Biological determinism is the theory that human behaviour, specifically the difference between males and females, is a result of genetic makeup rather than influences of the environment and society in general.
This is a debate which is of central importance to sociology, on the one hand there are the biologists who claim that our behaviour is influenced by our genetics as opposed to social issues. On the other hand there are the sociologists who believe the process of socialisation is the underpinning of human behaviour, and that we learn by our experiences. Then there are the socio-biologists who are of the opinion that human behaviour is a product of our ancestors therefore it is inherited.
This debate is also of major importance to the feminist perspective. If, for example, we take the traditional role of a female, as a housewife or a child carer, if this is a result of our biological makeup then and is not in fact the product of socialisation, there would be serious questions raised for the validity of the feminist perspective.
There is the hormonal argument which is part of the biological view point, which outlines the influence of hormones on the body and a person’s behaviour. Males and females have the same hormones but in differing levels, males have large quantities of testosterone whist females have progesterone and oestrogen. Both also have the hormone Serotonin but the quantities are higher with females which increases the boredom threshold and patience, which in turn prepares the woman for childcare and household chores. During childbirth high levels of Oxytocin help the woman to deal with the trauma and after the pressures of caring for a newborn.
Brain lateralisation states that the left and right hemispheres of the brain specialise, the left side is supposed to be the logical, verbal and dominant half of the brain, whereas the right side is known as the imaginative side, emotional and spatially aware. Males concentrate on the right side while females use both. This is evident in the film: Why men don’t iron. In the experiment whereby males and females were asked to trace a mirror image with both their left and right hands, the men were not able to trace with their left hand, while the women were able to trace with either hand. The film also showed that females were more able to multi-task. In the experiment where a group of males and females had to carry out a set of tasks in an allocated time, such as iron a shirt, scramble eggs, do the washing up, answer the phone, take a message and organised a briefcase. The women managed to do the tasks quicker and better than the men.
Contrary to this sociologists believe that the differing behaviour of males and females is due to the socalisation. There is an obvious input of the family during primary socialisation. Parents reinforce gender in many ways, for example the toys they buy their children, i.e. dolls for girls and tools for boys. This is shown by an experiment at Sussex University, whereby 32 mothers were given a choice of a toy to give to their child, a doll or a hammer. The mothers chose to give the girls the doll and the boys the hammer.
Gender is also reinforced during secondary socialisation. The media often displays gender roles. In the teen magazine ‘Jackie’ Mcrobbie found that there was the same underlying story every week, which was girl meets boy. Sociologists would say that this supported the image that a girl without a boyfriend was not ‘normal’ and that she should strive to get a boyfriend. Statham found that parents who purposely tried to socialise their children avoiding gender stereotyping found that it was not possible to prevail over cultural pressure. This is evident in the study ‘frogs and snails and feminist tales’ by Davis in 1989. This study presented children with books that avoided gender stereotyping, for example one story was about a princess who saved a prince, and the story finishes with ‘they don’t get married’. When asked if they liked these stories the children said that they didn’t. To sociologists this shows that gender are central to a young person’s identity, and is an important way that children make sense of the world.
Socio-biologist on the other hand, believe that human behaviour is inherited from our ancestors. They believe that as we inherit physical attributes so we inherit behaviour. If we take David Barash’s argument, that women have evolved over the millennia to meet the needs of their particular environment. If we were to go back to pre-history when there was a hunter gatherer society, the hunters were more likely to be male while gatherer female reproduced, and females in the process of reproduction are dependant on the males to provide for them. Therefore through the thousands of years of evolution humans have continued these set behaviours, males provide females reproduce and care for the offspring. Their priority is to provide for their offspring ensuring their survival. These behaviours exhibit the needs of our culture, just as people of different cultures have differing behaviours that apply to the needs of their own society.
To survive humans must reproduce, and as females only produce a limited number of eggs and therefore they strive to choose suitable sperm, i.e. the strongest male or the cleverest. In modern society it would be a male who is successful, with high status and wealth. Males on the other hand use a different approach, and to ensure reproduction of their genes will resort to promiscuity, and will seek out and compete for the most productive female.
Oakley on the other hand found that women’s role of the bearer and carer of children had been ascribed by society and they existed for the convenience of men. She also argued that research carried out by male theorists such as Murdock, Parsons and Bowlby only reflected their own claims to governance over women, and therefore it was not surprising that their work only emphasized the traditional roles of women within society. Oakley underlined that gender is cultural occurrence and not always linked to sex, she claimed that it is gender role socialisation that is more of a factor in creating masculine men and feminine women than any genetic trait that men and women have.
It is clear that our behaviour is influenced by the media and learning process, and, as we interact with the world around us we and learn from our mistakes so we learn about ourselves and develop certain behaviours. However we can not discount the influence of biology and that the shift in our hormonal balance changes the way we behave. It is also reasonable to assume that just as our physical make-up has evolved over the millennia, then some aspects of our behaviour has also been inherited alongside that. But is it possible to draw one determining conclusion and suggest that there is a greater influence from learned experiences or biological determinism? Although it would seem that there are influences on both side and it is not just one that determines the way we behave.