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Hanging on to the Edges

Daniel Nettle

Part one

2. What we talk about when we talk about biology

Texte intégral

  • 1 Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create (New Haven, (...)

Among all these pieces of information that together produce human behaviors, which are nature and which are culture? No one knows, and it does not matter in the least—infact no one could find out, because the separation is now here.
–Pascal Boyer1

  • 2 NPR Books, April 30th 2013, (...)

1The radio network NPR titled a 2013 written piece about an interview with scientist and author Adrian Raine as follows: ‘Criminologist believes violent behavior is biological’.2Sentences like this pose a problem. The problem is that they ought to be clearly nonsense; but somehow they are not. Somehow they seem, despite all reason to the contrary, to mean something. They manage to mean something to most of the people most of the time, and perhaps even to all of the people some of the time. The same is not true in equivalent cases not involving humans. Imagine the headlines: ‘Ornithologist believes bird song is biological!’; ‘Microbiologist believes bacterial infection is biological!’ You take my point.

2What is violent behaviour? The unwelcome violation of the body of one or more victims by one or more aggressors. The aggressors do this with their feet, or their hands—hands in fists, on weapons, or even on joysticks in remote bunkers. Sometimes hands are not needed; but here, larynxes are required, larynxes wired up to brains in a particular way. And what aggressors do changes the victim’s body: her knees, her kidneys, her face, or just the state of her nervous system. I am pretty sure feet, hands, larynxes, brains, knees, kidneys and faces are biological. Surely, if the Almighty did not want violent behaviour to be biological, He wouldn’t have made us out of meat.

3Enough, I hear you say. Of course the implementation of violent human acts is done using biological stuff. But what we are interested in is the reasons violent acts occur. And to give a useful account of the reasons we need to appeal to processes of quite a different kind to ‘biology’. Compare an example: US presidential elections are implemented in some districts using paper ballots, in some using voting machines. These ballots and machines are physical objects. They, or similar devices, were necessary for the implementation of the 2016 presidential election, but they aren’t an interesting part of the story of the outcome of that election (unless you think there were some pretty strange election irregularities). Explaining why the outcome was one way rather than the other requires discussion of: US demography; contemporary US social, economic and political institutions; ideologies; narratives; decisions made by individual campaigns; and so forth. Election results are delivered using physics, but there is a coherent sense in which it would be controversial and rather strange to claim their outcomes are physics.

4In the social sciences, we find ourselves in an odd quandary regarding the explanation of human outcomes. A standard position might go something like this. Humans are biologically implemented creatures, but they have special properties. In virtue of these properties, the outcomes of their lives have reasons and meanings rather than physical causes; are influenced by culture or society, not nature or genes. The special properties (we can argue about what they are) have a natural, biological origin. But once the special properties are in place, they permit an infinite range of possible social histories, whose explanations are to be couched in constructs that are not, in any interesting sense, biology. They float free of their substrate. These constructs are themselves quite varied, but they include talking about (choose your favourites and pay for them at the checkout): social structures, culture, norms, institutions, discourse, individual meanings, response to incentives, agency, values, and so on.

5You could defend the standard position’s division of labour on the basis that social structures, meanings and agency were ontologically different from biology; that is, different things of a fundamentally different kind. Surely these days that would be a bit hard to justify. More plausibly, you could defend it pragmatically. Sure, in principle if we had complete, accurate models of how biological systems worked, then maybe social processes would start to be expressible ‘biologically’. But the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has only got 959 cells (302 of which are neurons), and despite decades of research we are currently unable to predict exactly what an individual C. elegans will do next when put on a dish. What hope, therefore, the Dutch tulip mania of 1637, or any other of the complex, historically-situated human interactions that form the subject matter of social science? In practice, we may as well stick with our familiar analyses in terms of social norms, values, supply and demand, or the madness of crowds. Either way, we end up with a division of labour in the academy where biologists and social scientists don’t usually get to share the same coffee room.


6As things stand, human biologists mostly talk about things like genes and brains and hormones, while social scientists mostly talk about a separate set of processes like preferences, culture, social capital and institutions. As a division of labour goes, it works up to a point. Both parties have come up with a lot that will stand the test of time. In the long run, though, if you have badly conceived boundaries, you are going to keep having boundary problems. Individually, any one of these boundary problems might be soluble ad hoc, but collectively, they accumulate and unsettle. In the end, the only way to solve them is going to be by abolishing the boundary—on the ground, and in people’s minds. That is where we are with the boundary between ‘biology’ and ‘non-biology’ in the human sciences.

