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Stop blaming biology

In her Aug. 18 column in the New York Post, Doree Lewak discusses how she views the act of “catcalling” to be an innocuous form of “self-empowerment" for women, saying that it should deliver a “drive-by dose of confidence” rather than being considered something as negative as street harassment. After reading Lewak’s column, I wondered just how common it was for professional or amateur writers as well as online commentators to pass off unacceptable social behavior by saying that it was merely “primal” and has probably existed for centuries, as Lewak did.

While scouring through articles on issues such as sexual harassment, the golden standard of physical beauty and the biases of sexual attraction, two phrases seemed to come up the most: “biological programming” and “genetically predisposed.” Whether they came up in the comment sections or in the articles themselves, people seemed to be using these terms to explain, and sometimes justify, how this unacceptable behavior originated and has managed to carry on in modern society. For example, in a conversation about sexual violence prevention, a well-meaning father responded that while he was “100% supportive of the fact that sexual assault is something that should not occur under any circumstances [,] the one area that many women seem to conveniently overlook is that biological studies have shown that the most basic way men get ‘aroused’ and become sexually attracted to women is through visual stimulation.”


I get it; “biologically programmed” is a big and flashy phrase, and no one really wants to argue with science (even if the writer of the article was, in reality, grossly uninformed about the subject). However, while I appreciate that members of the scientific community are trying to understand the basis of many human behaviors, I’ve never heard any biologist or anthropologist say in their conclusions that “it makes sense for people to still act that way”, when the behavior was clearly wrong. For example, a BBC forum clip that previewed primatologist John Mitani’s research demonstrated that “even though research with chimpanzees does suggest that the roots of human aggression run deep ... it’s important to understand that we can move beyond our biological predispositions.” While learning about testosterone, the evolutionary advantage of certain physical traits and even the dynamics of the hunter-gatherer society is informative and certainly interesting, none of these should be used to absolve anyone of inappropriate and abusive actions.

What’s worst is that it seems as though this practice of freeing bad behavior from blame isn’t limited to the conversation around sexual harassment and violence. It extends into other issues such as homophobia, transphobia, and racial discrimination on the basis that “what is different from us must be wrong.” Time and time again, I’ve seen and heard people pass off prejudice by citing that human beings are “biologically inclined” to reject what they don’t understand or what is different from them. Frankly, as an evolutionary biology major, it is simply awful and insulting to hear this field of study exploited in order to excuse ignorance and blatant abuse. Biology should be used as a vehicle for the improvement of life, not as a copout for why things are bad.

Furthermore, even if science one day conclusively proves that certain genes are directly linked to specific incorrect behaviors, we should nonetheless make a deliberate effort to counter our biological inclination lest we be slaves to our genes. After all, just because studies have shown that affective empathy — a person’s ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings — seems to temporarily decline during mid-adolescence for males doesn’t mean that parents now reluctantly accept or condone teenage angst and rude behavior.

In my reading, I came across journalist Esther Honig’s social experiment to have her face photoshopped by people in 26 countries according to their cultures’ standards of beauty. Her transformed photos depicted differences across cultures in the form of makeup, hairstyles, facial structure preference and religious dress. These styles and features that are now considered desirable most likely weren’t in the past; perceptions of beauty changed over time because of social and cultural evolution. So if perspectives on subjects that are as pervasive in daily life as physical attraction can be drastically altered across time and across cultures, then our biology can’t be as rigid as we claim it is.

In response to the father who posted on conservative dress for women as sexual violence prevention, David Belt wrote that while all human beings have biological instincts, these “instincts are only a part of our decision making process” and that even “knee-jerk reactions ... can be altered and controlled.” By leaving the consideration of “what’s implanted in our genes” out of the conversation when discussing sensitive topics that are more shaped by society and culture and less by biological determinants, we put responsibility back on ourselves, which is, in itself, true self-empowerment.

Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She canbe reached at