Is biology destiny? Do our genes determine who we are and what we’re capable of? What does the mere idea that they might mean for politics and policy? A lot, it turns out.

In Killer Apes, Naked Apes, and Just Plain Nasty People, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, anthropologist and St. Lawrence University professor emeritus Richard J. Perry examines the origins and persistence of biological determinism—the idea that human behavior is set by our biology and very difficult, if not impossible, to change. He explores how the concept has made its way into popular, academic, and political discussions and debates, and looks at what that means for public policy, race relations, scientific research, and more.

Hippo Reads Politics and Economics editor David Moscrop asked Dr. Perry about his research into how we think of and discuss biology and politics, and what that means for the Western democratic world and the citizens who live in it.

DM: Why have certain ideas about “human nature”—for instance, racial or genetic determinism—gained popular uptake? What is it about the idea that certain human attributes and behaviors are fixed that appeals to the public?

RP: It’s not clear to me whether the prevalence of ideas about biological determinism lately

has arisen from a general public interest, or if it’s is more a product of the media. There’s certainly some feedback involved, of course. But for some reason, some of the media seem especially eager to embrace these ideas. The New York Times, which we might expect to know better, has been at the forefront of this popularization over the past decade or so. Maybe it’s because these alleged “breakthroughs”—claims to have found a gene for this or that form of behavior—begin as surprising news, but then become part of conventional wisdom even when it later turns out that they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

But then of course racism, that particular form of biological determinism, has always been at the core of the American tradition—an aspect of the very formation of the society. Destruction of Native American communities and slavery were there at the beginning. And history has shown us over and over again that it doesn’t take much for it to bloom like toxic mold whenever the conditions are favorable. We seem to be in one of those times again.

I think there may also be some appeal in simplistic explanations for complex phenomena. As we all know, the actual causes of most human behavior and social conditions are complicated, and they usually don’t lend themselves to simple explanations. Social issues and problems can imply an uncomfortable sense of collective social responsibility. On the other hand, if it’s all pretty much built-in biologically and we can’t do anything about it—hey, why bother?

DM: Why do contemporary natural or biological accounts of human behavior seem to appeal to conservatives more than liberals?

RP: Of course, the term “conservative” covers a lot of territory. Some people who identify themselves as conservative reject the idea of biological evolution altogether, which I suppose would rule them out as biological determinists in the usual sense. But if we start from the view that a fundamental conservative position is that things shouldn’t change, then the idea that they can’t change—that they’re somehow fixed or built-in—is bound to be appealing. Most liberals and progressives, on the other hand, would argue not only that things can change, but that many of them should.

DM: Conservatives are often cast as being anti-science. But the same conservatives are also accused of relying on biological accounts of human behavior to advance arguments in support of their policy agenda—for instance, on women’s rights, immigration, and education. How do you explain this tension?

RP: I think there’s a tendency for people to want to claim scientific authority to support ideas that appeal to them in the first place. This doesn’t mean that these claims, or the “science” behind them, are always valid. So I guess I would hesitate to categorize conservatives in general as “anti-science,” although we do have plenty of outstanding examples of that. The climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists come to mind. And of course, we have the “I’m not a scientist” crowd in Congress. That claim would apply to of most of us—which is why it’s a good thing we do have lots of people who are scientists and who’re willing and able to share their findings with the rest of us.  

In this culture, “science” has a certain mystique. That’s particularly ironic, since science may be hard to understand at times, but in many ways it’s the opposite of mysticism. It deals with reality, as we’re able to perceive it, and it’s constantly subject to questioning and testing against data.  It’s not a magic word that conveys immunity to critique or to questioning. Yet in a lot of public discourse, the claim that something is based on “science” can become a sort of protective coloration, a camouflage. How many times, in the course of some debate, have we heard the rather complacent phrase “studies show….?” One of the aims of my book is to offer people a chance to peek behind the curtain and see that in many cases, studies show no such thing.  

In a parallel sense, a lot of the biological determinist arguments for human universals tend to ignore the record of human behavioral diversity that’s readily available to anybody who has access to a good library—a lot of it, of course, in the work of anthropologists, but also historians and others who’ve explored the human experience beyond our own backyards, neighborhoods, and campuses. Of course, this issue of behavioral diversity versus alleged human universals also offers an opening for forms of “racial” explanation. Are those people really the same as us?

DM: How and why has the discourse around biological determinism shifted from “in the blood” explanations to “in the genes” explanations? How has this changed how the public receives this discourse?

RP: The term “in the blood” was more common before we had a better understanding of genetics or even knew what genes are. Even Charles Darwin didn’t have access to the work of Gregor Mendel and his experiments with the inheritance of traits in peas. But in general, it’s been the same argument throughout, expressed in the vocabulary of the times (or sometimes vocabulary invented for the occasion). One of the themes of the book, in fact, is that in each era for the past century and a half or so, it’s been the same old stuff couched in updated terminology—that who we are, and what we do, is powerfully affected (or even “determined”) by our inherent nature.

DM: What’s the danger of biological arguments about human capacity and political behavior? What does the apparent appeal of these arguments mean for politics in America and outside it?