7It’s not that the standard position puts humans on one side (‘non-biology’) and all other kinds of creatures on the other (‘biology’). That would be more straightforward in some ways, though prone to immediate and easy falsification. The problem is that the standard view puts humans partly in ‘biology’ and partly in ‘non-biology’. For example, Tourette syndrome feels like a biological kind of thing, and I don’t think ‘Researcher believes Tourette syndrome is biological’ would garner any headlines. In fact we don’t know of any single genetic cause of Tourette syndrome, the environment appears to be very important, and the manifestations are largely behavioural. Indeed, people can suppress the symptoms of this ‘biological’ phenomenon through voluntary effort, to some extent (in describing Tourette syndrome, the intriguing term ‘semi-voluntary actions’ is used).

8But violence, call violence biological, and that’s worthy of a headline, though in fact the kind of individual violent acts of which Raine writes are often committed impulsively without intention. It’s controversial to call violence part of biology, because you have moved the ill-defined boundary. Somewhere between semi-voluntary swearing, and impulsively getting into fights, approved ‘biology’ has stopped happening, and approved ‘non-biology’ has begun. Then you get to the 1637 tulip mania and the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, and that’s definitely not ‘biology’.

  • 3 See Benton, T. (1991). Biology and social science: Why the return of the repressed should be given (...)
  • 4 It feels increasingly like that.

9The dual view of humans with a ‘biological’ part and a ‘non-biological’ part is not new, of course.3 It is found in Descartes’ view of humans as ordinary biological animals in their bodies, with an extra-biological soul, not shared with other animals, bolted on. It is also found in the ‘restricted naturalism’ of the great evolutionist A. R. Wallace. Wallace saw humans as the joint product of natural forces (evolution) and some higher power. Other animals were produced by the natural forces alone. Thus, within human experience, there were both animal bits (pain, hunger, thirst, presumably sexual attraction) and non-animal bits (spiritual, moral and aesthetic values, for example). We are hybrid beings. We lie in the gutter, but we are looking towards the stars. I contemplate the eternal, fastened to a dying animal.4

10The hybrid view causes absolute chaos once you take it at all seriously. Which aspects of human life go into ‘biology’ and which into ‘non-biology’? For those that end up partly in each, how do the ‘non-biological’ bits of the story interact causally with the ‘biological’ bits? The ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ division runs down the middle of all the most important questions. Health: indubitably biological but profoundly affected by social-structural factors and policy decisions. Agriculture: a set of socially-organized processes and practices that centrally involves an ecosystem of other species. And so on.

  • 5 Russell, E. (2011). Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (...)

11We end up with really strange claims, like ‘depression can have both social and biological causes’. (The division between ‘social factors’ and ‘biological factors’ is commonly made in medical teaching.) Surely it’s a bit cumbersome to hold that the very same configuration of the brain can be arrived at for two categorically distinct, unrelated kinds of reasons. More to the point, the unity of the phenomenon, its integrated nature as the end-state of individuals with particular genetic and somatic endowments developing through particular kinds of experience in particular societal contexts, is necessarily closed to us whilst the boundary remains in place. The boundary also leads us to overlook obvious but important explanatory resources. Edmund Russell’s account of why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did accords a central place to Darwinian evolutionary change; not in Homo sapiens, but in the cotton plant.5 This kind of explanatory move is so heterodox from a humanities perspective that Russell has to justify it as part of a broader new ‘evolutionary history’ paradigm. He would not need to do this if no boundary had been in place.

12When Berlin was divided in 1961, families and businesses found themselves with one part on one side, one part on the other. The boundary ran down the middle of some streets. In Berlin’s railways, several ghost stations were created, where trains could pass by but not stop because the above-ground exits were in the wrong sector. At Bornholmer Strasse station, trains from both East and West Germany passed through, but no-one from either sector could get out. How many places are we collectively failing to explore because the standard positions of social science, and of biology, fail to provide the skills, incentives, and encouragement we need in order to do so?


