How is human behavior influenced biologically

Spectrum: Professor Voland - are we just genetically determined bio-automata?

Prof. Dr. Eckart Voland:As a biologist, I actually assume that all the information about the structure of humans and their control is in the genes. There is no other source of information. My science, sociobiology, is just providing a genetic theory of behavior. However, it would be wrong to claim that the identification of genes also gives us a one-to-one pattern of various human behaviors, strategies and preferences.

Spectrum: What do the genes do?

Voland:They code proteins, nothing more. But in the end they build up what also controls our behavior: the psyche with all its competencies, mechanisms and modules. Our environment is of course also decisive for our specific behavior. The genes provide, so to speak, the matrix for understanding the function of behavior. But analyzing the human genome will not be enough to fully understand our behavior.

Spectrum: Professor Eckensberger - you are a psychologist. Where do you look for the causes of our behavior?

Prof. Dr. Lutz H. Eckensberger:Personally, I am less concerned with the concrete behavior in this or that situation, but with the reconstruction of the normative reference systems that order our behavior as a whole. How do people come to develop standards that regulate their behavior? This includes morality, law and conventions - but also logic.

Spectrum: And none of that matters to you, Mr. Voland?

Voland:Yes, of course, but from a different point of view. I understand our behavior to be the result of an "adapted phenotype," as we biologists say.

Spectrum: What does that mean?

Voland:Today's human being is an adapted organism. It is constructed from genes - from genes that have proven to be beneficial in evolution. Our behavior-regulating machinery - with all its modules, motives and cognitions, with everything that we experience every day in our self-perception - is the product of "egoistic genes", understood as the result of a selection process that has only rewarded such behavior in the past that was useful for reproduction, i.e. the transmission of one's own genes.

Spectrum: Can you illustrate this with an example?

Voland:Take any typical behavior pattern - "Relatives help relatives", if you like! I ask: Where did this behavior pattern give humans a survival advantage for their own genes in the past, so that it has been passed on to this day?

Eckensberger:Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that you are more likely to help relatives and friends than strangers. However, I interpret this in the context of the reference systems mentioned, for example taking into account ethical convictions.

Spectrum: So the genes do not play a role in your investigations.

Eckensberger:Not a big one, anyway.

Spectrum: As a cultural psychologist, what can you learn from sociobiology?

Eckensberger:What I find interesting about sociobiology is that it asks the important question of why: why are certain behavioral structures even there? That is a completely alternative view of the entire investment-environment debate, which in psychology at best asks how, and how we act.

Spectrum: Can the current discovery of the individual genes in the human genome advance our research into human cultural behavior?

Eckensberger:Barely. The human genome has hardly changed in the last ten thousand years. On the other hand, the human society that creates our behavior has evolved considerably. The genes that have remained constant can hardly be the direct and sole cause of this!

Spectrum: Is psychology interested in biological-genetic conditions at all, or are these just marginal conditions that lie somewhere far on the horizon?

Eckensberger:For me, both the organic prerequisites that we find in humans today - for example their brain structure - as well as their developmental reconstruction through sociobiology are a foil that I must take note of. Only: They don't explain human behavior to me for a long time. It is all about enabling conditions for psychological structures and functions.

Voland:I do not think so. All behaviors were in some form biologically beneficial at the time they emerged in human history. They all passed the "Survival of the fittest".

Whatever psychology studies, it should ask the question, for what purpose a particular behavior pattern evolved. And then, Mr. Eckensberger, you have a very specific search image in your research program that you would be missing if you were satisfied with the formula of the "enabling conditions".

Eckensberger:Of course I need a puzzle, a theory. But does it have to be sociobiology? I understand your reasoning very well. They interpret everything that makes a person from the point of view of adaptation in the sense of the evolution theory: How could this or that behavior pattern in the past of man have served to pass on his own genes? First of all, that's an exciting question. The only problem is that at the end you create a causal statement from the possible answers to your goal-oriented question and claim that the egoistic genes have, so to speak, actively and, above all, causally produced the behavior pattern under investigation. I consider this leap to be logically tricky: Is it really safe to say that just because something has a certain function is it also caused that way?

Spectrum: Can you clarify your allegation a little more?

