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Biological determinism: definition and examples

Biological determinism, also called genetic determinism, is a set of theories that maintain that the characteristics and behavior of an individual depend on its biological aspects and, specifically, on the genes it inherits.

Origin and history

There were different theories before the concept of biological determinism arose. Most of them tried to explain the origin and reasons for the characteristics of the species and their differences. However, throughout history, biological determinism has also been used as a tool to maintain inequality between ethnic groups and human genders, favoring the emergence of racism, discrimination and negative stereotypes towards certain social groups.

One of the first to address this issue was Aristotle, especially in his observations on politics. He held that the distinctions between the species occurred at birth and this indicated who was destined to rule and who was to be ruled.

In the eighteenth century, biological determinism became more important, especially among people who wanted to justify the unequal treatment others received because of their racial characteristics. In fact, in 1735, the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus was the first to divide the human race. From there, biological determinism remained one of the most supported theories until the 19th century. The studies of important scientists of this time on races also contributed to this, such as the American doctor Samuel Morton and the French aristocrat Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau.

The rise of biological determinism

At the beginning of the 19th century, the English scientist Francis Galton maintained that negative traits such as clubfoot and a tendency to criminality were hereditary. He believed that one had to avoid reproducing people he considered defective, and therefore, replicating those unfavorable traits.

In addition, in 1892, there were new discoveries that also supported biological determinism. For example, the German evolutionary biologist August Weismann proposed in his germplasm theory that information inherited by one organism from another is transmitted only through germ cells. These contained determinants, which were the genes.

Other studies, such as those by Samuel George Morton and the French physician Paul Broca, sought to prove the relationship between cranial capacity, that is, the internal volume of the skull, with the color of a person’s skin. In this way, they intended to demonstrate that white people were superior to those of other races.

Likewise, the American psychologists Robert Yerkes and HH Goddard carried out studies to measure the intelligence of human beings. Their goal was to show that the scores they got were inherited, to prove the superiority of white people.

Other theories on biological determinism

At the end of the 19th century, other theories emerged that would later become the most representative examples of biological determinism. In 1889, the Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes and the archaeologist John Arthur Thompson affirmed that a person’s metabolism is what defines their physical, emotional and psychological state. These biological characteristics were used to mark the differences between men and women and thus justify the discrimination and sociopolitical norms of the moment.

Since that time, biological determinism has held that although men are superior to women in terms of their physique and intellect, the latter are morally superior. This belief was used to make women believe that they had the power to maintain and promote morality, indirectly supporting the system of male domination.

Concept and characteristics

Taking into account the origin and history of biological determinism, it can be defined as the idea that human behavior is innate. According to this current, human behavior is determined by genes, the brain, or other biological characteristics. Likewise, for biological determinism there is no free will: individuals cannot control their behavior or their character and, therefore, are not responsible for their actions. In this way, biological determinism completely ignores the role played by society and the cultural context, as well as its influence on human behavior and other aspects of individuals.

This thinking also suggests that environmental factors do not influence people either. He considers that social differences such as gender, race and sexuality are based on the biological traits that each individual inherits. This argument is used as a justification for the injustice, oppression and control of some groups of people.

Biological determinism and gender issues

Biological determinism had a great influence on issues of sex and gender. In particular, it served to deny specific rights to women and trans and non-binary people. Biological characteristics were used to prevent women from receiving political rights, to discriminate against or deny people of other genders or sexual orientations, and to support racism.

One of the contradictions of biological determinism is related to gender norms for men and women. These reinforce the role of inferiority of women; however, it is known that male supremacy is not a natural factor but a product of society.

Biological determinism and eugenics

Eugenics is a concept that is closely linked to the description of biological determinism. Its origin is related to the rise of Darwinism at the end of the 19th century. Eugenics means “good ancestry” in Greek and is a social philosophy that supports the enhancement of hereditary traits through various forms of controlled and selective intervention.

The goal of eugenics was to increase the number of people who were healthy and intelligent or of a certain ethnicity. For this, it manifests itself against the reproduction of individuals that do not possess these qualities. Likewise, it defends the advantages that this would have in the economy of the countries.

Eugenicists believed that the spread of genetic defects, especially intellectual disabilities, were the cause of all social problems.

In the 1920s and 1930s, IQ tests were used to classify people. Those who scored even just below average were classified as disabled.

Eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries also incorporated aggressive methods such as forced sterilization and even genocide. Eugenics was so successful that at that time, sterilization laws began to be adopted in the United States. By the 1970s, there were already thousands of US citizens sterilized against their will. 

At present there are some versions of eugenics modified for current times, which in principle lack the strong elements of racism of the eugenics of past centuries. Today there is positive positive eugenics, which seeks to enrich the genotype to obtain offspring that might not have occurred by natural selection; as well as negative eugenics, which seeks to correct genetic “errors” and eliminate diseases and conditions associated with them. Some of the tools of modern eugenics include prenatal diagnosis, in vitro fertilization, and genetic engineering. Modern eugenics insists on being individual and never state-sponsored or coercive.

The modern approach

Currently, there is a scientific consensus that refutes biological determinism. There is no evidence to show the truth of a strict biological determinism. Furthermore, physical traits and human behavior are believed to be characteristics that arise from complex biological interactions influenced by the environment or the environment in which the individual grows and develops.

Regarding gender differences, the current approach affirms that they are the result of cultural practices and social expectations.

As for eugenics, it is subject to much criticism and is considered immoral. In addition, it is believed that it favors discrimination and violates human rights.


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