13I am as interested in the reasons the boundary continues to exist as I am in campaigning to abolish it. Many intelligent interlocutors will concede that the division into ‘biological’ and ‘non-biological’ makes no real sense when you talk to them about it in detail. But then, when they are tired, when they are talking to a lay audience, when they need a convenient shorthand, suddenly there it is again. There on their presentation slide, or in their written summary, or in something they say: ‘Here we outline a biological explanation’, they say; or ‘as well as individual biological factors, social context may be important’. Put a penny in the swearing jar! All that is human is biological, and social context is a biological factor. What you have just said makes about as much sense as: ‘As well as numbers, addition can involve 1, 3, 7 and 9’. Even Adrian Raine, in the interview cited at the head of this essay, says of his research: ‘I’ve got to be careful here [….] Biology is not destiny, and it’s more than biology, and there’s lots of factors that we’re talking about there’. So in fact, Raine reproduces the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ boundary; all he has done is partially moved one phenomenon—violent behaviour—a little further into biological territory, whilst endorsing the view that it is a hybrid phenomenon, subject to two categorically distinct kinds of causes.

  • 6 Fox Keller, E. (2010). The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (Durham, SC: Duke Universi (...)
  • 7 See Benton, T. (1991). Biology and social science: Why the return of the repressed should be given (...)

14Historians of science tend to situate the origins of the persistent ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ dichotomy in particular influential academic ideas and positions, themselves the products of the concerns of their times. Thus, on the one hand we have nineteenth-century biologists’ hard division between the immortal germ-line, to which slow, evolutionary, genetic processes happen, and the transient soma, which comes into the world from the germ line, but once there is off the leash in a short-timescale world of contingent environmental processes. It only has to report back at the end in the form of lifetime reproductive success. This hard disjunction within biological thought made our processual understanding of genetic evolution tractable under the modern synthesis of the early twentieth century, but if we don’t deploy it with care, it opens up an apparent space between nature/biology (supplied by the germ line as factory standard) and nurture/non-biology (happening to the soma). In this space, dualism can fester.6 On the social science side, we have figures like Weber and Durkheim, wanting to carve out a terrain on which legitimate and distinctive social enquiry could be conducted, as well as those in the tradition of Wallace wishing to salvage deeply-held spiritual or moral beliefs despite a growing understanding of our kinship to other species. It was in the interests of all these people to reproduce and reinforce some version of the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ boundary.7

  • 8 See the concluding chapter of Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the W (...)
  • 9 Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: ‘Man is directly a natural being. As a n (...)

15These intellectual-history accounts are all well and good, but given the extraordinary and widespread persistence of the ‘biology’ /‘non-biology’ dichotomy (including amongst people never exposed to Weisman or Weber), I am tempted to give it an explanation that’s a bit more, well, biological. Maybe the distinction between ‘biology’ and ‘non-biology’ maps onto some deep-seated way of thinking that humans are predisposed to develop and find intuitive to deploy. This would make some kind of ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction a ‘cultural attractor’ —that is, a cultural convention prone to emerge recurrently and persist in diverse human communities, because of regularities in the way people think, remember and communicate.8 An appealing feature of this idea is that it would explain why: (a) at the individual level, people who have been thoroughly disabused of the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction often reproduce it nonetheless, especially in moments of distraction or fatigue; and (b) at the cultural level, discursive traditions that initially contain no ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction often acquire one over time. I think for example of Marxism here: Marx was an enthusiastic endorser of Darwinian naturalism, and his theorising founded social relations on humans as ‘active natural beings’ engaging in productive interactions with the rest of the natural world. Very soon, the biological naturalism was washed out, and biological and Marxist theory seem to have rather little to do with each other, either in rhetoric or in practice, thereafter.9


16So perhaps the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction has been built by our culture along a natural fault line in the psychological landscape. Does that help us understand people’s intuitions about where the boundary of ‘biology’ lies in human affairs? Does it, in short, help us understand what people are talking about when they don’t want to talk about biology?

17In life, people are understandably concerned to distinguish processes that could not, through any sequence of our actions, come out any differently, from those processes where it matters what we decide to do. For example, it doesn’t matter whether or not I try to persuade people that human hearts should be on the left side of the body. I don’t need to bother. Nearly all human hearts are going to be there, for a long time into the future, regardless of what I do. On the other hand, the level of social inequality in Britain is related to specific actions people decided to perform at particular times. It is related to these actions in a complex way; the actions are many, the consequences are subtle and at times unforeseen; the people performed them under exposure to particular discourses encouraging them to think in particular ways. But nonetheless, I could take actions that might have some effect, somewhere down the line, on the level of social inequality in Britain.

