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Biology and Ideology
The case against biological determinism

From Darwin to Dawkins views on evolution tend towards controversy. In this article Neil Bennet takes a look at current debates in the field.

Biology is a political battleground – more so than the other natural sciences, where a political discourse only really exists around applications of technologies (such as hydrogen bombs, nuclear power, Agent Orange and DDT) and even then only usually because of the biological impacts of those technologies – that is their effects on human or animal health and the ecosystem.

Of course the same holds true for biology, with the greatest public and media interest in scientific news understandably surrounding threats or perceived threats to public health – whether variant CJD, avian influenza, the MMR vaccine or genetically-modified foods.

However the biological sciences have an altogether more fundamental political nature. It is the branch of the natural sciences expected to tell us about ourselves – about the human being as a species and our place in the world.

It is in this context that various conceptions of what comprises “human nature” have been fiercely debated, and various apparent attempts to understand or explain human (and animal) behaviours have been have put forward, and ideological battles fought.

However those who look to science to answer questions of a personal, social or political nature have instead mostly ended up reinforcing the mainstream ideologies of the era, and in an age when science has replaced religion as the ultimate intellectual authority, it has become a powerful ideological weapon of the ruling class.

Since Darwin

Ever since Charles Darwin first published his Origin of Species in 1859, the relationship between the process of “natural selection” Darwin described in nature has been closely intertwined with human social and economic structures. The phrase “survival of the fittest”, often attributed to Darwin, was in fact first used by political theorist Herbert Spencer in his The Principles of Biology in 1864, before being adopted by Darwin for later editions of Origin. Spencer used the phrase to draw parallels between the struggle for survival in nature and competition between individuals in the capitalist economy of Victorian England, and Darwin appropriated the term in order to avoid possible anthropomorphic confusions from the word “selection”.

Both Darwin and Spencer were strongly influenced by the writings of the economist Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population (originally published in 1798) first inspired Darwin’s theory. Malthus’ widely-read essay argued that growth of human populations far outstripped the available food supply, and that laissez-faire capitalism was necessary for distributing what food there was. The 6th and final edition (1826), which Darwin would have read, softened its message somewhat by proposing mass emigration to the colonies as an alternative to watching the poor die of starvation caused by economic recession.

Of course this is not to undermine the importance of Darwin’s work or of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Rather it is necessary to note the social and political contexts in which scientific theories arise, particularly in order to understand the way those theories can be abused or misinterpreted.

One of the main problems with early Social Darwinism (as Spencer and others came to be associated with) was the confusion over the word “fitness”. In the aspects of Darwin’s writing dealing with the evolution of plants and animals, the term almost exclusively refers to reproductive success – that is the number of reproductively viable offspring of an individual organism or group of organisms. In more modern terms reproductive success is defined as the passing of an organism’s genes onto the next generation, so that they too can continue to pass those genes on. However both Darwin himself and the social theorists who appropriated his theories used “fitness” in the human context to refer to economic and social success – despite this being greatly at odds with evidence concerning reproductive success, as often poorer families had a great many more children than wealthy families.

On the basis of this confusion a new and influential philosophy was born. The association of Darwin’s theory of evolution with Spencer’s Social Darwinist doctrine was heavily promoted in the popular press in the United States in particular, with the help of funding from John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison – contributing to the rejection of Darwin’s theory by many, and (with a tremendous irony) helping create the layer of right-wing fundamentalist Christians still so politically powerful today.


As well as linking so directly to systems of capitalist economics and class domination, from a very early stage Darwin’s theory of evolution was heavily racialised. Just as social stratification was caused by competition for resources between individuals, so competition between races would result in the dominance of the “fittest” race. Thus Darwin wrote in 1839 (cited by Desmond and Moore, Darwin, p267):

“When two races of men meet they act precisely like two species of animals – they fight, they eat each other, bring diseases to each other &c, but then comes the more deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organisation, or instincts (ie intellect in man) to gain the day.”

Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton founded the social philosophy of eugenics towards the end of the 19th century. He introduced the term in his 1883 book Inquiries into human faculty and its development, arguing for intervention to encourage selective breeding of those with “desirable” family traits.

It is well known that this idea of intervention to “improve” human hereditary traits put forward by advocates of eugenics, together with the racialised interpretation of Darwinism had a massive and terrible impact on the history of the 20th century. The appropriation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by the Nazis led to the holocaust, in an attempt to maintain a “pure” German race – the superiority of which was a central tenet of Nazism and a background justification for much of Germany’s role in the Second World War.

The end of the war and the worldwide horror at the atrocities committed in the name of racial purity led to a long period where biologically-determinist accounts of human nature were sidelined in the popular consciousness.

