The DNA of Politics

“Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing, American Political Science Association, May 2005, http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/GeneticsAPSR0505.pdf (from Nebraska Liberation Front).

Today I attended Dr. John Hibbing fascinating lecture on the role of genetics in politics. His powerpoint was excellent, though I do not think he wants to make it generally available. Instead, I found a link to a scholarly article Dr. Hibbing has written that discusses some of the same points.

For those interested in the scientific details, please read the original article. Alternatively, at the end of the article I am putting some footnotes to allow one to read details without having the post bogged down by “boring stuff.”

A political survey was given to many pairs of fraternal and identical twins. Fraternal twins are brothers or sisters that just happened to be born at the same time, while identical twins are genetically identical (identical twins are “clones” of each other). [1]

Using some math, the similarities and differences in answers between the sets of identical and fraternal twins were used to calculate environmental and genetic factors. [2] It did not matter is identical twins were raised as identical twins, raised as fraternal twins, or otherwise brought up. [3]

Every question was at least somewhat influenced by genetics and at least somewhat influenced by the environment. The least genetic — those were “nurture” mattered the most and “nature” mattered the least — were a person’s party affiliation and their view of “liberals.”

liberalism_and_your_party_md

This makes sense. A party affiliation is basically a club, while in American politics “liberal” is used as an insult by almost everyone.

Interesting, while one’s own party was almost entirely “nurture,” “nature” was about twice as important in what one thought of the parties. That is, while it was almost genetically random what party you are, your genetic heritage — your “nature” — determines a littlw aht you think of the Democrat Party and the Republican Party

your_politics_and_your_party_md

Yet, other factors are genetically more related — particularly things involve money and blood:

blood_and_gold_md

What political issue is most closely tied into genetics? What political move would run into the deepest, most ingrained hostility?

School prayer.

school_prayer_md

There are many reasons that Conservatives may want to be thankful to the Warren Court, but Envel v. Vitale, which banned school prayer, is one of the biggest. The unique factors of American political culture make school prayer a center of gravity — what the Germans called a “schwerpunkt” — in the defense of conservatism. A smart liberal would try to go around it, as water goes around mountains.

Earl Warren was not a smart liberal.

In one swoop the Warren Court threw the progressive movement against the genetic/conservative schwerpunkt of prayer in schools.

That “liberal” is now an empty insult is a testament to Mr. Warren’s work. So is the Bush Presidency, the Republican Congress, and the - Court.

Footnote 1: On Identical and Fraternal Twins

“The process of identifying in the laboratory the precise genes responsible for given human behaviors (especially those behaviors that do not have corollaries in lab-friendly animals such as mice) is extremely challenging. Fortunately, even without identifying the genes responsible, it is possible to compile information on the matter of most concern to social scientists: the extent to which attitudes and behaviors have a genetic component. The relevant procedures center on comparisons of monozygotic (MZ; frequently but erroneously called identical) twins and dizygotic (DZ; fraternal) twins.

“MZ twins develop from a single egg, fertilized by a single sperm, and share an identical genetic inheritance. DZ twins develop from two separate eggs, fertilized by two separate sperm, and are in effect simply two siblings that happen to be born simultaneously. As such, DZ twins share the same average of 50% of genetic material as do any two biological siblings. It is this fixed ratio (two to one) of genetic similarity between MZ and DZ twins, and the contrasting average equivalence of environment influence, that provides most of the power of twin designs. It is important to appreciate that the assumption of environmental equivalence is one of equivalence across types of twins, not across pairs of twins or across twins within a given pair. For example, there is undoubtedly at least some variability in parental socialization across siblings, even those of identical age, but acrossmultiple twin pairs the assumption is that this variability is essentially equal for the MZ and the DZ pairs.”

Footnote 2: Mathematically Seperating Environmental and Genetic Factors

“Heritability is typically estimated by subtracting the correlation for DZ pairs from the correlation for MZ pairs and then doubling the resulting difference.At one extreme, if the correlations are the same for MZ and DZ pairs, suggesting that genetic similarity plays no role in similarity for that particular trait, then the result will be an estimate of heritability of zero. At the other extreme, a purely genetic additive trait should produce a correlation of .5 for DZ pairs and 1.0 for MZ pairs, resulting in an estimate of heritability of 1.0 (1.0−.5=.5, and 2 x .5=1.0). In a similar way, we can estimate the influence of shared environment, as opposed to shared genetic material, by doubling the correlation for DZ pairs and then subtracting the correlation forMZ pairs. Again, a purely genetic additive trait should produce a correlation of .5 for DZ pairs and 1.0 for MZ pairs, resulting in an estimate of the impact of shared environment of zero (2 x .5=1.0, and 1.0−1.0=0). At the other extreme, if the correlations are the same for MZ and DZ pairs, suggesting that genetic similarity plays no role in similarity for that particular trait, then the result will be an estimate of the impact of shared environment that is equal to the MZ or DZ correlation (e.g., if MZ=DZ=.4, then 2 ∗ .4=.8, and .8−.4=.4). Whatever is left over is taken to the unshared environment.”