  • 10 The connection between intention and moral culpability is apparently universal, though its strengt (...)

18Thus, it feels like there is useful intuitive distinction between the stuff that you just have to accept, and the stuff that could come out differently (it was different at other times, it is different in other places, or it could be different if we organized things differently). You can see how this fixed/non-fixed divide could be useful to think with, in all kinds of human contexts. Which aspects of my potential spouse do I need to just put up with (her height, for example), and which ones might I manage to negotiate or shape so they are different in the future (her behaviour, maybe)? Reasons play a different role in the fixed and non-fixed cases. It’s not important for human societies to reason well about why hearts are on the left. They might figure out a reason why they are on the left, and that would be interesting. But it’s not important to the outcome how people reason about it. Not so social institutions, laws, taxation and so forth: here, the quality of the reasons we come up with affects the social outcomes we get. There is also a connection (though not a completely simple one) between non-fixity and voluntariness or intention: that which is not fixed can perhaps be voluntarily or intentionally addressed. Voluntariness and intention have special roles in human justifications for action, and hence moral culpability (you usually don’t blame me for that which I did not voluntarily choose to do).10

19The spatial metaphor of inside and outside, or body core versus body surface, often gets fused to the concern with fixity and non-fixity. So we say things like ‘Deep down, he’ s always going to be selfish’; ‘is this really in her nature, or is it just something on the surface?’. This spatial translation of the fixed to the middle and the malleable to the edges recalls some diagram of essence and accidents from Medieval philosophy. It is very intuitive, even if it makes no literal scientific sense.


20It seems, then, that we have plenty of intuitive raw material for the cultural emergence of a ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction. We take what seems to us fixed and stick that in a category. We call this bit ‘biology’ to the exclusion of the rest. This is supported and made more compelling by the intuitive relation of the fixed/non-fixed distinction with the inside/surface metaphor: the fixed/’biological’ is the stuff on the inside. Inside a body you find muscle and blood and viscera (and if you look closely enough, genes), stuff that you don’t know how to change, that looks just like the insides of other animals. On the surface of bodies you find all kinds of things you can take on and off like clothes and ear-rings and smartphones, and these don’t look ‘biological’ at all.

21The voluntary/involuntary distinction often gets mixed in here, too. I didn’t do it because of my genes, I did it because I wanted to! Or: he didn’t do it intentionally, he was compelled by an inner urge.

22With this rather muddled set of distinctions culturally available, ‘biology’ becomes the category for everything we don’t want our destinies and our social arrangements to be. ‘Biology’ becomes the place where all the fixed stuff lives, so if you are interested in change or contingency, you define what you do in opposition to the ‘biological’. This is why, in social science, the bad word that follows the bad word ‘biological’ is usually ‘determinism’. ‘Biology’ is the bit of you that is a mere zombie, compelled to follow preordained urgings. You would naturally want that bit to be as small as possible if you valued your autonomy. Finally, ‘biology’ is somehow inside you, with all the disgusting smelly stuff you only look at in medical contexts, whilst most of things you enjoy in life involve your outer surfaces exchanging energy with the world around you. This may explain the tremendous media air-time you can get with neuro-imaging studies showing with pretty maps how activity in the brain differs between people who are and are not X, where X is suffering from schizophrenia, falling in love, growing up in poverty, or listening to Mendelssohn. ‘Gosh!’ we say, ‘I didn’t realise that was actually happening on the inside’. Of course those activities involve being different on the inside. How could they possibly not? But showing that something is going on inside in no way constrains the importance of stuff going on outside in influencing why those experiences happen as they do.


23Once the two receptacles of ‘biology’ and ‘non-biology’ have been made, incoming traffic gets diverted into either one or the other. Genes—‘biology’; environment—‘non-biology’; innate—‘biology’; learned—‘non-biology’; evolved—‘biology’; acquired—‘non-biology’; nature—‘biology’; culture—‘non-biology’. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, you say, at least as a first approximation. I’ve argued that fixed/non-fixed and voluntary/involuntary are actually useful distinctions to make in everyday life—that’s why they exist. So maybe the conventional ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ description is heuristically useful in scientific discourse too, at least as a rough framework for starting out? If it didn’t exist under the labels ‘biology’ and ‘non-biology’, we would have to invent it anyway using different terms.

