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:
|RESPONSE CATEGORY||% RESPONSES|
|Not At All Important||23%|
|RESPONSE CATEGORY||% RESPONSES|
|Not At All Important||30%|
|RESPONSE CATEGORY||% RESPONSES|
|Not At All Important||13%|
|RESPONSE CATEGORY||% RESPONSES|
|Not At All Important||1%|
|RESPONSE CATEGORY||% RESPONSES|
|Not At All Important||42%|
Of these, LIFE GENES produces the greatest correlations with the others. The greater the importance individuals place on genes in determining fate the more likely they say LIFE SOC, LIFE CHANCE, and LIFE GOD are "very important." And who is most likely to see genes being important or very important? We find:
Belief that individuals' fate is decided by God also produces some interesting relationships. Consider, for instance, the relationship between this belief and whether or not Americans believe that "human beings developed from other species of animals." Click here to see how these beliefs hang together in the minds of political liberals, moderates, and conservatives.
Cross-nationally we can see considerable rates of agreement/disagreement with the statement "the course of our lives is decided by God." So what is the relationship between believing that "we each make our own fate" and "the course of our lives is decided by God"? In this figure, the United States is compared with countries that are predominantly Catholic, predominantly Protestant, mixed Protestant and Catholic, Catholic countries that were formerly Communistic, and formerly Communist nations. Observe how as disagreement that "we each make our own fate" increases there is generally increasing agreement that "the course of our lives is decided by God." However, rates intriguingly vary across this grouping of countries.
According to Richard Dawkins (click here for more information), the ultimate goal of the game of life is the immortality of one's information. This information is of two forms: the genetic, the programming of one's DNA, and the memetic, the units of mental information individuals pass on in their culture. "We are survival machines," he writes in The Selfish Gene, "robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
And "just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."
Evidence of possible genetic factors shaping the direction of individuals' lifelong interests and behaviors mounts. For example, Alexander Graham Bell, who accidentally invented the telephone while working on ways to help the hearing impaired, came from a family that was preoccupied with matters of speech and sound. Both his mother and his wife were deaf. His paternal grandfather wrote a book on phonetics and developed a cure for stammering, which was taught by his father and uncle. To detect such intergenerational legacies, psychologists employ genograms to map the multigenerational proclivities of family members. Now, with the rapid developments in genetic engineering, the beginning of the 21st century bears certain eerie similarities to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century (visit the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement at the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory).
It is worth noting the sad history of attempts to link cultural differences and social deviance to genetic "imperfections." In the early physiognomic literature on deviance, for instance, Cesare Lombroso reported in the 1870s how criminals had inordinately long legs in comparison with rest of their bodies, strange skull shapes, absence of a proper chin, ingrown ear flaps or big, protruding ears. They were, he argued, throwbacks to earlier stages of human evolution. At the beginning of the century appeared The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit, a vile work by David Starr Jordon, the first President of Stanford University. Indeed, the American Eugenics Movement was to underlie the Nazi's "racial purity" political campaign, which was to culminate in the Holocaust. (Check out Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.) And during the Nixon presidency, Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker proposed to the Health, Education and Welfare Department that all American children be psychologically tested at age six with ink blots to detect criminal tendencies. The "hard core" of these "future delinquents" would be sent off to appropriate "camps" where they would learn more socially accepted behavior patterns.
Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.
In many ways, social psychology begins with the body. According to Enid Schildkrout in Body Art as Visual Language, "if the impulse to create art is one of the defining signs of humanity, the body may well have been the first canvas. ... Body art is a visual language. To understand it one needs to know the vocabulary, including the shared symbols, myths, and social values that are written on the body." Consider the following findings:
Few cases provide better evidence of how biological matters determine social fates than how social roles are universally allocated and personality traits inferred from individuals' genitalia. Are the gender roles occupied by men or women the product of nature or nurture? Is the inferior status of women (a 1990 survey found only 22% of Americans believing women have a better life than men) a natural inevitability (which is why Freud, who promoted anatomical destiny, is the bane of feminists) or is it the consequence of male oppression?
In The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life (Free Press, 1991), Eviatar Zerubavel observes how "Only two centuries ago, the mental gap between the sexes was so wide that women were perceived as "closer" to animals than to men and granting them political rights seemed as ludicrous as extending such rights to beasts." (p.65) Nowadays the search for distinguishing characteristics of the sexes continues, from differences in brain structures, biological drives (e.g., testosterone's aggressive side effects), social drives (are women's drive to achieve more a function of fear of failure than desire for success?), language (Deborah Tannen speaks of "genderlects" in You Just Don't Understand, socialization differences, and the sexes' ways of knowing (the assumption that women's ways of knowing differ from men's has recently led to curricular reforms throughout the country). In 1991, when noting how out of touch male politicians are with their constituencies, the late Barbara Jordon argued that "women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have, [and] does not have it because he cannot have it. He's just incapable of it."
And then there's the matter of sex. Perhaps in no other instance do we find clearer example of the difficulties of our dual nature as both near-angel and beast than in the case of human sexuality, whose drive supposedly overwhelms rational thought. This activity we share with animals is endowed with considerable meaning: Every civilization has produced distinctive ideas concerning the nature of sexuality and its relationship to religious, philosophical, economic, political, legal, familial, and educational systems. (Click here for a collection of international and state laws regarding matters of sex.) From society's perspective, the issue is how to channel such powerful urges into socially acceptable and "functional" outlets. It is a curious anomaly of modern American life how little historical and social scientific perspective we have on the topic of sexuality given our supposedly sex-obsessed society (and the number of sites here in cyberspace dedicated to the topic). Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization, sexual intercourse occurs worldwide more than 100 million times daily, resulting in 910,000 conceptions and about 350,000 cases of sexually transmitted disease.
