PS: Political Science & Politics


The Normative Implications of Biological Research

Peter K. Hatemia1 and Rose McDermotta2

a1 University of Sydney

a2 Brown University


One of the concerns that has plagued research on the biological and genetic underpinnings of social behaviors and individual differences is the fear that such information can be used for ill. This fear rests on a foundation of good reason. Early abuses involving the use of selective phrenology and other purportedly “scientific” methods to establish moral hierarchies among races or between sexes have exerted profound and lasting damage on society, as well as affecting later attempts to more productively examine the biological bases of individual difference. And yet, many policies that have focused exclusively on social factors have created equal pain and suffering, although these approaches have rarely fostered as much discussion. However, despite these negative outcomes, biological research can also attack diseases, alleviate suffering, and dispel social myths that wrongfully assign blame to the victim or otherwise oversimplify behavior. Here, we argue for a similar positive valuation of such an approach in political and social research. We concentrate not on the ethics of conducting this research, but rather the ethical need for this research to be conducted.

Peter K. Hatemi is a Fellow at the United States Studies Center, Australia. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Nebraska and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in human genetics and psychiatry at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. He works primarily on the study of neurobiological foundations of social and political behaviors. He can be reached at

Rose McDermott is a professor of political science at Brown University. A 2008–09 Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, McDermott has also taught at Cornell and UCSB and held fellowships at Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and Harvard's Women and Public Policy Program. She will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University during academic year 2010–11. She can be reached at