  • 11 Dawkins, R. (1982). The Extended Phenotype (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

24This is a reasonable view, but, I think, wrong. The ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction of the standard position has only bad features that I can see. It cuts natural continua, such as fixity, into artificial dichotomies, leading to pointless and unproductive contestation about boundary cases. Everything could be different; the question is more ‘what would it take to make X different?’ It puts into the same category concepts that are in fact quite distinct. ‘Genetic’ is not the same as ‘evolved’. And finally it puts into different categories things that are not exclusive. Learning, for example, is something done by genes. Yes, genes, the product of a history of natural selection, do not merely enable learning by their presence. They are intimately involved, through their expression, in how learning actually works. So when you appeal to learning, you are appealing to a genetic process (and, indirectly, to evolution). More generally, any attempt to mark the ‘inside stuff’ off from the ‘outside stuff’ is a dual disservice. It ignores how profoundly environmental processes become embedded in the body, and how things like genes can exert effects outside the body envelope.11


25My thesis, then, holds out both good and bad news for the standard position demarcating social science. The bad news is: it’s all biology. Everything social scientists do is biology. It’s not that it will be replaced by biology in the future, in some Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nightmare scenario. Everything social scientists do already is, and always has been, biology. Why? Because biology is the study of living things. Humans are living things, and so whatever they do, however they organize themselves, whatever extraordinary technologies they create, whatever meanings they entertain, reasons they give or tastes they develop, these are all biological processes.

26All you have done here, you might respond, is to define biology so as to include all of the things the social sciences are interested in. We do not immediately understand social phenomena any better by doing this. Has anything actually been gained by this move? I might retort: well, it was the standard position that started this, by defining biology in a restricted and artificial way so that the things social scientists are interested in would not be in it. All I am doing is restoring a more sensible baseline. The redefinition doesn’t change anything overnight, but in the long run it might help us do better research. As scientists, we are bricoleurs (tinkerers), using whatever materials and ideas we have lying around to try to solve new problems, or better solve existing ones. If, by erasing boundaries within the academy, we expand the repertoire of techniques and ideas that individuals know and encounter, then we might all be able to progress a bit more quickly.

27So the bad news is: it’s all biology. But here’s the good news: biology is not what you think it is. The resistance to ‘biology’ in the social sciences is founded on the fear that certain things we really value would be foreclosed by joining up to the biological sciences. I believe this fear is largely groundless.

28The fear arises from an opposition between law-like determinism (assumed to characterise biology as a natural science) and the world of partial influences and historical contingencies (assumed to characterise the social sciences). In natural science, the argument goes, there are absolute laws. If you drop a cannon-ball from a tower on earth, there is no doubt about the outcome. In the social sciences, we have general tendencies and patterns, but these always have exceptions and specificities in their realization; we have historical processes that are explicable in retrospect but could not have been predicted prospectively. We social scientists just can’t fit what we do into a world of simple natural laws.

29This fear is easily dismissed, since its view of how natural science works is misleading. That science consists in uncovering a few simple and absolute laws holds, if it holds at all, only as a description of physics. Philosophers of biology are pretty clear that biological science is not like this. The history of life is a contingent and path-dependent historical process. There are certainly regularities in the way it has evolved, but its course is a complex resultant of selection gradients, available variation, the kinds of raw material that was already there, chance, and time. What evolution produces is an astonishing diversity of inter-linked systems: cellular systems, organ systems, organisms, social groups, ecosystems. These are all dynamic; their dynamics depend on where they start from, and feed back into the selection pressures of the future. Although sense can be made of how these different kinds of systems work, no-one believes you can simply read off all their specific properties from a few very simple laws, either of an evolutionary or biophysical kind.

30A second fear is that biological science involves a kind of explanatory monoculture, whereas explanation in the social sciences needs to be more heterogeneous. The social sciences involve identification of many different mechanisms of rather different types, at different levels: individual-level mechanisms like response to incentives or psychological biases; social-level mechanisms like stratification or spatial assortment; cultural-level mechanisms like diffusion of innovations; or even symbolic and discursive-level mechanisms. Critics of social science see the diversity of this explanatory menagerie as a weakness. A field with such an undigested diversity of explanatory strategies must just be a conceptual mess. But a lot of social scientists would respond that they value this very diversity. In complex human social phenomena, you can’t just deduce the historical outcome from properties of the individual psychologies, or the social organization, or cultural diffusion, alone. You need all of these things, and whilst you need to understand how they inter-relate, you can’t eliminate any of them from the stock of things we need to appeal to, and should not try.