Foonote 3: It Does Not Matter How the Identical Twins were Raised

“Both caveats have been subject to sustained and varied investigation and neither has been found to hold up under empirical scrutiny. The argument of more similar treatment fails on several fronts. Parents frequently miscategorize their twins (DZ twins are often believed by their parents to be MZ twins) and the differential correlation persists in these instances of miscategorization. In other words, the degree of correspondence betweenMZtwins surpasses that of DZ twins even in the large subpopulation of twins thought by their parents to beMZtwins (Bouchard and McGue 2003; Bouchard et al. 1990; Plomin 1990). The contention that MZ twins have closer or more frequent contact than DZ twins turns out to be at best irrelevant. The correlation between the frequency of contact between twins and the similarity between twins on all attitudinal andbehavioral variables tested, including conservatism, is slight and actually negative (Martin et al. 1986). In other words, twins in greater contact with their cotwins are not more likely to share the same attitudes and behaviors, so even if MZ twins have more contact than DZ twins, this contact is not the cause of any elevated correlations. But the most powerful refutation of both of these criticisms comes in recent studies utilizingMZ and DZ twins raised apart. These studies uniformly validate MZ and DZ differences found in earlier studies of twins raised together. Arguments about the relative degree of shared environmental effects between MZ and DZ twins simply offer no credible explanation if the twins in question have been raised apart (Bouchard 1998; Bouchard et al. 1990). In effect, this naturally occurring, if uncommon, condition provides precisely the sort of laboratory control that we would want in an experimental setting.

18 thoughts on “The DNA of Politics”

  1. Dr. Nexon,

    A schwerpunkt/center-of-gravity/hard-point is a place of greatest resistance. An implication from the findings of genetics would be that in the American political environment, school prayer is the Right's schwerpunkt. Because one's belief on school prayer is the least open to non-sysmetic reeduction, it is very hard to change.

    Earl Warren was an effects-based judicial population — an activist judge. His findings in many of his decisions, Brown v Board most famously, make little sense except in this context. He used law like President Bush uses facts: instrumentally in order to forward an agenda.

    Unless Chief Justice Warren had a high discount rate — unless he didn't care for the long-term harm he inficted on liberalism as long as he got medium-term gains — Warren's actions were counterproductive and “stupid.” (I'm using the word “stupid” in the same sense it has in the phrase “strategic stupidity.” Perhaps “dangerously misinformed and/or miscalculating” would be more accurate).

    As to empty insults…. I agree that generally, “religious right” may be as empty as term as “liberal.” Just as liberals have generally stopped using the term “liberal,” the political-religious stopped using the term “religious.” Witness Bush's “faith-” not (religion-) based efforts.

    I do not believe the same thing has happened to the word “Conservative.” In an election where John Kerry, Howard Dean, and even Al Sharpton called themselves conservative, “conservative” was shown to be a word worth fighting for — not an epithat worth avoiding.

    Of course, I agree that “there are mechanisms short of persuasion which lead to equivalent behavioral results.”

    Last,

    “AFAIK, genetic determinants of personality should be more, not less, important in younger children.”

    Why?

    I'll rework the computer science analogy here.. Just as people are influenced by their environment and genetic code, comptuers are influenced by their environment (from factors like humidity to social interaction with humans and other computers) and their code (whether hardware or software).

    Just as we can say people have “genes” for certain behaviors, computers have code for certain actions. Sometimes in computers these are called “daemons” (from the Greek word meaning messenger), like the “printer daemon” on Macintosh computers which controls how word processor documents are printed out.

    The code from the printer daemon is there from when the computer turns on. However, there is nothing that says its effects will be felt right away. Something has to change in the computer (like you opening up OpenOffice and clicking the “print” button) for that printer daemon to do anything.

    If you wanted, you could call the printer daemon “latent code.” It only becomes visible when something changes.

    Maybe the something that changed was in the environment — two hours after you turned your computer on, you pushed the print button. Or maybe it was physical — perhaps the power button on the printer itself was turned on, which enabled the printer daemon to create change.