Eckensberger:Any behavior that is viewed through sociobiological glasses can become superfluous and still exist. Conversely, something new can arise that previously had no function. For example, a certain preference of men - or women - when choosing a partner can lose its original function if the cultural context changes. And yet it is still interpreted causally by socio-biology.

Voland:But nobody denies that there are historical and cultural breaks. Take male jealousy as an example! This originated from a situation where men had an evolved interest in securing their fatherhood. Their jealousy helped them bring their own genes through. Today, in times of almost perfect contraception, jealousy lacks this reason for its evolutionary origin: women no longer need to get pregnant if they don't want to. And yet men cannot free themselves from their emotionality; it has grown in line with the history of the family. In this respect, your objection to cultural breaks does not affect me very much.

Spectrum: How else do you feel about Mr. Eckensberger's position?

Voland:I accuse the psychologists, who are not evolutionarily inspired, with a certain short-sightedness: They set up their comparative cultural studies in a kaleidoscopic manner and then marvel at the immense diversity of what they find in different societies. But they fail to look for a uniform principle behind it.

Spectrum: They mean the principle of always behaving in a way that is conducive to the transmission of one's own genes.

Voland:Exactly. Think about being a father! How do men take on their fatherhood? We know societies where men attach great importance to the fact that their wives’s children are always their own children. There is usually a sophisticated system of control mechanisms. On the other hand, we also know sexually very liberal societies. At first glance, one might doubt that there is any connection with regard to the role of father in these very different types of society. The differences seem to be simply coincidental and not genetically determined.

Spectrum: And is that not so?

Voland:Ask once about the strategic options that men each have to assert their genegoistic interests! Sometimes this works better in a sexually permissive society - with the consequence, of course, that a man does not accept his father role there either. What material things he has to bequeath he does not pass on to his wife's children - these may not be his own - but to his sister's children, because he is definitely related to them. This behavior pays off in the end; this can be shown in game theory. - So you see: In this case, cultural diversity can be explained by a uniform sociobiological principle.

Eckensberger:I find your example interesting for two reasons: First, it shows that the leading sociobiological explanatory principle is so general that one can almost always construct some fitness-increasing function for a certain behavior. This gives rise to a first fundamental problem: Can you falsify your theory at all? Secondly, the example shows that all behaviors that are closely related to the act of reproduction can probably always be made plausible in some way from a sociobiological point of view. But there are completely different areas - career choice, if you like or artistic creation - that also characterize people, but where one has far greater difficulties in tracing one's existence solely to the "selfish genes".

Spectrum: Why are there composers and painters, Mr. Voland?

Voland:Various hypotheses are still competing here. One says, for example, that artistic creativity emerged in connection with male self-expression tendencies in advertising behavior. I admit, however, that this explanation does not necessarily have to be correct. Maybe it's less about the artists themselves than about our preference for a certain aesthetic experience. In any case, there is an empirical problem here that has not yet been well worked out. But one should in no way assume that sociobiology has basically nothing to say about this problem.

Eckensberger:I maintain my suspicion that sociobiological interpretations are always easier to apply when it comes to behaviors that are comparatively close to reproduction. And you rely on such examples on an ongoing basis. In any case, you need a broader explanatory approach in artistic creation. But I have a completely different accusation.


Eckensberger:Many behavior patterns that sociobiology supposedly explains can usually also be interpreted economically: I behave this way and not differently because it is beneficial for me in some way. Put simply: I increase or secure my property, my influence through my actions - and in doing so I follow the economic principle. I don't need the genes for such an argument. And even worse: the "behavior" of the genes itself is subject to economic calculation! The economic principle therefore precedes the sociobiological principle. But with that the theory is actually an economic theory itself - and consequently part of the culture it tries to explain!

Spectrum: What role does the term "intention" play for you?

Eckensberger:It is extremely important! What is it that defines a person? I do not want to speak pathetically of our special position in nature, but there are two things that fundamentally differentiate humans from animals: their self-reflexivity and their intentionality. On the one hand, we know that we exist and that everything we do, at least in principle, can always be done differently. On the other hand, human action is not just somehow determined, but wanted and intended. It has no causes, but reasons! Due to his potential self-reflexivity and intentionality, people can in principle also behave against their own nature if they want to.

Voland:How do you know?

