The New Determinism: Genetics in Popular Culture

It is troubling, though not entirely surprising, to realize that not only was Thomas Jefferson less than willing to practice what he preached--an end to slavery--but that a fundamental part of his being believed that slavery was justified: that by their nature, blacks were inferior to whites. Less progressive. Less able to nobly advance.

And one shouldn't forget the long-held belief in English society that servants were  inherently inferior to their masters. When Pamela by Samuel Richardson reached Twilight-acclaim among its readers, its detractors hurried to point out that Pamela, bride of the squire, had been--gasp, gasp--a servant! Was it really possible, asked the detractors, for servants to have the sense of self ascribed by Richardson to his creation? Weren't servants . . . well . . . little better than cattle? Capable of speech certainly. But not capable of extensive thought.
The above examples have their roots in environmental determinism, the belief that a "character of a entire peoples is decisively determined by their geographical location." The link to slavery or servitude is that (1) due to their environment, such a people are conquerable; (2) once they are conquered, they "acquire a slavish personality unfit for life in freedom" and can never change back. Hence environment and lineage are linked, reflecting the underlying assumption that "the essence of a person is almost exclusively determined by his ancestry and far less or not at all by his own deeds and choices in life" (Isaac).

What astonishes me is not that these theories have fallen out of style--as well they should. What astonishes me is how rapidly human beings have switched the same rhetoric to the discussion of genetics.

Writers like Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris arguably needed to make the general populace aware of the impact of genetics and, more basically, the wiring of the human brain.  In Blank Slate, Pinker argues against the idea that humans are born into the world as empty globs of clay--which parents, environment, and culture then mold into people. He uses the acquisition of language as the obvious flaw in the blank-slate theory: children are born with the ability to acquire language. They are not taught how to acquire it.

Developmentalists (advocates of nurture over nature) challenged (and still challenge) the impact of genetics/biology. At their most extreme, developmentalists in the 1950s and 1960s traced mental illnesses like autism and schizophrenia to parental behavior, specifically the "refrigerator mother." These arguments are no longer common currency, but the dependence on environment/nurture explanations remains.

As Harris illustrates in No Two Alike: "Many [developmentalists] had spent their entire professional lives doing research designed to show how parents mold their children's personalities. Not whether parents mold their children's personalities but how they do it. That parents have this power was something the developmentalists simply took for granted."

Harris goes on rather wryly, "Developmentalists are still plentiful but...over time they have become more modest in their claims and less strident in their denunciations."

It has taken literal decades for the role of genetics to be appreciated within mainstream and popular culture.

And yet the moment it became accepted . . .

About blacks, Jefferson argued:
They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites . . . In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when . . . unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
If this makes your skin crawl, it should. What amazes me is when people who would turn from Jefferson's declarations in disgust spout something like the following:
That boy requires less sleep. Have you met his family? His father is exactly the same. It must be in the genes. After a hard day's labor, he will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight despite knowing he must be up at dawn. His brothers are just like him; they are also brave and adventuresome, so that must run in the family too. But this may be due to a want of forethought, which all the family has, and which prevents their seeing a danger till it's happened. When in danger, they do not exhibit the same coolness or steadiness as that other family down the block, but of course, that other family obviously has better genes. The first family isn't half as intelligent since they are disposed to sleep when unemployed like animals at rest. Regarding memory, reason, and imagination, in memory they are equal to that family down the block; in reason much inferior, as I doubt any one of them is capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid (no getting into Harvard for them!); and in imagination, they are dull, tasteless, and weird--but oh well, that's the genes they were born with.
Perhaps the reader would like to argue that because Jefferson's statement if about an entire race and
Henri-Baptiste Gregoire, the priest who disagreed
with Jefferson. As Ferling points out, "Many of
Jefferson's contemporaries...more zealously opposed
slavery . . .  [others] concluded that the perceived
character and habits of blacks were attributable to
the malicious environment of slavery, not to race"
(my emphasis).
the second statement is (only) about an entire family, the argument about the family is not rooted in determinism. Except Jefferson was perfectly willing to propound his argument despite his treatise being refuted by a French priest with a broader knowledge of the world than Jefferson. In other words, Jefferson was perfectly willingly to create a racial or geographical deterministic argument based on very little knowledge. How is that better than people with only a rough understanding of genetics--which is most of us-- declaring that they know why a person or a family are the way that they are?

In Culture Map, Erin Meyer tries to elucidate the differences between various cultures' management styles. Hers is a pragmatic and necessary exploration of environmental, cultural, and (perhaps) genetic differences. But Erin Meyer is not telling us why these differences exist. Although she makes a cursory and self-deprecating attempt in the forward, she admits that it is futile. She honestly doesn't know why. She honestly doesn't know how environment, culture, genetics--and hey, remember free will?!--come together. And she doesn't pretend to know what will happen in the future. She is not declaring that "this is so because . . . and hence will remain so." She is arguing, "This is so, so how does one deal with it?"

In other words: there is a tremendous difference between pointing out genetic puzzles and giving those puzzles meaning.

Deterministic rhetoric focuses on meaning. And the rhetoric surrounding that meaning is often dogmatic, self-sustaining, and relentless in its search for so-called related outcomes. (In No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris points out with devastating specificity the problem with pinpointing actual correlations, not merely perceived correlations, within the social sciences.)

In response to all this determinism, yet another generation has to battle for the philosophy of free will and the individuality of the human soul. (Haven't we done this already?)

As a proponent of free will, I consider the meaning of deterministic rhetoric to be the following: determinism is a powerful lingual coping mechanism. And many people choose it as a way to cope. After all, even Locke didn't intend tabula rasa to become an excuse for Freud--it was suppose to free people, not lock them into pre-determined roles. And yet that's how it got used.

Whatever comfort it brings to the individual, determinism is not and never will be good science.
  • Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.  Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Harris, Judith Rich. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.


  1. Interesting piece. Have you ever seen the movie Gattaca? It's set in a future where humanity is divided into "valids", those with engineered DNA, and "invalids" those that don't. The future of the movie bears no small resemblance to the pre-Civil Rights era. The story is about an "invalid" posing as a "valid" in order to get into the space program. It's a pretty good movie.

  2. A story by Kurt Vonnegut “Harrison Bergeron” uses the premise that anyone born with outlying traits (intelligence, tallness, etc.) must be reduced by environmental/external means to the "norm." Sci-fi rightly worries about such things! (Although I agree with those who believe the worries over AI are grossly exaggerated.)

  3. I read Harrison Bergeron years ago. Later, I read that Vonnegut said it was supposed to be a satire on Ayn Rand's philosophy and not to be taken seriously.