A new synthesis?

This period of mainstream quiet came to an end in the mid-1970s with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology – The New Synthesis (1975). The title makes reference to the so-called “modern synthesis” of the 1930s, in which Darwinian evolutionary theory was combined with Mendelian genetics to bring about in a large part our modern understanding of the genetic mechanisms of inheritance and evolutionary change. The model produced was further confirmed by the discovery in the 1950s of the structure of DNA in the famous experiments of Watson and Crick, illustrating the molecular basis of genes and inheritance.

Wilson’s new synthesis purported to apply evolutionary theory to social behaviour, both in animals and in human beings – and to explain a large range of behaviours in terms of Darwinian fitness and evolutionary advantage. The sociobiological idea reached a much larger audience the following year with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976).

The “big idea” of the sociobiologists was to attempt to explain supposedly “altruistic” behaviour in animals and humans with reference to evolutionary advantage. The first attempt was termed kin selection, an idea seemingly based on some off-hand remarks by British Marxist biologist JBS Haldane and formalised into a mathematical model by William Hamilton in 1964. Haldane’s now-famous comments were that based on the frequency of shared genes between related individuals, he ought to be willing to sacrifice his own life for those of two brothers, or of eight cousins.

Of course it is necessary to make some assumptions in order for this idea to be taken seriously as way to explain aspects of animal and human behaviour. Primarily it requires the gene-centred view of evolution, later popularised by Dawkins, to be accepted as absolute. That is, selection occurs only at the level of the gene, and that individual organisms (whether human beings, animals, plants or bacteria) are simply “lumbering robots” or “survival machines”, whose only purpose is to serve as transient vehicles for the “selfish replicators” that are our individual genes.

The conceptual leap necessary to accept this argument does a great disservice both to the study of evolutionary theory and the richness and diversity of the way the living world has evolved. Genes do not, and cannot, function in isolation. They are not, as some popular-science writers would describe them, controlling “Master Molecules”. Rather genes and their protein and RNA products only work in the context of the cellular environment – which includes the products of all the other genes of the organism, working in concert. Selective pressures can act a variety of different levels, including individual genes, groups of genes, the entire genome of an organism, the living organism itself (remember genes can only exert their influence via the organism, and the whole organism is the only thing in nature that can really be said to be capable of “self-replication”), as well as groups of organism, populations and entire species. While genes are the basic units of inheritance, they are not the basic units of evolution – as there is no such thing.

Moreover, an organism’s behavioural characteristics and other qualities are determined by more than just their genes. The process of development and the active interaction of the organism with its environment also have profound effects on how they are. Individuals are the product of unique, contingent and continuous interactions between genes and the broadly-defined environment. The supposed dichotomy of genes vs. environment, or “nature vs. nurture”, is a false one – the extent to which an individual’s genes have an impact on a given characteristic is absolutely dependent on the environment: the two cannot be separated, and it is silly to try and do so.

The second major assumption of the sociobiologists, necessary for their biologically-reductionist, ultra-Darwinist outlook, is what has been termed “adaptationism” or “pan-adaptationism”. In Darwinian evolutionary theory an adaptation is a characteristic or feature of an organism that has been specifically favoured by natural selection. A common example is the opposable thumb in human beings, allowing precise gripping and leading to the development and use of tools. The pan-adaptationists start from the assumption that all the characteristics they observe in nature are likely to be adaptations, and will have conferred some kind of survival advantage in that organism’s evolutionary history.

This viewpoint was roundly criticised in a famous paper by Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and population geneticist R.C. Lewontin entitled The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme (1979). They drew an analogy with spandrels (or pendentives) in Renaissance architecture, which are curved structures above an arch, often decorated in beautiful detail. An adaptationist argument would seek to explain these panels as part of the architectural design, providing a surface for decoration or for conveyance of religious messages. But of course these structures are not optional, but are necessary components of a dome supported on arches. Gould and Lewontin argue that many presumed adaptations, rather than being selected for could instead be the necessary consequence of other features of the organism.

The title of the paper also referred to the Voltaire character Pangloss, alluding to his ridiculous optimism: “for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end”. Another common comparison is with Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories about “How the elephant got its trunk” and “How the camel got his hump”.

Of course Darwin himself understood that adaptation by natural selection, while a very important mechanism of evolution was not the only mechanism. Genetic drift (genes in a population changing in the absence of selective pressure), chance and historical contingency (what if that meteorite hadn’t killed off the dinosaurs?), structural limitations and “laws of form” also have a hugely significant role to play in shaping evolutionary history. British neuroscientist and popular science writer Steven Rose also emphasises the importance of considering the active role that organisms play in determining their own destiny, through the seeking out and transforming of their environments.