Eckensberger:I know that from psychological empiricism. In principle, humans are capable of reflection and intent. We all know we're here to discuss, don't we? But now I could also get up and leave the room. With that I would not break a law of nature, but only a cultural convention. In other words: parallel to natural law - and this of course also includes adaptive strategies of sociobiology - there is something like cultural rule systems that are essentially of a completely different kind. The exciting question is: What is the relationship between the two systems?

Voland:Stop. Of course there is self-reflexivity, but I doubt that anything can be deduced from it that enables a person to choose against his nature. Like all cognitive skills, self-reflexivity and intentionality have evolved biologically. In some social scenario of earlier times it must have simply been advantageous to mentally classify oneself in certain situations in order to achieve the best possible assertion of personal interests. And only because of this do we have self-reflexivity today.

Eckensberger:To make one thing clear: I am by no means claiming that every single action is really "reflected". Many, perhaps the majority, of our daily activities are highly automated. But basically they are reflective; that is the bottom line.

Spectrum: Can you elaborate on that?

Eckensberger:Take tennis as an example! Every rally is an act, just like every match won. Even the tennis player's career is an act. And all of these actions have different degrees of consciousness: As a rule, the individual rallies hardly have a reflexive, intentional structure; it is highly automated. But that doesn't turn the whole tennis game into an automatic, reflexive event!

Voland:What do you infer from your example?

Eckensberger:Self-reflexivity and intentionality are characteristics that characterize people in principle. I have no problem at all seeing both as evolving. Certainly, all of this brought considerable customization advantages with it. But we are constantly interpreting the world - that is what makes people special - and this helps determine our actions. The genes are insufficient for this. There is a meta level. For you, however, Mr. Voland, culture seems to be just a realization of the human genome.

Voland:So it is - albeit with recognition of the mediation level between genome and culture, the adaptive capabilities of the human brain.

Eckensberger:But culture does not only refer to "regulated behavior". This is also the case with animals. It is essentially based on structures of meaning, and these in turn are presumably based - at least in part - on our self-reflexivity. In fact, I personally believe that the essential core of culture has grown and is growing out of our death consciousness.

Spectrum: Is that where religion comes in?

Eckensberger:Correct. Religion is always an attempt to outsmart death. There is no religion that does not deal with death and what happens afterwards. This is very interesting, by the way: Sociobiology, too, has a religious structure from this point of view, because it too outwits death.

Spectrum: In what way?

Eckensberger:The individual organism is not important to them. It's the genes that live on.

Spectrum: An interesting aspect! Mr. Voland, are you religiously active when you are sociobiologically active?

Voland:Well, I don't know now whether any natural scientist who deals with longer periods of time - the cosmologist, the paleontologist or even the sociobiologist - whether he personally wants to outsmart death for himself. That's a hypothesis. In any case, sociobiology did not arise out of the need to combat the fear of death.

Eckensberger:Need or not - but it does.

Voland:No. The point is that natural scientists have recognized with their instruments that there are information-carrying units that outlast the individual life. And that includes genes. I claim that whatever we do, whatever we behave, whatever ideas we have - it's based on our natural history.

Spectrum: So in the end a deterministic worldview after all?

Voland:As a biologist, I can only live in a deterministic worldview! I have no other schemes of interpretation than the inevitability of accepting everything that I observe.As a citizen and as an individual, I do not particularly like this insight, because I experience myself as free of decision-making and in a position to make decisions about myself. So I live in two different worlds.

Spectrum: What are you doing to bridge this contradiction?

Voland:I am working to uncover weaknesses in the mindset of my own science. I always look for possible errors in theory. So far, however, I have not found any fundamental errors and consequently I assume sociobiology to be correct for the time being. So I have to live with the contradiction.

Eckensberger:That's interesting! So you see a tension between your personal phenomenological experience and your own theory? You are honored to be so free to admit it! I think that it would not be impractical as a person to advocate a theory that also applies to you - without having to run around with a clamp in your head, so to speak.

Voland:If the measure of the quality of a theory were its subjective digestibility, science would never have overcome the geocentric worldview.

Spectrum: In the end, do you think nothing of sociobiology, Mr. Eckensberger?

Eckensberger:Of course, we can only build on what has evolved over time. But with culture we have created a follow-up organization that has expanded possibilities and does not necessarily have to be reconstructed sociobiologically.

From: Spectrum of Science 4/2001, page 96
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This article is included in Spectrum of Science 4/2001