31The fear of ‘biology’ that comes from this somehow assumes that biological science, in contrast, only admits of one type of explanatory construct. That explanatory construct, in this straw biological science, is usually molecular (for example, a gene, a hormone, or a neurotransmitter). This is why another bad word that often follows the bad word ‘biological’ in social-science-speak is ‘reductionism’. Once again this is a gross mischaracterization. Biological science is a diverse enterprise involving people who work at many levels. Almost all of the levels involve systems thinking: from cellular systems, physiological systems, whole organisms, swarms, hives, communities, populations to ecosystems. Though researchers are centrally concerned with how the functioning of the systems at one level relate to the dynamics at another level (e.g. molecules to cells, cells to whole organisms, individual organisms to populations), the traffic goes both ways, and there is certainly no simple theoretical monoculture. The stuff that goes on inside the individual is not, in principle, theoretically privileged over population processes. There is no sane proposal to eliminate the organism, the population, or the ecosystem as levels of analysis, or to deny that there are complex dynamics at these levels we cannot simply deduce from the dynamics at more molecular levels. In fact, explanation in biological science looks somewhat like explanation in social science: it is not a matter of reducing everything to the molecular level, so much as the identification of various kinds of mechanisms, operating at different scales, in slightly different ways in different contexts, to shape the outcome of complex and variable systems through time.

32The cause has not been helped here by the writings of certain zealous ‘biologisers’ from the humanities and social sciences. Look at the social sciences, they say, a complete hodge-podge of unintegrated, theoretically incoherent sub-disciplines, not really getting anywhere. Now look at biological science. It’s the most successful branch of knowledge of the past hundred years. It is conceptually unified by the theory of evolution. If the theory of evolution did that for biological science, then given that we too are evolved beings, it can now do the same for the social sciences and humanities. I have sympathy with many aspects of this view, but it is important not to over-simplify for rhetorical effect. Inspired by popular accounts of evolutionary biology, the ‘biologisers’ ascribe biological thought all manner of positive properties they feel the social sciences don’t currently have, like simplicity, unity, and theoretical elegance. A lot of these properties turn out to be somewhat over-stated once you start actually swimming in biological waters. There is widespread human tendency to under-estimate the complexity and internal heterogeneity of categories of which we don’t have much direct personal experience. I suspect there is an inverse correlation between how unified and elegant you think biological science is compared to social science, and how many hours you have ever spent in a biology lab or field site.

33The truth is that biological science, viewed from closer up, is also something of a hodge-podge; less so than social science, but a little bit hodgy and in some respects podgy nonetheless. It is unified by the theory of evolution only to a point. Most working biological research is cellular and molecular, and here the theory of evolution usually plays rather little role either in techniques, explanations, or the kinds of questions people ask (it probably should do more, but it doesn’t at present). And then even in the parts of biological science that are more explicitly evolutionary, such as whole-organism biology and ecology, there’s a great deal we don’t know about how it all works out in detail. The ‘biologisers’ sometimes imply that it suffices to read Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, maybe coupled with William Hamilton’s seminal 1964 papers on kin selection, and then you can simply deduce kidneys, or star-nosed moles, or what happens in Yellowstone National Park. You can’t. That’s what biologists do all day. They don’t agree about it all. It is going to end up involving a great diversity of processes, and a lot of detailed understanding of specific mechanisms.

  • 12 For some discussion, see Scruton, R. (2017). On Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Pres (...)
  • 13 See The cultural and the agentic, this volume.

34A final fear that social scientists might have about changing the sign over the office door to ‘biologist’ is that they would lose the opportunity to speak about agency, and related notions of responsibility and the moral life.12 The non-human living world may exhibit complexity, but it is not a world whose inhabitants have agency. This is why human affairs are different, and we need to hold on to this fact in the ways we talk about it. I agree that agency, and the things that go with it, are distinctive features of human life that need to be accounted for, not down-played or ignored. But ‘distinctive’ need not mean ‘not biological’. In fact, some of our existing social science theoretical frameworks do a bad job with agency. Social constructionism would be one example. If our very personhood is a cultural construct, originating in social discourses we were exposed to but did not choose, then what sense can we make of responsibility, moral justification or voluntary action? Are they not just shams? The more I think about agency, the more I feel that it is not so much that agency can be reconciled with seeing us as biological beings. It is that only by seeing us as biological beings can we rescue any coherent notion of what human agency is or the uses to which it is generally put.13 Joining up with biological science certainly does not make the problem of agency any more difficult than it already is. If anything, it’s the key to progress.


