes?

To pick up a newspaper these days is to be struck by the pace of developments in the biological sciences. The deliberate manipulation of genes which produced the world’s first cloned animal, a sheep named Dolly, is only the most sensational case in point; every week, it seems, a new gene is discovered that controls some aspect of human personality, from depression to aggressiveness. Clearly, just as we are living through a revolutionary age in information technology, we are living through a revolutionary age in biology. Indeed, the two revolutions are mutually reinforcing: the genome could not be decoded or even recorded were it not for the advent of extremely powerful computers, while information specialists have increasingly looked to biological models for their understanding of how complex systems evolve and organize themselves.

From the point of view of society, enormously difficult questions are raised by this revolution, and already a presidential commission is studying both the legal and the ethical issues arising from human control over the genome. This makes it all the more striking that in most academic treatments of society and politics, today’s biological advances are considered virtually out of bounds for discussion. But there is a history here, rich with implication.



For much of the 20th century, the social sciences have been premised on Emile Durkheim’s “rule” that social phenomena are to be explained primarily by reference to other social facts. In this understanding, human behavior, whether in the economic and political arena or in the private realm of sex and the family, is “socially constructed”: that is, the result not of underlying biological tendencies but of prior human agency. To take an example from contemporary life, if there are today relatively few female Asian-American longshoremen, this (according to the social-constructionist view) has little or nothing to do with questions of hormones or physique; rather, “society” has defined cultural stereotypes that push particular people into certain roles and away from others. In other words, it is “nurture” rather than “nature” that best explains human behavior.

As the historian Carl Degler documented at length in In Search of Human Nature (1991), the social-constructionist view needs to be seen against the backdrop of a still earlier development in the social sciences to which it was in many ways a reaction. By the end of the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution had come to be applied to social questions, most famously by the philosopher Herbert Spencer in England but also by a host of American sociologists who used it to explain differences among human groups. Their theorizing was, to a large degree, overtly racist. The Princeton psychologist Carl C. Brigham, for example, in A Study of American Intelligence (1923), drew on IQ tests administered by the U.S. Army to demonstrate that immigrants from Southern Europe were intellectually inferior to those from Northern Europe, and that blacks were more dull-witted yet. The notion that the world’s races could be stratified in terms of evolutionary development—an idea popularized in Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race—helped provide grounds for passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, which established strict quotas for new immigrants based on their density in the existing American population.

It is striking, in retrospect, how many respectable intellectuals and academics from that period, and from every political perspective, took seriously the threat posed to the American gene pool by racial intermarriage and immigration. Up until it was finally discredited by the Holocaust, the eugenics movement had powerful adherents in the United States, including such “progressive” figures as Margaret Sanger, the champion of birth control.

The debunking of this kind of crude Darwinism was largely the work of a single man, Franz Boas, a German-Jewish anthropologist who immigrated to the United States toward the end of the 19th century. From his perch at Columbia University, Boas trained an entire generation of anthropologists. One of his most important pieces of research was a study, funded by the federal government, undermining the notion that America’s different “races” manifested different levels of intelligence as reflected in the shape of their heads. Patiently taking measurements over a ten-year period, Boas and his team of researchers demonstrated that the head shapes of all immigrant groups tended in time to converge—which at least in this case proved, he argued, the primacy of environment over race.

Boas is justly famous as one of the fathers of modern cultural relativism, an intellectual disposition that can trace deep roots to Nietzsche. In The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), Boas maintained that people in so-called primitive cultures were no less mentally developed than people in contemporary Europe or America. Where ethnocentrists and the ignorant spoke freely of cultures as being “higher” or “lower,” in fact they were only different.



It was left to Boas’s most famous students, the anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, to popularize these notions. Not only, they taught, were there few universal cultural truths, but human social practices were highly malleable. Thus, Ruth Benedict spent much of her career highlighting the extreme cultural variation across societies, a variation which had not, she argued, arisen from natural causes. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) set forth the instructive ways in which sexual roles and practices on a South Sea island diverged from the moral rules prevalent in North American society. To Clifford Geertz, perhaps the best-known of a later generation of anthropologists, it was an axiom that, since no natural standard existed by which cultural practices could be judged, scholars could only catalogue the world’s complex systems through a process of “thick description.”

Of course, those who preached cultural relativism often adhered to their own covert form of cultural stratification, except that it reversed that of the social Darwinists: for the cultural relativists, the less developed a society, the more likely it was to be superior to our own. Therein lay the origins of what might be called the Samoa trump card, whereby any generalization about human behavior could be topped by saying, “Well, what about society X?”—X being any remote, exotic, and hypothetically less repressed society than America of the 1950’s or early 1960’s. Margaret Mead, in particular, was as ideological as the social Darwinists of the turn of the century, only hers was an agenda of feminism and sexual liberation in which facts contradicting her hypothesis were often conveniently ignored.