To return briefly to the subject of altruistic behaviour, kin selection as a mathematical model – if we are generous and grant the underlying assumption that living forms exist primarily for the perpetuation of their “selfish” genes – is theoretically quite compelling. However, as Steven Rose writes in his book Lifelines (1997, 2001), the experimental support for kin selection was lacking, and the empirical evidence has been very-much open to alternative explanations. As such, another evolutionary explanation for altruistic behaviour was proposed, known as reciprocal altruism.

A common example used to illustrate this idea by popularisers of sociobiology (and later evolutionary psychology) is that of the drowning man. If you see a man drowning and risk your own life to rescue him, then if you were ever in the same situation he would be obliged to do the same for you. But as Lewontin points out in his book The Doctrine of DNA (1993), the last person you’d want to rely on to rescue you is someone who themselves had themselves almost drowned before!

Together with individual advantage, sexual selection and kin selection, reciprocal altruism could potentially account for just about every type of behaviour imaginable. But only if we accept the reductionist, genes-eye-view conception of evolution on which it is based as an accurate depiction of reality and one which sufficiently accounts for the huge variety and complexity of human and animal behaviours that we observe in the world around us. Instead we can avoid assuming that altruistic behaviour must itself be a Darwinian adaptation encoded in an animal’s genes, and rather regard it as a consequence of a more general social and empathetic instinct, which allows for all sorts co-operative and social behaviour. Of course for no species is co-operative behaviour more important than human beings.

Evolutionary psychology – new name, same difference?

Sociobiology almost immediately faced strong opposition, particularly from the left (including Gould and Lewontin). Critics traced the intellectual lineage from Social Darwinism, and argued against the sociobiologists’ theories from both scientific and political perspectives. The sociobiologist discourse also had an emphasis on differences in behaviour – particularly relevant to the debate over IQ testing and difference between races.

Progress both political and scientific undermined the claims of racist biology. Lewontin (1973) noted that 85% of genetic diversity occurs within populations of one race, rather than between races, and as such the concept of race does not have any real biological meaning.

The association with these debates however led to sociobiology falling out of mainstream fashion by the 1980s – however the intellectual trend was soon re-captured in the new discipline of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s.

Some proponents came from a background in various fields of psychology (rather than the animal behaviourists like Wilson, primarily responsible for sociobiology), however many of the researchers and popularisers were the same as before – particularly in the UK, where evolutionary psychology was very much an import from the United States (see Hilary Rose in Alas, Poor Darwin (1999)). [Rose and Rose also note that evolutionary psychology “is a particularly Anglo-American phenomenon” and that “other European countries, notably France, have been less overwhelmed by Darwinian evolutionary theory.”]

Richard Dawkins himself (as a highly-visible public supporter of both) in an interview with The Evolutionist stated that evolutionary psychology was “rebranded sociobiology” (cited, Ibid). For the most part he was right; however the new field did steer something of a new course.

Firstly there was a new focus on what evolutionary psychology theorists considered to be human “universals”. This departure was understandable, as the new discipline wanted to distance itself from the controversies such as those over race associated with earlier forms of biological-reductionist reasoning which tended to focus more on differences.

However what this has invariably led to is a focus on one particular, supposedly “universal” difference – the difference between men and women – and so all the complex aspects of sex and gender relations. So we have evolutionary psychologists Thornhill and Palmer claiming in a popular book that rape is an evolutionary strategy designed to make sure the male’s genes survive to the next generation. Their case is based largely on examples of “forced sex” in other species – ignoring the fact that in a great proportion of rape cases in the human world, the victim is not a fertile female.

A second demarcation, related to the first, is that evolutionary psychologists don’t attempt to explain modern behaviour as necessarily of current evolutionary advantage – rather they postulate that most of the universal traits of human behaviour evolved in the Pleistocene (that is from ~1.8 million to ~12,000 years ago) and that they may persist despite having outlived their usefulness. While theoretically plausible, there is little evidence to support this theory. We simply do not know whether significant evolutionary change might have occurred in the human species since that time. What it does allow for however is for what is fundamentally biased guesswork taking on the mantle of science. So we have evolutionary psychologists telling us that women prefer pink or red shaded colours because they had to be good at foraging for berries while the men were out hunting, or that in general we all prefer art to be landscape paintings that include prominent bodies of water, as it was useful for us to live near water as our brains were evolving in the African savannah. Such “explanations” rely entirely on their own, internal, circular logic – and just simply ignore any contradictory evidence (such as our knowledge from history that red and pink have only recently become associated with women and femininity, and that this change in culture will influence the results of any survey) or more sensible cultural or social explanations for phenomena.

