Hand and DNA ribbonDeterminism 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.


  1. Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York, NY: Norton.
  2. Lancaster, R. N., & Di, L. M. (1997). The gender/sexuality reader: Culture, history, political economy. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. 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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    May 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.

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