Social genetics: A polemical issue

Tom Shakespeare

This article originally appeared in Network (Newsletter of the British Sociological Association), September 1997

Don't believe the hype! Ever since Marx pointed out how Darwin's theory of evolution conveniently paralleled the social conditions and laissez-faire economics of late Victorian England, biological and social research have contested the right to explain the dynamics of society and personality. In every generation there have been attempts to reduce the complexity of social interaction to anatomical or physiological substrates: think of Lombroso, or the eugenics movement. or the sexist 'scientific' assumptions deconstructed by Janet Sayers in her book Biological Politics, or the sociobiology controversies of the 1970s.

However, we are now faced by a two-pronged fashion for biological reductionism which is rapidly becoming a new 'common sense', fuelled by the ambitions of publicity-hungry researchers and the susceptibilities of journalism. Listen to Start the Week, or read the opinion columns of the broadsheets, and one would imagine that sociology as an intellectual activity has been made redundant by new explanations based on individual attributes, Darwinian predestination and biological determinism. You could open a bookshop stocked with texts such as The Bell Curve, The Red Queen, The Sexual Gene, The Moral Animal. Popular science is a growth area, but these are not neutral texts illuminating research advances for the interested layperson: rather, writers such as Matt Ridley, Charles Murray, Robert Wright, and our old friend Richard Dawkins, are promoting a political agenda of competitive individualism and congenital inequality. Biology is the new economics.

Two elements conjoin in this newly reactionary science - what one might call 'Back to Basics Biology'. First, the immense development of molecular biology represented by the $3 billion Human Genome Project, the late twentieth century equivalent of atomic physics. The 'discovery' of single gene causes of some major impairments and diseases has prompted a simplistic causality which reduces vast human phenomena to 'nature' rather than 'nurture': we are advised that aggression, depression, homosexuality and many more sociocultural experiences are no more than the influence of genetic abnormalities. Environment is suddenly a dirty word. Very few reputable scientists may maintain this, and Steven Rose's excellent arguments about neurogenetic determinism are required reading for the sceptic, but journalists and sensationalists construct the exaggerated implications for themselves. Many disabled people are concerned about the threat from the new eugenics: however, genetics has also become a dangerous metaphor for society in general, with wide-ranging impacts for social explanation.

Second, there is the resurgence of neo-Darwinism, in the form known as evolutionary psychology Anyone ignorant of this tendency (and it's more like a political project than an intellectual programme) should read the Demos publication Matters of Life and Death, which is no more than a manifesto for the replacement of social science by biology and behaviourism. More sophisticated than the original 'selfish gene' idea, it is suggested that genes do not directly control behaviour, but that genes control psychology, which controls behaviour. Suddenly we can explain jealousy, step-parents' 'violence' to step-children, homicide and so much more. These arguments, usually circular, and often of Jesuitical complexity, come neatly prepackaged in leftwing and right-wing versions: almost anything can be proved. Although, of course, the experts are still working on the problems of homosexuality, self-sacrifice, celibacy, and other social behaviours not easily susceptible to explanation via reproductive advantage.

Sociologists need urgently to engage with these arguments for three reasons. First, it is an intellectual imperative to demolish the shaky constructions which the new biologism has advanced: we cannot ignore spurious misrepresentations of causality and the social world. Second, evolutionary psychology and neurogenetic determinism are an explicit threat to the professional practice of sociology as a discipline: we need to look to our borders and our claim to explanatory competence. Third, many of us spend our lives doing sociology not only to understand the world, but also to contribute towards changing it for the better. Whether we are interested in crime, gender, sexuality, class or race, 'Back to Basics Biology' explains social phenomena with new stories, which are in fact often the old victim-blaming narratives. An engaged and responsible sociology should be concerned at the regressive implications of these trends, and should contribute to more egalitarian and morally sustainable explanations of human conduct and potentiality.

Yes, this is a polemical article. But unfortunately, sociology has largely been complacent about the situation. My conclusion is not that we should wage war on biology (although I quite fancy a few tactical skirmishes with psychology). On the contrary, it is high time that sociology and social theory engaged with the physical endowment of humanity in a more sustained and adequate way. We spend too much time on linguistic and cultural mindgames which are neither accessible nor useful: let's not go down the literary studies road. If we are to engage with our physicality, than we should look to the approach signalled by writers such as Peter Freund, Ted Benton, and feminists such as Lynda Birke, not the largely pointless meanderings of the new sociology of the body. Many biologists have important things to say: people like Stephen Jay Gould are as concerned about the determinists as any social scientist. We need to understand the science and the implications of genetics and other technological advances. Particularly we need to relaunch and repopularise an adequate analysis of social processes and individual actions in the public sphere, particularly the media. We need to stop examining our postmodernist navels and get to grips with the contemporary world: as Yeats said 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.'