People are not Only Biological Machines

Contemporary Social Science is the flagship journal of the Academy of Social Sciences. As its editor I have put together a special issue that challenges purely biological explanations of human psychology and society, which was recently published http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rsoc21/current .

I wanted to bring together experts to challenge these biological explanations because you can hardly open a newspaper or listen to a factual broadcast without some reference to neuroscience or evolutionary explanations of things that people do, feel or think.  Taken together these attempts at reducing people to organisms are being called ‘Biologising’.  The special issue mounts a concerted attack on all attempts to biologise human beings.

The central argument against biologising can be illustrated with the analogy of trying to understand how the modern motor car has come into being and how it works by knowing only which bits heat up under different conditions.  It would be very difficult to make sense of a car from this limited information. But just looking at the pharmacology and neuro-anatomy of people, with metaphors taken from our evolutionary past, is doing something even more simple-minded.  It ignores the power of language and culture, self-awareness and consciousness that combine to create the uniquely human person.

The scholarly scientists contributing to these challenges in the special issue, and in the groundswell of other publications putting forward these arguments, show how ludicrous are many of the claims of neuroscience and other biologising explanations. Yet these challenges are dismissed in the rush to claim ownership of humanity by the biological sciences.

Everything from the poetry of John Donne, to explanations of the power of music, economic meltdown, political decision making, unconditional love,  right across the alphabet from anxiety to xenophobia, has been subjected to reductionist, biologising arguments.

Serious challenges to these arguments are dismissed as unscientific, or implicitly religious. Yet the challengers are not evolution deniers, or closet Christians. They are showing that the social sciences can demonstrate that people are more than their biology.  They are shaped by personal narratives, society and culture.  Indeed it has been claimed that it is the biologisers , especially evolutionary psychologists who operate more like religious fanatics, believing that Darwinism can be applied to every aspect of human activity, far, far beyond the reaches that evolutionary theory was developed to cover.

This is not just a trivial academic debate, though. The view of people as mere organisms has implications for how policy is shaped. It influences specific approaches to matters such as legal decision making, how educational guiding principles are formulated or even the treatment of drug addicts. It is therefore essential that the biologisers do not get a free ride. The special issue opens up this crucial discussion about what it means to be human.

As social scientists, though, we have to explain why biologising is the present day orthodoxy.  Perhaps the answer lies in the human quest for, and delight in, dramatic narratives. Perhaps that is the key to the hold biologising has. The attractiveness of neurobiological explanations is that they provide a gripping story; whether it be the magic of the brain, with all the exciting images so beloved of the mass media, or the tragedy of the struggle for survival.  But storytelling is not in our genes, or human evolutionary history. It is the essence of what makes us human.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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ipsol
Guest

Does genetic factor really affects human behaviour? How did Biologising humans to mere organism start?

estgirl2
Member

Yes, David, I do also think it’s sad that skin colour should be related to behaviour, but it seems that that it is what people still tend to think. I just don’t understand why it is that we think that way. Why we think that way is an unanswered question for me. We don’t seem to be colour-blind at all. For example, there seem to be, perhaps uneducated, stereotypes thrown about concerning, for example, black, Asian and white people’s sexualities and some of the stereotypes are not just offensive, but frustratingly confusing. On the one hand, it is thought that… Read more »

estgirl2
Member

Or perhaps it could be that the problem is not science itself, but the fact that we do not know all the answers that science gives. The problem is that we do not know everything about science?

estgirl2
Member

That’s very interesting. From some of my social circles we know of the phrase ‘African time.’ I’m not sure whether you are familiar with the term, but it’s used to describe Africans’, most likely black Africans’, sense of time. We seemed to have observed that, or it seems to be thought that, Africans are unable, or find it difficult, to start things on time. In fact, it is thought that they only start things hours after the activity was supposed to be started. For example, if a conference or a party was arranged for 2 o’ clock, Black Africans would… Read more »

David Canter
Guest

It is so sad Esther that you think for even one moment that good time-keeping has anything to do with generics. It is even sadder that you think it possible that the very limited aspect of your genetic make-up that influences skin colour may also relate to any other aspect of your constitution. On top of this, time keeping is such a socially determined phenomenon, and varies so hugely between individuals, cultures and subcultures and different times and stages in life that there could be no way for it to me genetically determined. It is precisely because of these sorts… Read more »

Tom Shillock
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Tom Shillock

“The central argument against biologising can be illustrated with the analogy of trying to understand how the modern motor car has come into being and how it works by knowing only which bits heat up under different conditions. It would be very difficult to make sense of a car from this limited information. But just looking at the pharmacology and neuro-anatomy of people, with metaphors taken from our evolutionary past, is doing something even more simple-minded. It ignores the power of language and culture, self-awareness and consciousness that combine to create the uniquely human person.” That seems to me a… Read more »

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