RP: Biological arguments for scripted human behavior tend to deny the human capacity for change. This is one of their greatest dangers. These arguments would preclude collective attempts to improve the human condition. They tend to blame the victims of social and economic conditions by attributing their problems to some inherent flaws on their part. In the 19th century, lots of prominent intellectuals were convinced that such things as a tendency toward promiscuity, or even poverty, were “in the blood” and therefore couldn’t change as a result of improving the opportunities and living conditions of disadvantaged and vulnerable segments of the population.  In reality, these elites considered themselves vulnerable to the unruly masses of the poor—including, of course, recent immigrants.  

That was the line of thinking that inspired policies of eugenics, with the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people. In the 1960s and 70s, it not only inspired opposition to civil rights legislation but to social programs like Head Start, which was designed to offer educational assistance to disadvantaged children on the grounds that 80% of “intelligence” (as measured by IQ tests) was inherited. In our own era, this sort of thinking is certainly behind severe reductions in social programs, cutting funds for Head Start, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and so many other programs intended to help the disadvantaged to survive.  

In the mid 19th century, the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer argued that charity and government assistance programs interfered with progress by allowing the unfit to proliferate.  Eugenicists, early in the 20th century, argued that charity allowed the unfit to flourish as “weeds and pests,” or “parasites” on society. We can hear echoes of that today in the rhetoric of politicians who refer to the needy as “getting free stuff” and welfare recipients as “takers, not makers” relaxing in their hammocks. In short, this view of society means that people who need help don’t receive it. Remember when the governors of many of the poorest states a few years ago refused to make Medicaid available to their citizens? We can never know for sure how many people died as a result.

DM: You argue that human behavior is not “fixed, programmed, or biologically determined.” What evidence is there that human beings can indeed escape their biological inheritances?

RP: I don’t think any of us can escape our biological inheritance. The question is what that inheritance is. Obviously we’re all bipedal primates. We can’t fly or find insects in the dark through echolocation, as bats do. But do we have an inborn script for behavior that we inherited long ago in the Pleistocene, determining what we do today?  

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that this is the case. Most social scientists, including anthropologists, would argue that a crucial aspect of our evolutionary heritage is the ability to learn, promoting flexibility in our behavior. That’s what the big brain—which is an expensive organ with lots of disadvantages, including making childbirth especially difficult and dangerous for humans compared to other species—is all about. It’s rather telling, I think, that while biological determinists talk about alleged human universals, they seem to have paid very little attention to the global cultural and historical diversity of the human experience. Perhaps this is partly because many of their findings are based on research carried out with American undergraduate college students. These are fully-fledged human beings, beyond question. But they hardly represent the total panorama of human possibilities.

DM: Given that arguments supporting biological determinism have found their way into the academy, the political realm, and popular culture, where do we go from here? How does this all play out? What’s the best case scenario? What’s the worst case scenario?

RP: My own sense and hope is that the scenario will play out through continued discussion and debate in the public arena. That seems to be the way we tend to get things done.  I would hope for a more critical approach to many of these claims in the media, rather than the unquestioning, breathless excitement at “new findings” that we’ve seen so often. In fact, claims of biological determinism have been refuted over and over again, mostly in scientific journals. But most people don’t have the time or inclination to read scientific journals. This is the main reason I decided to write this book in a style that I hope is accessible to the average reader who has other things to worry about, but who finds the issue interesting. The best response to the issue, I think, is refutation through open discussion.

Feature image courtesy of  Richard J.Perry

Further Reading

Richard Perry. Killer Apes, Naked Apes, and Just Plain Nasty People. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2015.

Tali Mendelberg. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton University Press. 2001.

Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Free Press. 1996.

Bruce Baum. The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity. New York University Press. 2008.

Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper. 2015.

David Weinstein. Herbert Spencer. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2002/2012.

Herbert Spencer. The Principles of Biology. 1864. (Free online.)

About the Authors

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Economics and Politics Editor

David Moscrop is a PhD candidate, Vanier Scholar, and Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He studies the social and cognitive psychology of political judgment in democratic societies. His doctoral research asks and answers the question “Can ordinary citizens make good political decisions?” He is also a freelance writer and pundit whose work has appeared in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, the Huffington Post, Maclean’s, This Magazine, and several other media outlets and blogs. In October 2014, his research was featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio program Ideas in an episode entitled ‘Too Dumb for Democracy’. Why I Love Working at Hippo Very few publications bridge the gap between academic discourse and popular interests; Hippo Reads does this remarkably well. Being a part of a smart, on point, constructive, and ongoing discussion about contemporary ideas is a privilege. My Favorite Academic Work Plato's Republic. It's a mess, but it's the mess that started it all for the West. In another life I’d be Treasure hunter. I'm entirely serious. But I wouldn't keep anything that I found that was of historical value, because "It belongs in a museum!" My favorite animal: Shark! Unless I'm scuba diving and come across one, in which case my favorite animal is the boat that I'm swimming to very quickly.

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Professor emeritus of anthropology at St. Lawrence University

Richard J. Perry is professor emeritus of anthropology at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of "Race" and Racism: The Development of Modern Racism in America and From Time Immemorial: Indigenous Peoples and State Systems.