Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Science > Genetic Determinism – Oversimplification?

Genetic Determinism – Oversimplification?

Image courtesy of ~Guiz

Over at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende highlights two clips from the film “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” with one clip partially focusing on Robert Sapolsky and his views on genetic determinism.

Now, I must first offer a fair disclaimer before I begin my discussion of Sapolsky’s remarks in the clip. I have not watched Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, nor have I watched the second Zeitgeist movie. I have, however, watched the original Zeitgeist film and was thoroughly unimpressed. Many, many claims are made, and very, very few sources are cited. Overall, I found it to be an amalgam of conspiracy theories and poorly executed critiques of politics and religion, all with a distinctly New Age flavor. I do not have the interest or the heart to say any more about this set of films, but I strongly urge anyone who has seen the films or is interested in their message to check out Edward Winston’s debunking of the film.

Now, on to Sapolsky and genetic determinism. Loosely defined, genetic determinism as a theory states that the phenotypes of a specific organism are determined by the genes of that organism. These can include behavioral phenotypes as well as physical or structural phenotypes. So, for example, genetic determinism would claim that a behavior of mine, say ‘shyness’, is at least partially determined by my genes. Further, through gene mapping, scientists could hypothetically isolate the ‘shyness’ gene and therefore search for that gene in others. For film buffs, this idea factors heavily into Gattaca, where genes can be sequences and utilized to predict the likelihood of certain medical conditions, etc.

In the clip from Zeitgeist, Sapolsky seems to implicitly condemn determinist worldviews (presumably, based upon his phrasing, because they lead to a sort of indolence or lack of effort to change behavior). He makes the claim that genes contribute to such deterministic outlooks and promote a mindset in some that behavior is genetically predisposed and therefore we should not attempt to correct or change such behavior. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the concept of genetically caused behavior is incredibly dangerous for this very reason.

I should clarify that I believe genetic determinism does NOT claim the absolute causal role in determination of behavior. There are clearly many environmental factors at play in the forming of behaviors, and the presence of a gene does not de facto result in the occurrence of certain behavior often associated with that gene. That being said, Sapolsky’s claim that genetic determinism is “sheer nonsense” borders on the unbelievable. For, aren’t there individuals who have a demonstrably lower threshold for addiction? As I said, I do not believe that  genetic determinism means that anyone with a gene that often results in alcohol addiction is doomed to be an addict regardless of what they do. Clearly behaviors can be modified. However, genetic determinism does not only refer to behavioral phenotypes –  it refers to morphological phenotypes as well. This means that my genes encode to a degree my height, my general build, eye color, etc. Clearly some  morphological phenotypes can be influenced through environmental means, i.e. prenatal vitamins, exercises, etc. Further, should reductionism prove to be true, then if my genes are at least partially responsible for the manner in which my neural pathways form and react to dopamine levels, etc. This would mean that my genes DO play a role that is not changeable. For, I cannot ever grow taller than my genotypic “blueprint” would allow. That is to say, there is most likely a range in which, depending on nutrition and other environmental factors, I could fall.

Ultimately, our genes do appear to play a determinative role in our behavior as well as our physiology. While I agree with Sapolsky that they do not represent insurmountable roadblocks, I disagree with his sentiment that genetic determinism is itself a ridiculous concept.

Video Clip:

  1. May 23, 2011 at 11:55 AM

    It is unfortunate that the makers of Zeitgest did not give Sapolsky a bit more time to say exactly what he meant — or maybe they did, but the footage did not make the final cut. I say this because I would be downright shocked if Sapolsky thought all things genetic determinism (unqualified) are “ridiculous.”

    Your analysis which acknowledges the mitigated effectiveness of determinism in genes is shrewd: genes might play a part in certain human traits and tendencies, but they are not necessarily the final word about those traits and tendencies.

    After all, being determined to be an addict and being determined to be more disposed to addictive behavior than the average Joe are very different degrees of determination. And the gene(s) which contribute to you being a certain height are not the same gene(s) which contribute to all people who are exactly as tall as you — that is to say, there is not one 6-foot-tall gene which is responsible for determines every person who is 6 feet tall to be 6 feet tall.

    So, I think it is the unmitigated genetic determinism, which says there is a one:one relationship between any trait/tendency and a gene which effectively determines that trait/tendency, that Sapolsky is criticizing.

    On another note: thanks for sharing Edward Winston’s debunking.

    • May 30, 2011 at 3:03 PM


      Yes, I find it hard to believe that Sapolsky would express those sentiments (or at least, express them in such strong terms) but when I have time I will certainly look into more of his research or writing. I believe you are right in your assessment of Sapolsky’s view. I am also glad you enjoyed the debunking! I am always glad when someone has the time to create methodical inquiries on topics that I have only a passing interest in!

      Unrelated, I am having trouble commenting on your posts over at Blogpost. The login/authentication is difficult for me to figure out, although it could be that my web browser is out of date. I am in the process of visiting family and so I only have sporadic access to the internet. When I have more time in a few weeks I will try and figure it out – but until then, please don’t think me only a passive observer of your writing!

  2. May 31, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    Let me know what you find o Sapolsky if ever you get a chance.

    Also, thanks for letting me know about the commenting; I have had fewer comments and was becoming suspicious. I’ve made a couple changes, but am unsure if they will help the problem.

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