Another change is that unlike earlier genetic determinists, evolutionary psychologists tend not to argue that observed behaviours can be traced directly to specific gene products, but rather insist that a “mental architecture”, itself encoded by gene expression, gives rise to certain types of behaviour and mental function. It is this idea that is pushed most heavily by Steven Pinker, one of the most prominent exponents and popularisers of evolutionary psychology. He likens the “mind” (Note: distinct from the brain in Pinker’s description) to a Swiss-army knife, with various different modules for speech, face-recognition, “cheat-detection”, etc. – all having evolved semi-independently in order to endow us with these various functions. It is through this mechanism that evolutionary psychology continues the narrative of linking human behaviours and social phenomena directly to Darwinian impulses. However there isn’t any real evidence to support this idea of evolved modularity in our understanding of how the brain works. Rather neuroscientists’ understanding of localisation of different types of brain activity is dependent on its development, and stresses the complexity of the brain as an integrated organ.

Biology as Ideology

The general lack of empirical evidence and the obvious cultural and contemporary-historical biases of the Just So theories of evolutionary psychology have made it something of a comedic bête noir amongst philosophers of science, and their individual proclamations have little impact on the day-to-day practice of the biological sciences in general (though the reductionist ideology is very much in the mainstream of evolutionary theory, and the popular conception of genes as all-important Master Molecules has had profound effects on the direction of research and funding).

However in the realms of popular science writing and science reporting in the mainstream media, biological reductionism undoubtedly holds sway. The dramatic and simplistic claims of evolutionary psychology make for good news stories, and authors like Dawkins, Pinker and Matt Ridley are amongst the most widely-read pop-science writers after Stephen Hawking. Similarly the reductionist concept of the gene has taken on a powerful cultural role through film, television and the popular press – escaping the confines of popular science and news.

For the increasingly secular modern society, religion has lost its power as a force of social legitimation. Science in general has come to take the place of religion as a source of transcendent truth, something external to ourselves that we can believe in unquestioningly. But science is in fact very much a social institution, created by people living and working within the broader society and economy, and as such reflecting and reinforcing the dominant values and views of the society that creates it. The bastardised, reductionist, mainstream understanding of genetics and evolution has taken on part of the role once occupied by religion, that of an ideological weapon, legitimising the current social order and undermining those whose interests it is in to challenge and struggle against it.

Every time we read a story in the newspaper telling us an “evolutionary” explanation for some behaviour, or watch a TV documentary about how scientists have discovered a “gene for” homosexuality, or aggression, or criminality, or read a book about how “it’s all in the genes”, our conception of ourselves as passive recipients of our genetically-encoded fates is reinforced. The idea that genes cause behaviours, and that society is the collection of all our individual sets of behaviours, lead inextricably to the conclusion that the structures of society are just the indirect consequence (or extended phenotype, as Dawkins might term it) of the human genome – that we have the society we deserve, and there’s no point in trying to do anything to change it. It robs us of our agency, and inspires inaction.

Of course our genes do matter in determining how we are. Most importantly they allow us to develop large, complicated brains – capable of all sorts of different behaviours. It is this plasticity that has made human beings able to adapt to so many different circumstances, and has allowed us to come so far.

As Lewontin concludes in The Doctrine of DNA (1993):

“History far transcends any narrow limitations that are claimed for either the power of genes or the power of the environment to circumscribe us. Like the House of Lords that destroyed its own power in order to limit the political development of Britain in the successive Reform Acts to which it assented, so the genes, in making possible the development of human consciousness, have surrendered their power both to determine the individual and its environment. They have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that unique form of experience, social action.”


Darwin, Charles. Origin of Species (1859)

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene (1976)

Gould, S.J.; Lewontin, R.C. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 21;205 (1161), 581-98 (1979)

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A factor of evolution (1902)

Lewontin, R.C. The Apportionment of Human Diversity, Evolutionary Biology 6:381-397 (1973)

Lewontin, R.C. The Doctrine of DNA – Biology as Ideology (1993)

Lewontin, R.C.; Rose, Steven; Kamin, Leon J. Not in Our Genes (1985)

Nelkin, Dorothy; Lindee, M. Susan. The DNA Mystique – The Gene as a Cultural Icon (1995)

Pannekoek, Anton. Marxism & Darwinism (1912)

Rose, Hilary & Rose, Steven (Eds.). Alas, Poor Darwin – Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology (2000)

Rose, Steven. Lifelines – Life beyond the genes (1997, 2001)

Thornhill, Randy; Palmer, Craig T. A Natural History of Rape (2000)

Wilson, E.O. Sociobiology – The New Synthesis (1975)