Biology & Culture Research Paper Starter

Biology & Culture

(Research Starters)

A standard academic introduction to the relationship between biology and culture is typically framed around the debate of nature versus nurture; whether human behavior is the product of an innate and predetermined set of genetic and hormonal combinations or whether human behavior is the product of external and societal influences that are learned in a social context. While the nature versus nurture debate is the key issue presented and discussed in this article, a more historical introduction is necessary in order to show that biology and social/cultural theory have not always been mutually exclusive academic disciplines. Indeed, social theory and biology have often had direct influences on each other throughout the history of ideas. Subsequently, the most current sociological and ethnographic research is cited to illustrate the difficulty in dividing nature and biology from culture, social life, and sociology. The various aspects of life these disciplines focus on and represent are always interconnected.

Keywords Behavioral Endocrinology; Behavior Genetics; Bio-power; Epistemology; Natural selection; Social Darwinism; Social facts; Sociobiology

Sociology: Culture: Biology


The definition of "culture" as inextricably bound to biological metaphors of growth and cultivation is the first necessary consideration when examining the relationship between biology and culture within the history of Western thought. The definition of culture, prior to as well as after its use by the human sciences, has remained tied to a certain conception of nature as its point of origin. Culture, prior to its application to social life, "was the growth and tending of crops and animals, and by extension the growth and tending of human faculties" (Williams, 1977, 11). And as the prominent classical theorist of culture, Georg Simmel (1997), notes, the latter notion of culture, which implies human development, "refinement," and the acquisition of intellectual sensibilities beyond a more crude and primitive natural state, still references nature as the edifice and foundation from which it is generated:

A natural energy or allusion, which is necessary only in order that it may be surpassed by actual development, forms the presupposition for the concept of culture. From the standpoint of culture, the values of life are civilized nature; they do not have here the isolated significance that is measured from above, as it were, by the ideals of happiness, intelligence and beauty. Rather, they appear as developments of a basis that we call nature and whose power and intellectual content they surpass in so far as they become culture (36-37).

Besides these natural and biological connotations inherent in the concept of culture itself, the historical emergence of theories of evolution and natural selection teach us that culture, along with biology, has had an impact on ideas about social life and the role of competition in society as well. Social theories, such as Social Darwinism, as well as the theories of evolution and natural selection have revealed themselves equally reliant upon biological and social factors. Raymond Williams (1980/2005) develops this idea in an essay on Social Darwinism, writing that "Indeed, my own position is that the theories of evolution and natural selection in biology had a social component before there was any question of reapplying them to social and political theory" (86).

Social Darwinism, Biology

This inherent compatibility between the biological theories of evolution, such as Darwin's theory of natural selection, and the prevalent social theories of his era is often traced back to the famous phrase, "survival of the fittest," coined by the social philosopher Herbert Spencer in 1852, as well to the notion of a "struggle for existence" present in the sociopolitical theory of population growth propagated by Malthus (Rogers, 1972, 266). Although Darwin himself resisted the attempt to apply his theory of natural selection to a view of society, it is interesting to note that even his writings at times relied on "metaphorical concepts" which "epitomized the views of Malthus and Spencer on human society, and particularly on English society" (Rogers, 1972, 267). This may at least lead to a partial explanation of why the Social Darwinists appropriated Darwin's theory of natural selection "to rationalize their diverse creeds of individual and collective and competition" (Rogers, 1972, 265-266).

For Williams, the idea of competition justified through the biological reference to natural selection was not enough in itself to generate the theory of Social Darwinism alone. Rather, it is the notion of competition together with the ideas of individual characteristics being influenced, selected and promoted by the environment, and a general conception of history as "progressive development," which allows one to formulate the social theory.

You have competition, inherent competition, as a natural state; and the idea of character being influenced by circumstances can very easily modulate into its being selected by favorable circumstances. Add to that the theory of historical progressive development and you have Social Darwinism in its developed form" (Williams, 1980, 88).

With these ideas of competition, selection, and historical progress and development taken together, one begins to see how the evolutionary and social theories of Darwin and Spencer both mirrored and justified an image of nineteenth-century English society as progressing into the competitive arena of industrial capitalism. Williams (1980) notes this, writing "Almost at once, however, the extensions began to be made: Moving out from the social ideas of Spencer and gaining a lot of support from the general climate of harsh competitive individualism as a social ideology at that stage of industrial capitalism and general industrial development" (89). The awareness of this theoretical justification of capitalism inherent in Social Darwinism leads Williams (1980) to formulate its most deplorable effect and how it lingers with us in the present — that the Social Darwinist legacy has led to the acknowledgement of the bleak realities of unchecked individual competition and moral indifference present in late capitalism as part of a natural state, unavoidable, and irreplaceable:

It is the social theory of that system which had promised order and progress and yet produced the twentieth century. Instead of facing that fact, in all its immense complexity, the rationalizers and natural rhetoricians have moved in to snap at and discourage us: not to ratify an imperialist and capitalist order, but to universalize its breakdown and to persuade us that it has no alternatives, since all 'nature' is like that (102).

Durkheim's Social Facts

In the school of French sociology emerging out of the work of Emile Durkheim, one begins to see a break with the Spencerian conception of society as composed of individuals competing in a state of nature. In The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim (1895/1982) notes that whereas classical social theorists such as Hobbes and Rouseau perceived:

A break in continuity between the individual and society… it is from the opposing idea that the theoreticians of natural law and the economists have drawn their inspiration. For them social life is essentially spontaneous and society is a natural thing. But if they bestow this characteristic upon it, it is not because they acknowledge it has any specific nature, but because they find a basis for it in the nature of the individual (142-143).

For Durkheim, neither the notion of nature nor the individual provides an adequate starting point or object from which to ground a scientific analysis of society. What he gives us to replace this error, which he perceives in Spencer's social theory, is a theory that society is comprised of social facts. Spencer provides a method which suggests that the study of social facts should be the initial focal point and foundation for any type of sociological analysis. Insofar as Durkheim's theory suggests that social facts are only preceded by other social facts without any prior presuppositions of nature or individuals, one begins to perceive a break in sociological theory between biological theories of nature and evolution on the one hand and social theories that focus on the role of social facts, institutions, and culture in society on the other. In essence, it is only after Durkheim delineated sociology as the study of social facts that sociologists found themselves in the debate of nature versus nurture. Thus through a closer analysis of Durkheim's definition of social facts, one can see how society and culture have become separated from nature for scientific purposes and how the study of society and culture is reduced to a series of causes and laws that are solely societal and, in this sense, of their own nature.

The Removal of Biology from Social Study: The Self-Governing Social Environment

In an attempt to mirror the objectivity and rigor of the hard sciences, and drawing an example from...

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