Learn why biology is not destiny.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


What is Biodeterminism?

Biodeterminism, which is short for biological determinism, is a form of scientism that says biology is destiny, and I'm not talking about just your blood type or the color of your eyes. Sadly, the idea that biology is destiny has become inflated through American culture, and biodeterminism is now largely shaping our convention, particulary when it comes to our understanding of human behavior.

In general, determinism is a perspective on life that says things are preordained and unstoppable. In regard to human behavior, determinists stress the predisposition people are supposedly born with to behave a certain way or the "traits" of a specific personality that a person is supposedly bound by. Biodeterminism places biology and physiology in the spotlight as the most important factor in cause and effect relationships regarding human behavior and often leads to the assumption that a cause and effect relationship exists even when a research study only describes a biological correlate of behavior, which has become very popular since the invention of computer models, PET scans, and magnetic imagery. However, this electronic gadgetry allows us to describe brain activity, not discern cause and effect relationships regarding human behavior outside the lab. Biodeterminism often results in reductionistic interpretations of human behavior that ignore the many other factors that influence behavior including those associated with culture, socialization and the environment, existential issues, and the unique events and experiences that help shape a person's life (not to be confused with the Skinnerian form of "shaping").

Biological determinism assumes that there is only one unidirectional relationship in which biology causes behavior, rather than a bidirectional relationship in which biology can affect behavior but behavior can also affect a person's biology. Alongside our mainstream culture of consumerism, it's the kind of thinking that led to the now rampant use of drugs to treat almost every psychological "disorder" out there.

Biological determinism manifests itself when someone believes that bio/medical/genetic research fully explains human behavior (often in terms of hormones, genes, DNA, neurotransmitters, and so-called "chemical imbalances"). It goes without saying that any behavior comes with a correlated physiological state. However, to say that a person's physiology itself is the cause of behavior and to look for the evidence that supports only a relationship between biology and behavior is particularly misleading. Except through the obvious use of drugs, no one has demonstrated that someone's biology first changes or assumes a certain state and then the person will behave a certain way. There are artificial ways of inducing behavior. However, outside the controlled environment of the lab the real world contains innumerable factors influencing behavior other than raw human physiology.

In general, the scientific approach to studying human beings does so in such a way that suggests we are just objects and not beings with a consciousness. We go far to find the evidence that behavior is automatic and predictable based on brain physiology and the environmental situations. When it comes to psychobiology, what we think we understand while focused exclusively on the brain is at the cost of what we never understand about the mind. Consciousness and human experience are assumed to be no more than a bunch of neurons firing. Human experience amounts to nothing greater than a mechanistic sum of your chemical constituents. People are not machines, albeit you can look for the evidence that people are just like machines (if that's what you want), which can then become the conventional approach used for understanding a person’s behavior at the expense of understanding the whole person and what a total human existence is really all about.

I get the distinct impression that some people like a purely biological explanation for human behavior because it supposedly relinquishes responsibility for the way people behave. We can sigh with relief that we are just bound by our nature. Men have more testosterone (which supposedly explains why they commit more acts of violence compared to women), alcoholism "runs in families" (which supposedly means there is an all important genetic factor superceding all other factors), drugs that keep serotonin in the brain in an active state ease some people's depression (which supposedly explains why people get depressed), teens are more prone to suicide because of raging hormones (again, related to depression), and it goes on and on. This understanding of behavior then translates into the other unfortunate allure of the bio-medical model, which is that a pill (or several) can solve all your problems.

The concept that there is ultimately a genetic basis for psychological illness that "runs in the family" is quite absurd. Honestly, what healthy empiricist can trace his or her family roots from the present back to the Middle Ages and before that to demonstrate there has never been any "known" form of psychological illness within the family lineage, thus demonstrating some sort of psychologically "clean" family gene pool? You might as well assume that every single human being in the world has the predisposition for psychological illness because every single human being has the capacity to experience psychological distress. Just because there are scientists who decided to medicalize psychological distress according to a model that assumes the afflicted have a "brain disease" does not mean there is any actual genetic basis that causes the psychological distress. There is a physiological state to ANY given behavior, which does not mean the physiological state causes the behavior. You might as well say that because human beings must consume food for survival, the behavior of eating is the result of a genetic encoding. Does that really explain why anybody eats?

I'm not saying that our study of anatomy has no value, I'm saying humans are so desperate for certainty and desperate for answers to the questions about who we are that many are willing to believe what amounts to no better than lies. You may have heard the statistic that says 1 out of 5 or 1 out of 4 (the numbers keep shifting) people have or will have some psychological disorder in this country, but do you ever realize the statistic is based on the known cases diagnosed through use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) designed to adhere to the medicalization of psychological distress? According to that approach, the assumption is that as much as 25% of the people in this country have physiological brain illnesses! That's a lot of business for psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry.

