Determinism is the belief that all human behaviors flow from genetic or environmental factors that, once they have occurred, are very difficult or impossible to change. For example, a determinist might argue that a person’s genes make him or her anxious. An extreme determinist would argue that gene-based anxiety cannot be altered, while a moderate determinist would argue that anxiety’s genetic basis makes it more difficult to change.
History of Determinism
Determinism has been a philosophical position for hundreds of years. It has also been a hotly contested political issue. Although the philosophies of individual determinists may vary, determinism has typically been a conservative philosophy. For example, some biological determinists in the early 20th century argued that biological factors made black people innately less intelligent than white people. Determinism has frequently been used to uphold sexist ideas and to defend the belief that men and women are inherently different and unequal.
In contemporary psychology, determinists are most likely to be genetic determinists who argue that genes are paramount in determining a person’s personality, lifestyle, and fate. Modern evolutionary psychologists have received some criticism for being genetic determinists. Many evolutionary psychologists eschew this term and argue that they are not advocating a deterministic philosophy. In addition, there are also environmental determinists. An environmental determinist might argue, for example, that early attachment patterns cannot be altered once they are established.
Criticism of Determinism
Numerous scientists and political organizations have criticized determinism, claiming that it is scientifically inaccurate and serves to uphold societal norms. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a famous book called The Mismeasure of Man designed to combat what he viewed as the deterministic leanings of the controversial book The Bell Curve. Gould traced the history of scientific determinism and argued that all determinist philosophies are ultimately proven incorrect.
Many scientists now argue that the nature versus nurture debate is dead and that personality is really determined by a combination of nature and nurture. They point out that no single factor can affect human development and that biological determinism is an overly simplistic philosophy. Many scientists also believe that behaviorism—which argues for the primacy of the environment—is also overly simplistic.
- Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York, NY: Norton.
- Lancaster, R. N., & Di, L. M. (1997). The gender/sexuality reader: Culture, history, political economy. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Last Updated: 08-5-2015
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SecretaryMay 18th, 2016 at 7:38 PM
As a determinist, I feel that you have not accurately described how we see the world. We never think that we cannot change something. We change things everyday. And your categories of “extreme determinist” and “moderate determinist” makes no sense to me. Determinism is simply an understanding that everything that people do, they could not have done otherwise. There is a book (“Aren’t We The Lucky Ones” by Secretary Michael) about a group of determinists who lived together quite happily. Determinism teaches us compassion. It can be something beautiful.
RandoNovember 12th, 2019 at 4:43 PM
Determinism doesn’t go against nature and nurture, in fact the opposite. If our environment and genetics affect our actions, and therefore the genetics and environment of future generations, then we could not have made different actions without a different set of variables(nature and nurture). The very debate that nature and nurture determine a persons actions, personality, and everything else, is based in determinalism
CurtJanuary 18th, 2020 at 1:09 PM
That definition of determinism is too narrow. Determinism is the idea that all events are guaranteed to come to pass by prior causes. Environmental or genetic factors are the only things that can determine what comes to pass. God’s decree of what will happen will definitely guarantee that something will come to pass.
Squidward TentaclesJanuary 21st, 2020 at 6:32 AM
I work a minimum wage job. Why am I here.
AdokumahMarch 18th, 2021 at 5:50 PM
Please what are some merits and demerits of environmental determinism
Bingo BongoMay 8th, 2021 at 1:45 AM
I am in a similar situation as you Squidward. Your comment made me laugh for a good few minutes.
DorJuly 7th, 2021 at 4:31 AM
Determinism is the scientific fact that our decisions, choices and/or actions are all caused by a causal chain over which our limited awareness and control lies only in a tiny percentage of things that we are caused to be aware of and caused to control in the exact manner that we have been caused to act out. This fact stands in opposition to the illusion and superstition that we are using magical spirit powers to somehow stand outside of these causes and choose to control the causes and effects without being caused to do precisely as we have been caused to do so. Hard Determinism has been criticized for often mistakenly including the idea of acausal subatomic flux merely allowing for and causing finite microcausal chains rather than allowing and causing that chain reaction to have the complexity/chaos necessary to create a nonpredetermined future. A nonpredermined future does not mean that humans can magically choose to change the future without being caused to do so in the fashion in which they were caused. Soft Determinism is a false idea with no sound reasoning that allows for the superstition to persist in the face of the fact of determinism. Biological Determinism is not Determinism, it is a deterministic approach to psychology that suggests that biological factors are far more powerful and overriding than we might at first assume when looking at exceptions who appear to have freely chosen to break free of their many apparent causal factors. In reality, these exceptions have been determined/caused to break free of their apparent causes by other causes that were largely hidden from the viewer. If you want to end shame, and enter an age of rationality, therapy should perhaps begin with an actual understanding of causality, rather than misusing the word Determinism to mean “the bad guy who says we can’t choose to change our lives”.
JenniJuly 17th, 2021 at 9:51 AM
Is it healthy when believing that we don’t have control of our choices means we think what is the point in life. Life is meaningless. What’s the point.
Name chosen by causesAugust 13th, 2021 at 8:14 AM
Jenni why watch a movie or read a book when you can’t choose how it unfolds and when it ends? What’s the point?
For some the point is just to enjoy it. For others it’s simply to see where the story goes.
Life is its own meaning.
DavidMay 21st, 2022 at 4:53 AM
@Name chosen by causes: There is perhaps a tiny qualitative difference between enjoying the surprises, twists and turns of a plotline in a book or movie – in fact, we can enjoy a book or movie countless times when we already know the outcome – and struggling through life, working hard for a minimum wage (where the word “minimum” has been interpreted to mean “the least we can get away with paying” rather than the intended “minimum needed to afford a life of dignity and freedom from want”) or beset by other problems over which we have no control, and which come largely from intractable structures that, for example, perpetuate gross economic inequality. If we then say, “it’s all predetermined, you are just fulfilling the destiny pre-ordained for you by an infinite number of previous conditions and acts”, one might very well ask, “what’s the point?”
At the risk of sounding harsh, it’s a bit obtuse to be riding in a limousine and then say “just enjoy the ride” to someone struggling uphill on a bicycle with one flat tire… or, “just lose yourself in a book!” If I’m not going to jump off the nearest cliff, then I have to believe that some things are at least marginally under our control – even if that really means that I am the product of conditions that gave me the willpower to effect change. (Or I could just sit on the couch all day. Still undecided.)
HenryAugust 26th, 2022 at 5:49 AM
Hi Dan, I am in the process of submitting a PhD research on choices and determinism. I’m intrigued by your contribution and would love to pick your brain if you don’t mind. Thanks.
HenryAugust 26th, 2022 at 5:53 AM
I’m about submitting a PhD research with regards to determinism and choices. I’d love to pick your brain with regards to this if it’s ok by you.
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