Social scientists today are still very much in thrall to the twin ideas that culture—that is, a given community’s complex of norms, rules, values, habits, and identities—is socially constructed, and that our own culture—Western culture—has much to answer for by comparison with others. Such is the logic at the heart of contemporary multiculturalism, which can trace its intellectual parentage (if not all of its political alliances) to modern anthropology’s celebration of non-Western cultures and diversity. Similarly with the conviction that the behaviors produced by culture are almost limitlessly plastic: a visitor to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association is regaled with papers and sessions whose common premise is that traditional markers like male/female or gay/straight are simply arbitrary social constructs, out of which individuals can and must struggle to achieve new (and presumably more satisfying) identities.

According to the sociologist Sherry Turkle in Life on the Screen, the “post-modern” environment of cyberspace offers a particularly apt vehicle for such activity, as individuals interacting in chat rooms or “multi-user domains” can assume multiple new identities at will. Computer-generated avatars allow pimply fourteen-year-old boys to masquerade in the anonymity of the Internet as twenty-six-year-old sex queens: social construction for the masses.



The only problem with the idea that identities are socially constructed and that human behavior can be molded at will is that it does not appear to be true. Slowly but surely, evidence has been accumulating over the past generation to the effect that human behavior is strongly influenced by genetic inheritance. Biology and culture interact in complex ways, limiting the freedom with which human identities can be manipulated either by individuals or by societies.

Two streams of biological research have contributed to the new understanding. At the “micro” level, molecular biologists, neuroanatomists, and neurophysiologists have focused on the chemistry and physical wiring of the brain. Psychological attributes—lust or fear, the ability to appreciate music, even the ability to make moral choices—have been localized in various sectors of the brain. Different types of rage, for example, are controlled by specific regions of the hypothalamus, which integrates signals from the brain’s limbic system and stimulates the adrenal gland to produce the hormones of stress: adrenaline and Cortisol. Huge advances have occurred in the study of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which in turn have yielded treatments for mental disorders like schizophrenia. And beyond the brain, molecular biologists are closing in on the human genome, which is being systematically mapped, classified, and analyzed.

One of the casualties of this stream of research has been Sigmund Freud. Many of the behaviors he described in terms of the psyche can be shown to result instead from chemical imbalances, and are thus readily treatable through drug therapy. To proponents of the new biology, Freud’s analytical apparatus—the superego, repression, the Oedipus complex, the death wish—now seems hopelessly primitive, like describing the workings of a personal computer without knowledge of semiconductors and software.

Meanwhile, at the “macro,” or behavioral, level, we have seen a major revival of Darwinian analysis in the field of ethology, the comparative study of animal behavior. Where cultural relativists posit an endless proliferation of behavioral possibilities, evolutionary biologists in the 1960’s and 1970’s came to be struck instead by the consistency of certain patterns across different species. Probably the most famous example is the greater selectivity shown by females as compared to males in the choosing of sexual partners. This tendency, it turns out, is not only universal across virtually all known human cultures, but also characterizes the vast majority of animal species, with a few known exceptions like the phalarope and the Mormon cricket.

Sociobiology, as this field first came to be known after Edward O. Wilson’s famous 1975 book of that title, provides an evolutionary explanation for these consistencies. Both sexes are driven by the need to “get their genes into the next generation,” but females make a relatively larger investment in their offspring. They are especially vulnerable during pregnancy and while raising their young, and much more limited than males in the sheer number of offspring they can produce. Female psychology has thus evolved differently from that of males, whose genetic interests are better served by the more indiscriminate propagation of their seed.

To be sure, critics, including some scientists, have subjected the findings of the sociobiologists to fierce attack. To some, like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, sociobiologists, lacking access to the actual fossil record, are guilty of assuming that a particular characteristic has an adaptive significance merely by virtue of the fact that it exists. And sociobiological explanations for psychological phenomena have been derided as more ephemeral still, since even fossils could give no clue to the evolutionary lineage of a given trait.



The more important problem faced by sociobiology has been ideological. In contrast to 19th-century social Darwinists, most evolutionary biologists today do not think that race is particularly important from a genetic point of view. But the same cannot be said of gender, which, they tend to believe, shapes not just physiology but psychology as well. Not only do males and females follow distinct reproductive strategies, they also respond to different sets of emotional drives. These drives, according to the sociobiologists, account for the fact that although a very large number of human societies have practiced and legitimated polygyny (men having multiple wives), very few have practiced polyandry (women having multiple husbands). The same drives explain why female jealousy tends to focus less on the actual infidelity of the male than on the loss of emotional support; why the enjoyment of pornography, like the hiring of prostitutes, is almost exclusively a male rather than a female pursuit; and so forth.