How would you explain the decreasing age of Americans' first sexual experiences--despite widespread STDs, AIDS, and the Bush Administration's abstinence programs? According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report released May 2003 (n=1,800), half of American 15-to-17-year-olds have engaged in sexual relations. Biologically, sexual maturity has come earlier; over the past century and a half the age at menarche has declined by three-quarters of a month per decade. Social maturity, on the other hand, comes later. According to the 2002 General Social Survey, most Americans believe that one is not grown up until the age of 26. The 2000 Census revealed over 4 million Americans aged 25-34 live in the home of their parents.
And what about homosexuality? To what extent is it a product of nature or nurture? Current perceptions are a legacy of the nineteenth century, when sexual activities were first used to define the people who engaged in them. As Michel Foucault observed, "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." Instead of being something that people did homosexuality became who they were: a different biological creature than heterosexuals.
The greater the social control the greater the body control expected. The scope of this maxim extends beyond controlling biological processes (e.g., either hiding them, as in the case of copulation or excretion, or, as in the case of eating, covering them with etiquette) to the clothing that we wear. Dress is a language. Throughout history, clothing fashion has been used as means for differentiating people, reaffirming the differences between elites and non-elites, between children and adults, and between men and women. In medieval times, clothes denoted one's place in a strict, inherited social hierarchy.
In the 1990s, hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested by morals police for dress code violations. In 1995, Navy Admiral Jeremy Boorda committed suicide, perhaps to remove any chance of scandal surrounding his wearing of two Vietnam combat decorations. The White House pushes for uniforms in the public schools. And nearly 25 million American workers wear some type of uniform (or "career apparel").
Another family of deterministic models of human behavior (including environmental psychology, ethology, cultural geography, and behavioral ecology) focuses on the defining role of the natural environment. Does, for instance, increasing summer heat lead to increasing levels of assaults and rapes, as some psychological biometeorologists have found? Why are people most likely to make their wills in the Spring? Why are accidental death rates the highest in the Southwest? Why are homicide rates greatest in the South? Can the ecological model observed in nature (e.g., matters of territoriality, niches, etc.) be applied to human affairs?
Resources on color psychology:
Resources on regional psychology
The Midwest Mind
Animal behaviors are either instinctive or learned. Much is random and therefore isn't really "behavior": a flagellating protozoa isn't "looking for" food. When social scientists speak of human behavior they mean purposeful and meaningful activities. It is implied that humans are aware of their own activities and those of others. In other words, human behaviors are learned rather than instinctive. Instincts, which are behaviors that are performed without learning, evolved as adaptations to specific situations. But adaptive success comes at a cost: Instincts make organisms "puppets" of their environment. With the stimulus of rain a frog croaks, just as the rooster crows with the stimulus of dawn. Neither the frog nor the rooster had any choice in the matter; their behaviors were simply determined by the environment.
In higher-order species like mammals we find fewer instincts and, hence, greater behavioral flexibility and environmental adaptability. Mammals are engaged in a constant process of adaptation to avoid extinction. Humans have the fewest instincts; instead, we have differing genetic propensities and capacities to respond to our surroundings. For us, therefore, environment remains a potent determinant of behavior.
Social scientists are increasingly appreciating the extent of the interactions that take place between nature and nurture. The presence of genes does not by itself ensure that a particular trait will be manifested. Genes require the proper environments for innate tendencies to be fully expressed. These "proper environments" consist not only of natural surroundings but also of individuals' social and symbolic milieus.
Culture is a system of ideas about the nature of the world and how people should behave in it that is shared--and shared uniquely--by members of a community. It involves the logico-meaningful domain of social life: the cognitive-knowing, the normative-acting, and the expressive-feeling dimensions of life. In one sense, culture is a system of canned recipes--cognitive and behavioral habit-sets or algorithms, if you will--for dealing with others, enabling individuals to behave without having to make calculated decisions. During times of considerable cultural change these recipes no longer "work," leading to the emergence of subcultures whose recipes do.
Distinguishing nature vs. nurture in terms of determinism vs. free will is probably erroneous when one considers the extent to which enculturation patterns minds, selves and behavior. Recent evidence indicates that culture actually shapes the hard-wiring of the human primate, a creature largely born bereft of instinct and known for its extreme plasticity. Consider the news of 1995 reporting that if you are going to learn how to play the violin you had better do it before the age of 12: Physiological analyses revealed the brains of those who played string instruments in childhood are different from those who did not (research by Thomas Elbert and associates, reported in the October 13, 1999 issue of Science). The fact that different synaptic patterns are laid down in musicians and non-musicians may be direct evidence of the relationship between human tools and physiological design. Musical instruments were perhaps among the first tools of our species, whose brain changed as we played away.
One contemporary version of the predestination-free will riddle involves the
degree to which intelligence is the product of genetics as opposed to
socialization environment. The only way to really find out is to
control one and let the other vary, such as examining the fate of identical
twins raised in different homes. This, in fact, is precisely what is being
studied in the Twins-Reared-Apart Project at the
University of Minnesota (Dr. Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., principal investigator). They find that approximately 70% of the variation in IQ can be attributed to genes.
Ultimately, it is probably misleading to say that X% of behavioral trait is due to genes and (100-X)% is due to nurture/environment. The key is to understand the interactions between the two. See Ari Berkowitz's "Our genes, ourselves?"
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