No one necessarily has a "flaw" in their body's chemistry. Experiencing psychological distress these days is not necessarily a defect in character or a defect of any kind. Only a perfectionist of the worst kind would believe that. If you were to survey people asking them if they've experienced significant psychological distress in their lifetime, the statistic above will be much higher. The mindful know it's not the question, it's how you phrase it that matters.

Please don't create the kind of counterargument that focuses in on the most grossly dysfunctional individuals out there because they don't comprise the majority of the 1 out of 4 or 1 out of 5 statistic above (not that I don't care about them). One of the worst diagnoses ever put into the DSM is the construct (and it is a construct) of schizophrenia (not to be confused with the single psychotic episode), and despite whatever pattern of behavior mental health care professionals think is captured by that diagnosis, the individuals being labeled with it are very poorly understood and very heavily medicated. When I was an undergraduate volunteer at a mental health center and heard about the kind of social conditions, psychological distress, and experiences that some of these clients who fall under the "psychotic" category have to endure in one lifetime, it's no wonder they become so desperate for a new reality that they either completely withdraw, develop delusions, are plagued by chronic drug abuse, or claim to be hallucinating. Once they are labeled, their life stories are completely lost by most people they know (if they have any family or friends at all) because the focus of who they are becomes the definition of the label. The assumption is that they were such misfits BECAUSE of their psychological "brain illnesses," but there is never really any way to isolate the variable of brain physiology for the sake of cause and effect among an infinite number of other variables, albeit many scientists believe they can do so. Even monozygotic twin studies don't find a 100% concordant rate (i.e., twins who are believed to be genetically identical are not always both diagnosed with a disorder), and they don't control for the effects of culture. On top of that, even if you could isolate the person's brain chemistry, you'd never be able to demonstrate that first the individual's brain chemistry changed, and then the person's behavior occurred.

Of course, scientists and people who support the bio-medical model will claim all humans share the same basic physiology, and though this may be true, it still confounds brain anatomy with the conscious and unconscious mind, which develop from a person's unique experiences. A person does not just have a brain, the brain develops through one's experiences. The biodeterminist believes a person's brain development is controlled simply by genetic encoding. However, the brain and the mind are related to one another, but NOT the same thing. The brain is a tangible object, but the mind is not. In their search for certainty, biodeterminists rely on what is tangible and what can be observed, despite whatever half-truths this generates about the human mind.

Despite the existential truth that nobody can be inside another person's mind, biodeterminists confound the brain and the mind and assume since we all have the same basic brain structure, we all basically think alike. The problem with this evaluation is that it ignores what makes each of us unique—the mind that results from our existential experience as individuals in the world. Bio-determinists assume one's experience is only a function of the state of your brain. They will say that the mind is dependant on the brain. However, that does not negate that one's total experience is a function of many factors outside the structure and state of the brain. The focus for the biodeterminist is on what we "know" about the brain at the expense of ignoring how all the other factors can affect one unique individual's intangible mind.

But the existential conditions and environment are often unimportant to the biodeterminist who lives according to the rules of biology as a science. Ironically, on top of the many circumstances that can create a harrowing life experience, some people apparently deserve to be branded with a label like "schizophrenic" and accept the horrible stigma that comes with that label (and others like it) for the rest of their lives. However, even the times when someone seemed to be "perfectly normal," as people love to say (but they never really know), and has the infamous "schizophrenic break," it is not simply the result of a sudden "imbalance" of brain chemistry that then needs to be balanced. Unless you live in some way suspended and disconnected from any other environmental factor, disconnected from any other cultural condition, disconnected from any other being in the world other than yourself, and disconnected from any event that can contribute to your experience of the world, your experience is not simply the result of your chemical constituents. It's just not possible for a human being on this earth to be that disconnected so that the only thing a person becomes is a function of biology!

Remember: Biodeterminists don't just explain psychotic and other "abnormal" behavior in terms of physiology; they explain almost all behavior this way, which leads to the assumption that we have no real control of our lives and the decisions we make. It becomes particularly dangerous to society when most people begin to believe biodeterminists because the public forgets about the many choices both they and the biodeterminists are making while the focus is exclusively on human physiology to explain behavior. Rather than empowering people with a positive message, the biodeterminist perspective underlyingly tells people to surrender to biology. Then, the drugs that are assumed to be needed to "balance" a person's neurochemistry create real chemical imbalances and iatrogenic illnesses (when the treatment is the cause of a disease or ill side effects). People begin to assume even the choices they can or cannot make are bound by their genes and not related to their culture, not their environment, and not what they've learned through experiences. In ways unlike a person's physiological state, these other factors are capable of being changed to produce a positive outcome in someone's life. Hence, the popular slogan of those who are more mindful and want to curb biodeterminism: Biology is not destiny.

© P. Kurtiak, 2006. All rights reserved.

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