This idea—that sexual roles are influenced by biology rather than “society”—put the early sociobiologists directly in the path of an oncoming freight train named feminism. In academic circles, sociobiology was savaged as a new form of fascism, an apologia for the “patriarchy,” a defense of the sexual status quo. Every trait that the biologists argued had an evolutionary significance or hereditary basis, the feminists argued was due to the persistence of a socially constructed pattern of male domination. If it was nearly impossible to find a single society that was a true matriarchy, or in which women were more violent than men, or in which older women routinely married younger men rather than the reverse, that was only because males everywhere and at all times enforced rules advantageous to themselves.

Since the 1970’s, sociobiology has gone underground and changed its name, reemerging as evolutionary psychology or evolutionary anthropology. By now, however, the consistencies in animal behavior that have been uncovered by this line of research have become too striking even for the forces of political correctness to repress. The spectacular success of the “micro” stream in showing the genetic basis for many physiological and psychological outcomes may also have contributed to making it plausible that genetic determination might extend to society as well. It seems very likely that the micro and macro streams will converge in the next generation, when a complete mapping of the genome will allow biologists to link both individual and social behaviors directly to specific genes.

Finally, in addition to results at the micro and macro levels of research, biology offers something else of potential value to social scientists, whether or not they choose to pay any heed. Biological systems are much more complex than any machine designed by man, and yet they are not the products of deliberate design or control. The behavior of a swarm of bees, for example, is not directed by the queen or any other member of the hive; it simply “emerges” out of the relatively simple rules programmed into each individual bee. Similarly, the fantastically complex termite mounds of Africa, complete with forms of plumbing and air conditioning, are created by extremely small creatures with very limited neurological systems. Throughout nature, large and impressive structures emerge out of the interaction of individuals following relatively simple rules of behavior. At places like the Santa Fe Institute, biologists using powerful computers now model this interaction to show how, in “complex adaptive systems,” unexpected patterns of highly organized behavior can evolve out of seemingly small changes in the rules.

Interestingly enough, this biological “metaphor” has spread beyond its laboratory origins to become a fad in certain management-consulting circles, with firms like Ernst & Young or Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics Institute advising companies on how to organize themselves “biologically,” that is, with a minimum of top-down controls. In the information-technology industry, the Internet is often seen as an example of an “emergent system” that has grown through decentralized adaptation rather than through the centralized planning characteristic of a traditional telecommunications company. Believers in free markets have also been drawn to the image of complex adaptive systems, since markets themselves can be seen as resource allocators whose social efficiency emerges, unplanned, out of the interaction of individual economic agents pursuing narrower agendas of their own. In short, the biological metaphor offers a suggestive way of conceiving the entire sphere of human activity.



What, then, does the new biology tell us about culture and society—and, just as important, what does it not tell us? To begin with, it should be clear that there is no simple transition from a biological “is” to a social “ought.” Our current genetic structure evolved into roughly its current form during the hundreds of thousands of years that human beings were living in hunter-gatherer societies. As Lionel Tiger has pointed out, our basic emotional structure is geared to dealing with near kin and social groups of no more than 40 or 50 people, and yet we live today in large, anonymous cities with populations in the millions, pay allegiance to impersonal laws, and obey uniformed strangers. Nor does biology dictate a clear set of moral rules: while there may be a biological basis for social virtues like love and reciprocity, biology is also the seedbed of rage, jealousy, aggression, and violence.

In fact, what the new biology tells us is that the capacity for culture—in the sense of shared behavioral rules passed down socially rather than genetically—is itself a constituent part of human nature. This is good news, even for social constructionists. The ability to create new rules in response to changes in the environment, and to pass on these rules through language and learning, may not be quite so uniquely human as was once thought—“cultural” behavior has been observed in other primate species, too—but that ability guarantees greater variability among human groups than among species lacking the same capacity. Paradoxically, therefore, the new biology leaves individual free will and personal responsibility intact: a creature as dependent for survival as man is on learning, intelligence, and consciousness can obviously shape his own destiny to a considerable degree.

Nevertheless, biology also tells us that human nature is not infinitely plastic, which is why a man of the Left like Stephen Jay Gould is so hostile to evolutionary psychology. The limits of social engineering are nowhere clearer than in the realm of gender and family relations. Despite being told by a generation of ideologues that they are psychologically no different from men, women continue to show, on the whole, a greater orientation toward children than do their male counterparts; by the same token, despite the “feminization” of masculine mores, men continue to be responsible for the overwhelming proportion of crimes and aggressive behavior. The new biology suggests the reason why these differences persist: they are rooted in genetics, rather than in a “sexual identity” that is merely socially constructed.

