Dictionary Definition

hereditarianism n : the philosophical doctrine that heredity is more important than environment in determining intellectual growth [ant: environmentalism]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the school of thought that hereditary is more important than factors such as environment in determining intelligence and behaviour

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Hereditarianism is the doctrine or school of thought that heredity plays a significant role in determining human nature and character traits, such as intelligence and personality. Hereditarians believe in the power of genetics to explain human character traits and solve human social and political problems. Hereditarians adopt the view that an understanding of human evolution can extend the understanding of human nature. They have explicitly abandoned the standard social science model.

Competing theories

The opposite of hereditarnianism is behaviorism or social determinism. This disagreement and controversy is part of the nature versus nurture debate.
Hereditarianism is sometimes used as a synonym for biological or genetic determinism, though some scholars distinguish the two terms. When distinguished, biological determinism is used to mean that heredity is the only factor. Supporters of hereditarianism reject this sense of biological determinism for most cases. However, in some cases genetic determinism is true; for example, Matt Ridley (1999) describes Huntington's disease as "pure fatalism, undiluted by environmental variability." In other cases, hereditarians would see no role for genes; for example, the condition of "not knowing a word of Chinese" has nothing to do (directly) with genes (Dennett, 2003). In most cases, hereditarians believe that genes play an intermediate role. In all cases, they believe this is an empirical and not a philosophical question.
Some scholars argue that an organism inherits only alleles, and that only the interaction of alleles with environment creates phenotypes. Put another way, in this view there are no additive genetic or environmental effects, only interactions. Steven Pinker has criticized this view, which he terms "holistic interactionism".http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/papers/nature_nurture.pdf Philosopher Daniel Dennett satirized this view: "Surely 'everyone knows' that the nature-nurture debate was resolved long ago, and neither side wins since everything-is-a-mixture-of-both-and-it's-all-very-complicated, so let's think of something else, right?" The hereditarian view is that for a set of actual people (i.e., a given set of genes and environments) it is possible to partition the causal influences between genetic and environmental variation.

Contemporary hereditarianism

Herediatrianism has seen a resurgence since the mid-1970's, as sociobiology, behavioral genetics and the gene-centered view of evolution began to influence scholarly and political discourse. The concept came to the attention of the public following the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, which ignited intense debate about possible correlations between race and intelligence.
Contemporary hereditarianism encompasses a number of interrelated fields and points of view:

Political implications

Historically, hereditarians were more likely to be conservative (Pastore, 1949). They view social and economic inequality as a natural result of variation in talent and character. Thus, likewise they explain class and race differences as the result of partly-genetic group differences. Behaviorists were more likely to be liberals or leftists. They believe economic disadvantage and structural problems in the social order were to blame for group differences. Conservative economist Thomas Sowell has noted the converse relationship in his book A Conflict of Visions: noting that conservatives tend to have a hereditarian view of human nature (Sowell calls this the "constrained" view) and liberals tend to have a behaviorist ("unconstrained") view.
However, the historical correspondence between hereditarianism and conservatism has broken down at least among proponents of hereditarianism. Many notable hereditarians are avowedly liberal. A notable example was Noam Chomsky's defense of sociobiology. Philosopher Peter Singer describes his vision of a new liberal political view that embraces hereditarianism in his 1999 book A Darwinian Left. Similarly, in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, psychologist Steven Pinker endorses the view that hereditarianism is the empirically correct view of human nature, that this does have political implications which would constrain the goals of some liberal philosophies, but that embracing rather than rejecting the hereditarian view of human nature is the best way to achieve liberal goals.
The controversial Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 is now a leading source of funding for scientists wishing to investigate hereditarian hypotheses.

Notable hereditarians


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