Why the biology of human behavior is not the enemy of social progress – L’Express

An ideological gap is widening between men and women by

Where do the differences between men and women come from? There are generally two types of answers to this question. The first consists of arguing that the differences between the two sexes are exclusively natural and that nothing and no one can change anything. The second objects that, on the contrary, disparities between the sexes are only the product of social constructions. To achieve equality, it would be enough to change representations. This plunges us into one of the oldest antagonisms in the history of thought: the opposition between nature and culture.

For Stéphane Debove, doctor in evolutionary biology and psychology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, this debate is not only outdated, but it contributes to maintaining two opposing errors: completely denying the role that acquired knowledge plays in our behavior, or the innate.

READ ALSO: Kathryn Paige Harden: “At birth, we experience a double social and genetic lottery”

On his chain Youtube Homo Fabulus (31,000 subscribers), the researcher becomes popularizer and twists the neck of the caricatures which are the target of his field of research, evolutionary psychology (a branch of psychology which studies how human cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes have been shaped by natural selection through evolution).

In his latest book Who (really) benefits from genetics?*, Stéphane Debove addresses all those who, as indicated in the subtitle “Why the biology of human behavior does not condemn social progress”, are concerned about the political repercussions of the biology of human behavior, defined as “a set of fields interested in the biological bases of behavior”. Doesn’t this research risk preventing any social progress? For Stéphane Debove, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, this fear, understandable but unfounded, is rooted in the pervasiveness, in the collective imagination, of this insidious opposition between social and biological.

READ ALSO: Academic success: what to do about the genetic lottery? By Franck Ramus

Biologists, he writes, in no way adhere to total genetic determinism, but rather to the “interactionist” consensus: “as all living beings are the result of genes immersed in environments, all our traits are at the same time genetic and environmental.

To illustrate this opposition, Stéphane Debove takes the example of tanning. Our ability to tan depends on mechanisms coded by genes that allow the production of melanin. However, the norms of a society may or may not encourage tanning, and an individual may decide to expose themselves more or less to the sun. Biological and social factors are not mutually exclusive, and recognizing the influence of genes does not imply the impossibility of changing our degree of tanning. It is therefore fallacious to assert, as some do, that the biology of human behavior justifies and reinforces gender stereotypes responsible for inequalities and discrimination. For Debove, the existence of differences between individuals in no way legitimizes their discrimination. He thus reminds us, following the Scottish philosopher David Hume, that it is impossible to derive ethical judgments from simple empirical facts, and that we cannot deduce what should be from what is.

READ ALSO: “It has become the ultimate taboo”: when Sciences Po censors Darwin

This widespread confusion, which has real-world consequences, actually harms progressive causes.

For example, many feminist movements are against behavioral biology because it suggests that the relative preeminence of men in the public sphere is not only the result of a cultural and social construction, but also the “product of evolutionary strategies serving reproductive interests,” he writes. In other words, if men tend to compete with each other, it is partly to attract partners, who themselves favor high-status men, better able to protect their common offspring.

By ignoring this fact, although documented by scientific literature, these activists are not only going against “Hume’s guillotine”, they are depriving themselves of a better understanding of the phenomenon they are fighting and, by extension, of a means of encouraging individuals to take action on their lives and improving the effectiveness of public policies.

Let us hope that this welcome contribution from Stéphane Debove will shake up a public debate that is still too steeped in social constructivism, by giving voice to academic work that is often too little known to the general public. And to make it clear, once and for all, that “studies in genetics will not make the social sciences lose explanatory power but will help them gain it”.

*Stéphane Debove, Who (really) benefits from genetics? : Why the biology of human behavior does not condemn social progress173 pages, 11.90 euros.