Not that the new biology sanctifies any particular form of family structure; these structures vary across cultures, across time in Western societies, and across species. What it does suggest is that kinship in the human species has a biological function: the protection of the mother-child relationship through social rules that direct male economic resources to that end. And it suggests that we tamper with that function at our peril. From the standpoint of the new biology, it is to be expected that once women can earn their own incomes and control their own reproductive cycles through birth control, men will regard this as a liberation and, following their own “reproductive strategies,” seek out other sexual and emotional opportunities. It is similarly to be expected that once we fail adequately to socialize young males to control their tendencies toward violence and aggression, we are, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan has put it, “asking for trouble.”



When it comes to the political organization of society, the new biology harbors a number of interesting implications. If genes (or the sequences of genes that determine a particular behavior) are selfish, and survive because they possess qualities that allow them to pass on copies of themselves to successive generations, it follows that human societies created on the opposite premise—namely, that men and women possess unlimited reservoirs of altruistic feeling which can be manipulated toward some larger end—will collapse on themselves within a couple of generations. Such, indeed, is the experience of Marxism in our century. If anything, the new biology would thus seem to lend intellectual support to classical liberalism, which operates on the premise that man in the state of nature is an isolated and selfish individual, coming together with other individuals in markets or civil society primarily as a means to satisfy his wants and needs.

But this is not quite right, either, since in the new biology the “individuals” in question are genes, or gene sequences, which can be shared among different organisms. The British biologist William Hamilton developed in the 1960’s a theory of “inclusive fitness” to explain the apparent altruism exhibited by social organisms like bees and wasps, whose behavior had stumped Darwin himself for many years (and delayed publication of The Origin of the Species). According to this theory, altruism tends to be proportional to the number of shared genes, which would help explain the emotions that biological kin feel toward one another. But individuals may also develop altruistic feelings for strangers: in the judgment of Robert Trivers, another biologist, reciprocity—returning a favor for a favor and a harm for a harm—is not a learned behavior but something hard-wired into the human genome since, after all, it ultimately improves an individual’s long-run chances of survival.

Sociability, in other words, like the capacity for culture, may well be a constituent part of human nature, oriented not (as Marx believed) toward the species in some abstract way but rather toward kin, friends, and those with whom one has exchanged favors. While specific moral rules may vary from society to society, the capacity for moral choice itself, and the emotions like guilt and shame that are connected with their violation, are not learned solely through cultural transmission but are genetically inherited. What a culture can do is to build on this “moral sense,” as James Q. Wilson has called it, in order to reinforce altruistic tendencies and to control other biological drives toward aggression and violence.



At this point the reader may be left wondering why we need a new science to tell us the utterly commonsensical truths that we are better disposed by nature to family and friends than to “society” as a whole; that men and women are different; and that moral rules have to supplement natural instincts.

The answer, as we have seen, lies in the politics of science. As a result of their misuse by racists, imperialists, and ultimately the Nazis, biology and the very concept of human nature were progressively purged from the received understanding of how society works and, no less crucially, should work. Unfortunately, however, the banning of biology did not immunize us from totalitarian horrors; on the contrary, the view that human nature is limitlessly plastic helped lead to the monstrosities of rationalistic social engineering attempted by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. One might thus say that the barbarisms of our century can be located between these two diametrically opposed views of the relationship of biology to society.

We will have made some progress, then, if social theories and social policy alike can come to be based on the truly commonsensical view that human behavior is shaped by some combination of biology and environment, and that nature and nurture interact in complex ways that are not always (or even usually) predictable by social scientists. Unfortunately, the pendulum as it swings back may not come to rest in the center. Biology, rather, seems poised to achieve a new status as the dominant explanatory factor in human behavior. As with cultural relativism before, all sorts of purposes, from the commercial to the political and the ideological, stand ready to be subsumed under its banner.

One can see this already in the reporting on genetic research, where a gene that has been shown to have some small but statistically significant correlation with obesity is described confidently and sweepingly as a “fat” gene. One can see it in the way that proponents of gay rights swing in one breath from passionate espousal of the view that homosexuality is an “identity” constructed by society to passionate espousal of the view that homosexuality is wholly genetic in origin and wholly outside the control of the individual. And one can see it in a book like Frank Sulloway’s recent Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, in which a genetically programmed response to birth order becomes the central factor explaining whether historical personalities are “creative” (good) or supporters of the status quo (bad).1

Just as people excuse themselves today by saying that “society made me do it,” tomorrow they are likely to plead that “my genes made me do it,” and to find support in the expert testimony of a host of biologists armed with charts and statistical regressions. As knowledge of the genome improves, as gene therapy for specific disorders becomes possible and eventually widespread, as genetic engineering moves from cotton and sheep to human beings, it seems all but inevitable that the hubris of biologists will increase commensurately. Biology’s return out of the wilderness is in many respects a welcome thing; but what new and unexpected political and social calamities will arise from it we can only guess.


About the Author

Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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