Biosocial Sciences: The history of the Nature AND Nurture debate.

In 1975 American biologist E.O. Wilson published “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” which argued that social behavior in animals, including humans, was biologically determined—partially shaped by genes and the forces of evolution. Two years later, the Time Magazine picked up this emerging new scientific field, dedicating the August 1977 cover of their magazine to “Sociobiology: A New Theory of Behavior.” It was and is a field shrouded with controversy. At its conception, sociobiology ignited heated criticism from biologists like Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Lewontin who argued the field was biologically determinist and reductionist and perpetuated eugenic ideologies that sought to legitimize racial and social hierarchies.

As Gould and Lewontin pointed out, while ‘sociobiology’ as a formal field did not come into existence until 1975, research that used biological explanations to justify social phenomena already existed and had for some time. ‘Biosocial’ scientific language lived in the fields of physical anthropology and eugenics, highlighting the historical usage of Science to justify class and race hierarchies. Critics believed that ‘sociobiology’ risked legitimizing the biosocial language that was used to explain and justify societal structure and inequality.

The study of intelligence is a classic example of a field that has historically used Science to legitimate racial and class differences. Intelligence it is a quality that has been associated with various life outcomes, including but not limited to health, educational attainment, and economic success. Intelligence’s connection to valued life outcomes was and continues to be a catalyst in the journey to understand what cognitive ability is and where it comes from.

The study of intelligence is a classic example of a field that has historically used Science to legitimate racial and class differences.

Between 1890 and 1910, dozens of intelligence tests were developed in Europe and America that claimed to offer unbiased quantitative measures for a biologically innate cognitive ability. Using these tests, enthnocentricts and eugenicists latched on to biosocial claims that intelligence and other social behaviors were biologically determined, arguing that socioeconomic and racial groups were inherently different and that societal hierarchies were a natural byproduct of a kind of biological sorting. This argument about race and class biological differences continued well into the late 1990s despite being widely challenged; it remains in some literature today (albeit far less visible).

Using biosocial arguments, racial and class hierarchies were assigned further normalcy; supporters of eugenic ideologies in the 1900s used these ideas to advocate for social policies prohibiting class admixture, racial admixture, and advocating for restrictions on immigration. Science offered a way to ground eugenic theories such as those of the American Eugenics Society who changed its name in 1972 to the Society for the Study of Social Biology, three years before the field of “sociobiology” was formally established. The society’s official journal Eugenics Quarterly, whose first volume in 1954 focused heavily on IQ differences between population groups, changed its name to “Social Biology” in 1969 and continues to exist today under the name of Biodemography and Social Biology, highlighting how biosocial science was used as a guise for the eugenics movement.

Biosocial sciences remain today. Sociobiology has taken root in the fields of behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, and epigenetics, among others. The study of biology and society influenced the development of ‘sociogenomics,’ a term coined in 2005 by molecular biologist Gene Robinson whose work examines the genetic mechanisms governing social behavior in the honeybee (apis mellifera). Sociogenomics is the study of “social life in molecular terms,” the field is driven by two desires. The first is to identify the genes and pathways that regulate aspects of development, physiology and behavior that in turn influence sociality. The second is to determine how these genes and pathways themselves are influenced by social life and social evolution (see here). Though early ‘sociogenomics’ work focused primarily on insect populations, like sociobiology, the field has moved to include an examination of human populations.

In practice, the two main components to ‘sociogenomics’ research seem to be in conflict. One side engages in behavioral genetics research seeking to identify genetic bio-markers associated with behaviors commonly thought to be socially-shaped, such as political orientation, educational attainment, and antisocial personality and behavior linked to criminality or to find bio-markers linked to social phenomena like social deprivation and household income . Research in this area believes that humans, as inherently social beings, are biologically linked to social functions, behaviors, and dispositions. Thanks to advances in technology and the rapidly decreasing costs of DNA sequencing, this area of social biology is focused on which genetic markers might predict a social element and the extent to which identified markers are able to do so. Some studies in this area seem to have identified genetic markers that can predict up to 21% of social deprivation and 11% of household income (see here) or up to 9% of an individual’s educational attainment (see here). Others have shown how markers associated with educational attainment relate to life-outcomes like upward mobility, intelligence, and even financial planning for retirement. In looking to determine the biological nature of a social behavior or occurrence, these studies contain traces of the ‘old’ biosocial science Gould and Lewontin were wary of and have garnered some more recent criticism of underlying methods.

The other side of sociogenomics examines how the environment moderates gene expression. Gene expression is the process by which genes are ‘activated’ to synthesize proteins that allow the genotype (an individual’s genetic makeup) to give rise to a phenotype (observed behavior or trait). In this form of ‘sociogenomics’, the classical argument of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ becomes a matter of ‘nature’ AND ‘nurture.’ Social-environmental conditions like low social status, social isolation or threat, and low socioeconomic status have been found to change the expression of hundreds of genes in both animals and humans and is thought to be potentially transformative in our approach to addressing inequality. “Gene x environment” studies, as they are called, have found that in the United States low socioeconomic status represses an individual’s genetic potential, meaning that the high heritability estimates found in behavioral genetics research into something like educational attainment only fully applies to those living in well-off circumstances, where money, status, and comfort is not pressing concern.

Sociogenomics as “an interactionist approach” potentially provides the ability to explain how genes and environment operate in relation to each other. Some advocates for the field believe the social sciences will become more robust and more highly regarded with the incorporation of genetics research. There are sociologists, economists, and political scientists who are already beginning to bring genetic analyses into their work, arguing that this additional data may help the social sciences “better understand patterns of human behavior, enhance individuals’ self-understanding, and design optimal public policy” (source here).

The ‘mixing’ of the traditionally hard and social sciences has produced studies in sociogenomics examining how high taxation of tobacco products meant to discourage people from purchasing harmful products may not be beneficial for those with a particular variant of the nicotine receptor that might make them willing to pay more for a nicotine-filled tobacco product (see study here). It has also contributed to research in Psychoneuroendocrinology (a field that combines psychology, neurobiology, endocrinology, immunology, neurology, and psychiatry) looking at cortisol levels in ethnic-minority youth as they note racism or discrimination, highlighting how everyday micro-aggressions and social inequality can have real and harmful biological consequences (see study here). These studies point to the continued desire to explain social phenomena through biology. As the biosocial sciences continue the journey to analyze every day human life and behavior, they have the potential to have a profound impact (positive or negative) on our understandings of how we as individuals and we as a society operate.


Parts of this post were published in a The Conversation article. Find here.


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