35Re-designating social science as one of the biological sciences should not be a case of restricting the types of data or explanatory entities to which social science is entitled. And it is certainly not a case of seeing humans as just the same as monkeys or mongooses. After all, monkeys are not just the same as mole rats or slime moulds, yet they are all totally biological. It’s more a case of feeling free to pursue the theoretical and empirical connections between different types of data, types of description, types of process, without getting held up at the border post. It gives us a greater library of options to improvise with, connections to make.

36The goal of abolishing the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction is worthy. Can we succeed? I don’t know. There are institutional and organisational issues here that are going to be slow to unpick, if they can be unpicked at all. And if the ‘biology’ /’non-biology’ distinction really is a cultural attractor, we are running into quite a strong psychological headwind. But folk psychology is what science is here to rise above, not something to which it is condemned. Admittedly, though, people have been trying quite seriously to dismantle the boundary between the ‘biological’ and the ‘social’ for at least fifty years, and yet there is still plenty of evidence of it on the ground.

37Taken together, the folk psychology of the audience, and the ways institutions are divided up, can provide incentives for perpetuating the boundaries even amongst those who know much better. In my experience, when a scholar defines their position as not-just-X, where X is, for example, ‘biology’, they are not usually interested in the actual contents of category X. In fact, they usually present a deliberately impoverished view of what those contents are. They almost require such a limited view. If they admitted too much of the truth about X, such as its internal heterogeneity and potential for future change, their appeal to not-being-just-X would probably fail in its functions. The appeal is a territorial claim; a rallying point; a stoking of prejudice; a parochial code for fellow-feelers to identify one another; it is a kind of aesthetic, moral and financial self-justification; it is a signal of social distinction. The unfortunate thing is that scholars, like politicians, can get rewarded for these kinds of moves, and misunderstood or ignored if they fail to make them.

38We can try to do something about this, even if it is an uphill battle. As authors, we can catch ourselves every time we lazily or parochially use a phrase like ‘Whereas biologists believe…’, or ‘Whilst economists see….’ Which biologists? Which economists? And why label them by their kind? Why not just use their names? As readers, we should be as critical and sceptical of parochial claims from our scholars as from our politicians. We should see ourselves as citizens of the whole wide intellectual world, and demand reasons, expressed in clear language, that make sense universally, without appeal to the tribal affiliations of their originators.


1 Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, e-book location 4819).

2 NPR Books, April 30th 2013,

3 See Benton, T. (1991). Biology and social science: Why the return of the repressed should be given a (cautious) welcome. Sociology 25: 1–29,

4 It feels increasingly like that.

5 Russell, E. (2011). Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (New York: Cambridge University Press).

6 Fox Keller, E. (2010). The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (Durham, SC: Duke University Press). The dualism of germline/genes vs. soma/environment is not quite the same as that of ‘biology’ vs. ‘non-biology’. Most obviously, for all other species, we think of both the ‘genetic’ and ‘environmental’ bits as being ‘biological’, whereas for our own species, exceptionally, we tend to call the somatic/environmental bit ‘non-biology’.

7 See Benton, T. (1991). Biology and social science: Why the return of the repressed should be given a (cautious) welcome. Sociology, 25: 1–29,; and Meloni, M. (2016). The transcendence of the social: Durkheim, Weismann, and the purification of sociology. Frontiers in Sociology 1: 1–13,

8 See the concluding chapter of Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) for an argument along these lines.

9 Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: ‘Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers—he is an active natural being’(p. 69). Download at: Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks (written between 1929 and 1935): ‘Philosophy cannot be reduced to a naturalistic “anthropology”: the nature of the human species is not given by the “biological” nature of man’ (Hoare, Q. and G. M. Smith eds., 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart, p. 335). Of course there is a great deal more to be said about the difference between Marx and Gramsci, or indeed early and late Marx, than this glib observation.

10 The connection between intention and moral culpability is apparently universal, though its strength may vary somewhat across societies: Barrett, H. C. et al. (2016). Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113: 4688–93,

11 Dawkins, R. (1982). The Extended Phenotype (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

12 For some discussion, see Scruton, R. (2017). On Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

13 See The cultural and the agentic, this volume.


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