How Biology Became Social and What It Means for Social Theory

The Sociological Review 62:593-614 (2014)
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In this paper I first offer a systematic outline of a series of conceptual novelties in the life-sciences that have favoured, over the last three decades, the emergence of a more social view of biology. I focus in particular on three areas of investigation: (1) technical changes in evolutionary literature that have provoked a rethinking of the possibility of altruism, morality and prosocial behaviours in evolution; (2) changes in neuroscience, from an understanding of the brain as an isolated data processor to the ultrasocial and multiply connected social brain of contemporary neuroscience; and (3) changes in molecular biology, from the view of the gene as an autonomous master of development to the ‘reactive genome’ of the new emerging field of molecular epigenetics. In the second section I reflect on the possible implications for the social sciences of this novel biosocial terrain and argue that the postgenomic language of extended epigenetic inheritance and blurring of the nature/nurture boundaries will be as provocative for neo-Darwinism as it is for the social sciences as we have known them. Signs of a new biosocial language are emerging in several social-science disciplines and this may represent an exciting theoretical novelty for twenty-first social theory.
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