Culture or Biology? If this sounds interesting, you might be confused

In Jaan Valsinger (ed.), Social Philosophy of Science for the Social Sciences. Springer. pp. 45-71 (2019)
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Culture or Biology? The question can seem deep and important. Yet, I argue in this chapter, if you are enthralled by questions about our biological differences, then you are probably confused. My goal is to diagnose the confusion. In debates about the role of biology in the social world it is easy to ask the wrong questions, and it is easy to misinterpret the scientific research. We are intuitively attracted to what is called psychological essentialism, and therefore interpret what is biological as what can be traced to “essences”. On this interpretation, it would be deep and important to know what about, say, the differences between the genders is biological: it would correspond to what is essential to being a man or being a woman, and be opposed to what is a mere accidental feature that some women or some men have. Yet, the psychological essentialist understanding of ‘biological differences’ is deeply mistaken about biology. It has the wrong conception of biological kinds, of biological heritability, and of how genes and hormones work. Those who argue for an important role of ‘biology’ in the explanation of human differences often see ‘the science’ on their side. But this is false – on the interpretation of ‘biological differences’ that is most intuitive and that makes the question appear to be most interesting. Defenders of ‘biology’ often have the science against them. What is often called ‘biology’ is a myth: a myth created by an intuitive tendency that grotesquely distorts real biological research.

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Sebastian Watzl
University of Oslo


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