In the summer of 1994 Time magazine's cover story featured a scientific tale about the genetic underpinnings of human infidelity. In case you missed the punch line, it goes something like this: Individuals' most basic drive involves insuring that their genetic codes survive death, that motivations to make a billion bucks or to be the most wonderful person in the world are really attempts to attract the "right" person with whom to transfer genes into the next generation. Men and women are by nature supposedly fairly promiscuous apes. As is the case among species where males' body size is greater than females,' men are innately polygynous (87% of the 1154 known human societies allow multiple wives) with the more "successful" males broadly spreading their genetic code (the last Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, sired more than 1,000 children). Women, on the other hand, limited by their ability to generally bear but one child a year, will do whatever it takes to guarantee the survival of their offspring, including tricking supportive men into raising the another male's child.

This is but the latest controversy surrounding humans' bestial origins and traits, an issue underlying the gap between the "humanities" and the "sciences." Remember the public outcry against Darwin's thesis--as recently as 1993, more than half the American public still believed that the idea of humans developing from earlier animal species was probably or definitely not true! Nowadays its successor, sociobiology (along with such variants as psychobiology--see Paul Kenyon's "Biological Bases of Behaviour" page--and evolutionary psychology) haunts the social sciences as it tilts the nature-nurture equation of human fate toward natural explanations.  See Al Cheyne's (University of Waterloo) Psychology, Culture & Evolution website.  

What are the implications of truly believing that one's behaviors are due to uncontrollable genetic impulses? Caught philandering or stealing? Instead of saying "the devil made me do it" I guess you can now argue that "it runs in the family." But what happens when people are no longer held accountable for their actions? Is society even possible if its rules cannot be observed? This issue underlies not only philosophical debates over free will and determinism but also the current trend toward our becoming a no-fault no-risk culture (Did you get caught shooting at the President? Argue temporary insanity.  For an inventory of some of the most frivolous lawsuits see the Stella Awards.) Click here for PBS's A Science Odyssey series on how twentieth century's theories of human behavior have alternated in the primacy given to nature and nurture.

What does free will mean to you? How much free will do you think you have? In the wake of the 1997 suicides of members of Heaven's Gate in Rancho Santa Fe, California, the largest mass suicide in the United States, the question was again raised. Were these 39 people acting on their own volition or were they brainwashed by their wild-eyed leader, persuaded by a sustained psychological regimen, or perhaps ensnared in some lethal groupthink dynamic? Click here to see international rates of agreeing that "we each make our own fate." What, if anything, happens when people believe that their fates are predetermined, whether by genes, their environments, or by God?

Such questions are far from academic musings. The role of genetics versus environment, of nature versus nurture, underlie such public debates as gender roles, homosexuality (see PBS's Frontline edition on "Assault on Gay America"), and individuals' proclivity toward violence. Society depends upon people being responsible for their actions (hence it does not punish those who commit deviant acts but who either didn't know better, were mentally ill, or had no alternatives to act in non-deviant ways). And from the perspectives of individuals, those who sense having no control over their lives, who believe that there is no relationship between what they do and how things turn out, run the risk of becoming fatalistic or victims of learned helplessness.

Citation for international survey:

International Social Survey Program (ISSP). 1994. International Social Survey Program: Religion, 1991 Computer file. Koeln, Germany: Zentralarchiv fuer empirische Sozialforschung producer. 1993. Koeln, Germany: Zentralarchiv fuer empirische Sozialforschung/Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research distributors.

According to the 1993 NORC General Social Survey, we have the following glimpse of Americans' beliefs: