Free Will and Biological Determinism

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my friend Stephen Jay Gould, acknowledging his faults but also saying that I thought him a great force for moral good.  The reason why I wrote was because, just recently, Gould has been criticized for some claims he made in The Mismeasure of Man about a study of human skulls by the 19th-century anthropologist Samuel Morton.  I suggested that quite probably the criticisms are well taken, but that does not deny the worth of Gould’s critique of those who argue that humans are locked by their genes into their destinies – a view often known as “biological” or “genetic determinism.”

The science writer John Horgan has also come to Gould’s defense in much the way that I did.  But I do want to correct what I think is a misconception about a matter of philosophy in Horgan’s piece.  In criticizing those who think the genes important – as it happens, I think Horgan goes overboard here on the science, but this is not my concern right now  – he argues that those who think that everything is a matter of causal determinism and that there is no free will are likewise tainted with the brush of genetic determinism.

Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology. Biological determinism is thriving today: I see it in the assertion of researchers such as the anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University that the roots of human warfare reach back all the way to our common ancestry with chimpanzees. In the claim of scientists such as Rose McDermott of Brown University that certain people are especially susceptible to violent aggression because they carry a “warrior gene.” In the enthusiasm of some science journalists for the warrior gene and other flimsy linkages of genes to human traits. In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our “choices” are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. In the contention of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks’ innate inferiority. In the excoriation of many modern researchers of courageous anti-determinists such as Gould and Margaret Mead.

Goodness that I should come to the defense of the New Atheist Sam Harris, whose writings generally on matters philosophical strike me as crude to the point of parody.  Or that I should defend Jerry Coyne, who daily thanks his Maker for having also created me that right-thinking people (Coyne) can drag over the coals wrong-thinking people (Ruse) for arguing that science and religion are compatible.  And I think that Coyne and Harris are wrong inasmuch as they argue that free will is an illusion.  I would say that it undoubtedly exists.  I am exercising free will right now by writing on this topic rather than on more congenial subjects like the superiority of cricket over baseball.

But the philosophical position that they espouse – known as “compatibilism” – is not in any sense racist nor does it necessarily have anything to do with biological determinism.  Compatibilism, a position to which I subscribe and whose greatest exponent and defender was David Hume, argues that the correct opposition is not between free will and causal determinism, but between free will and restraint.  A person hypnotized or forced to do something at gun point is not free.  A person writing a blog like me is free.  This has nothing in itself to do with whether we are causally determined.  And in fact, as compatibilists like to point out, to deny causal determinism is not to promote free will.  If I do something randomly, I am not free.  I am nuts.  We don’t punish crazy people precisely because they are not free and thereby not morally responsible.

Dan Dennett, another of the New Atheists and another who has little respect for me, has made the point nicely in his book Elbow Room.  Think of the Mars Rover.  It is entirely causally determined, but has a dimension of freedom that many vehicles do not have, inasmuch as if it encounters an obstacle it can reassess and go around rather than crash straight in.  That is how the compatibilist regards freedom and determinism and why he or she thinks you can – and indeed must – have both.

Finally, note that the determinism need have nothing to do with biology – although as a matter of fact I suspect it does have something.  (I for one would be very surprised to find that biology is totally irrelevant to sexual orientation, although I certainly don’t think there is a simple isomorphism between gay genes and adult inclinations and behavior.)  We could be entirely environmentally determined.  I am sure that the kids at those toffee-nosed private schools in New York City, that so upset me, do better on the SAT’s than the kids at the high school in Tallahassee where my offspring were educated.  I doubt very much that it has anything to do with genes and everything with the fact that if you drop nearly a hundred grand a year on your child’s education you are going to get the results you want.  Environmental determinism down the line.

At Christmas in 1914, the first year of the Great War, the British and German soldiers left their trenches and played soccer together.  I feel a bit like this coming to the defence of Coyne and Harris.  I think they are wrong about a lot of things.  But they are not wrong here.

Return to Top