|K. from the Philippines writes: What makes a
man a complex organism?
With essay titles like this, it is always important to try and decode them first. This essay is clearly asking you to write about something you have studied on the relevant course, and your job is to try and find out which elements of the course content it relates to. It is pretty unusual (not impossible) for you to be given a title that invites you just to give your general thoughts on a big topic, although many students seem to think that is what is required. I think it's partly that they simply expect students to be clever people with lots of ready made ideas on big topics. As a working hack academic, I spend some time explaining to people that it is more technical than that, and more bureaucratic -- we set essays to test your understanding of the course material.
In the absence of your course documents, I can only guess what this essay is really asking for. I could be quite wrong. The best thing to do is for you is to go and ask your local course tutors. Again, most tutors I know will not mind if you do this, especially if you're a new student. You can make your approach nice and technical again -- go along and say you've had some ideas but you're not sure how to shape them, so could you have some help with an essay plan.
Anyway, here are some guesses of my own. I assume this is not a question about biology, for example. If it is, I can't help at all I am afraid. Using all my experience (!) I assume this is a question about sociology, although it could involve psychology as well (or even some economics I suppose). Taking it to be sociology, what this question is really asking is probably one or all of the following:
(1) Given that human beings have consciousness (which is what makes them complex organisms), how best can we study their interactions? (This sort of question invites you to consider various models of human consciousness and interaction, usually those found in 'action approaches').
(2) (More abstractly)... How useful is the biological analogy in sociological explanations? (The argument here is, of course, that if human beings are nothing but organisms we can use biological analogies, as some versions of functionalism do) .
(3) (Abstractly again)... Can we use the methods of natural science in order to study human beings, or must we develop some special methods of our own? (Again, if human beings are only organisms, there interactions can be studied using biology, physics, causal mechanisms, general laws and the like, but if they are more than just organisms, we may need to develop special 'Life Sciences', or social sciences, and this will lead you into debates about these special methods. For example, Symbolic Interactionists believe that we should use some special descriptive method focusing on the meaning of action, while Max Weber suggested that we might use methods such as verstehen or ideal types).
(4) When we study particular aspects of human behaviour, or areas of social life, can we still see any biological causes or mechanisms at work? (I suggest some of these areas below. They are delightfully controversial matters such as differences between genders or ethnic groups, and explanations for the behaviour such as aggression or violence) .
From what we've done so far, are you now able to see a chunk of your course that this essay could relate to?
Most good introductory sociology textbooks will contain chapters or sections on these well-known issues and debates . If you want to use my website as a resource, you'll find some files in particular quite useful for the different emphases involved. For example, I have quite a few 'reading guides' which some of the basic approaches in Symbolic Interactionism, or Ethnomethodology. I already have some answers to questions about scientific methods in the section on study guides and tips. I have just put a nice new 'reading guide' to an excellent criticism of functionalism written by Giddens, which has a splendid section on the difficulties and problems of the biological analogy. (His argument is that human beings are indeed far more than complex organisms. Their ability to plan ahead and to reflect on their actions and adjust them accordingly is quite unlike anything found in the natural world. Any proper sociology has to allow for this advanced reflexive action, and this leads to his own approach).
Now you might want to argue back here, on behalf of biological or sociobiological theories. You can find some described in some of the introductory textbooks, such as Haralambos or Bilton (if you have those in the Philippines). Given the strange way those books are laid out, you often find sociobiological approaches mention largely, or only in the sections discussing gender. There is a very large and controversial debate about 'race' as well, and whether it is a biological or social category, how it affects measured social differences between ethnic groups (notoriously IQ scores), and so on. You'll find the debates laid out pretty clearly, and I have files on both gender and race myself, for what they're worth. I have come across arguments in areas such as deviance or youth subcultures as well. In general, what sociobiology does is to point to various biological mechanisms -- different bits of bodily equipment, different chromosomes, different levels and types of hormonal flows, various residual instincts and the like -- which they insist still affect human behaviour, despite our veneer of civilisation. You could take one of these areas as a case-study, if that was appropriate for your essay.
I know even less about biological psychology, but you do find some popular versions knocking around in Educational Studies from time to time. These tend to attend to explain human behaviour in terms of the structure and functioning of brains in various ways. I must say I think these approaches are pretty dubious, but that's probably because I don't know much about them. Anyway, they seem to have some problems:
(1) Many of them seem to depend on correlations between biological characteristics and social behaviour -- that among men convicted of violent offences, an unusual percentage had an extra Y chromosome, or whatever. There are too many assumptions involved here -- that convicts are typical of violent offenders in general, for example -- which would prevent us being too confident that it's different biology causes different behaviours.
(2) I would have thought that a proper biological explanation would have a proper scientific link to explain the relevant social behaviour. Are there any actual genes, or clusters of them, which cause violent behaviour or low intelligence, or lower motivation in a recognisably scientific way? 'Racial' differences are particularly controversial here again, of course. Again my own view is that it is impossible to scientifically define terms such as 'violent behaviour' anyway, without reference to social definitions, the role of the police and judiciary, the value system in the society, and so on. I must say I think is very difficult to ever establish scientific explanations because we have to treat human beings ethically, and we cannot experiment on them -- we couldn't destroy areas of their brain and then see if their behaviour changed, for example. Of course, some of the biological psychology does depend on clinical studies of people with brain damage anyway -- but whether these are typical human beings is the question, of course
(3) Recently fashionable stuff such as 'evolutionary psychology', which tries to trace human characteristics to various stages of evolution of the mammalian brain, seems to run precisely into those problems that Giddens identifies with evolutionary theories in general -- human beings don't just evolve, but consciously and deliberately change. I suppose much will depend on what you take to be 'fundamental' to human behaviour anyway -- the behaviour that looks close to nature, such as aggression or lust, or or the behaviour that looks extremely unlike anything else in the animal kingdom, such as reading sociology textbooks.
I assume that your essay will want you to have a good debate about this, advancing one side and then the other. What you are encouraged to conclude depends very much on your local context as well. As you'll see from other files, I like to encourage my students to do a number of things in their conclusions:
(a) summarise the main points in the argument
(b) choose a winner, carefully, and with lots of reservations if necessary
(c) show the difficulties of the question and the complexities of the answer -- in this case, you might want to say that the range of human behaviour is so great, that is unlikely that any one discipline will ever explain everything, for example
(d) suggest that further research might be required in particular areas, and give details if you can
So -- do what you can do to pin down exactly what is required here. Locate the relevant arguments and debates in your course materials, lecture handouts and seminar notes. Track the arguments back to the relevant sections of the recommended textbooks. Decorate your answer with some additional reading, maybe using my website, or one of the other excellent ones I link to (such as Sociosite, or SOSIG). Check that you have an effective plan, write your essay and get an excellent mark for it .