    In the computer example, we saw that without environmental (the little print icon being pushed on the computer screen) and physiological (the power button being turned on the printer on your desk) changes, the genetic code (the printer daemon) was latent (didn't do anything).

    If I haven't lost you with my bad writing, let's change the analogy a bit..

    Say your computer is programmed to scan your office computer's network continually from when it is turned on, print out a list of the most (or least) active computers as soon as it can, and then print out a new one every 10 minutes. When it comes out there are three deamons or continual processes running — a printer daemon in charge of the printing, a chronological demon in charge of keeping time, and a social daemon in charge of looking at other computers.

    But you know what? Nothing will print on until a physical switch is turned — until the power button is presed.

    Similarly, Dr. Hibbing's finding imply that the “physical switch” to turn on the “political daemon” isn't flipped until late adolescence.

    Now, what if you unplugged your computer from the network, or snapped its wireless antena so it couldn't get wifi? Even if the printer is on it might just print blank paper, or maybe nothing at all. Because you changed the computer's environment by altering its connectivity, you also effected the final product.

  2. “Indeed, that is why I wrote “The unique factors of American political culture make school prayer a center of gravity — what the Germans called a 'schwerpunkt' — in the defense of conservatism.” “

    Oops :-). But I'm not sure that it follows that it is “a center of gravity.”

    Another point: why do you call Earl Warren “not smart”? Because he didn't necessarily base his actions on the strategic interests of liberal politicians?

    I also think you're a bit cavalier about certain issues: liberal as an “empty insult” resonates with some portion of the population, but so does “conservative” and “religious right.”

    I agree that persuasion, in terms of the internalization of new beliefs, is rare in political debate; but there are mechanisms short of persuasion which lead to equivalent behavioral results.

  3. A few other points:

    1) Why is this “In computer science terms, getEnvironment() and getGenes() are continually running parrellel processes of contiually running parrellel processes.” a useful analogy?

    2) “Genetics are almost irrelevent in subject's political beliefs until the 20s.” Which cautions heavily against the argument; AFAIK, genetic determinants of personality should be more, not less, important in younger children.

  4. I read this study when it was published. Some of the setup is problematic (i.e., the 'universality of the applicability of left-right spectrum' which is almost certainly a consequence of measurement forms themselves. But you have to be really careful about the conclusions you're drawing, Dan. The mechanism by which genetics influences political opinions is, as they argue (IIRC), personality traits. These traits then have an elective affinity with elements of existing political culture, such that personality trait X may, under the right political conditions, convert into support for school prayer (this is actually very similar to arguments made in decades ago about authoritarian-personality types; these arguments spawned a number of studies very unflattering to conservatives).

    However, personality trait X may express differently under different political cultures: think about the extremely rapid secularization of European politics in the 1960s. Thus, I find little reason here to conclude that Americans are immutably in favor of school prayer because of a genetic predisposition to think people who pray in school. That's a very tenuous jump to make from the raw correlative data.

    Of course, there are known problems with fraternal vs. identical twin studies, and there are reasons to believe non-genetic factors explain higher convergence among the latter than the former. Indeed, if you go to various abstract databases and search for “twin studies” you'll find a lot of interesting debates about all manner of twin studies and how persuasive they actually are.

  5. Dr. Nexon,

    Thank you for your excellent comment.

    During yesterday's lecture, Dr. Hibbing rejected the notion that political persuasion as a mechanism. He mentioned how that was his initial hypothesis and the original research supported it, but that such a thought became less tenable as more information became available.

    I do not know if he has since written on that, or if that is merely the state of his current belief.

    So while there are genetic factors for personality, and genetic factors for politics, they seem to be different genetic factors.

    I agree that “personality trait X may express differently under different political cultures.” Indeed, that is why I wrote “The unique factors of American political culture make school prayer a center of gravity — what the Germans called a 'schwerpunkt' — in the defense of conservatism.” Clearly it would be possible to arrange the environment so that political persuasions come out differently. Environment makes sense in the context of genetics and vice versa — neither is freestanding.

    In computer science terms, getEnvironment() and getGenes() are continually running parrellel processes of contiually running parrellel processes. They alter the global variables of the world — whether internal or external — and accept input from that world as well.

    Nonetheless, while they are continually running their magnitude is continually varying. If I may bring in another big from yesterday's taught: Genetics are almost irrelevent in subject's political beliefs until the 20s. This may explain the relative ineffectualness of the Leftist control of education in Japan and other countries — it doesn't matter what you tell children, if it's adults who will be voting.

  6. “dangerously misinformed and/or miscalculating”

    Even this seems pretty harsh. In 1962 he's supposed to infer something about right-wing psychology which doesn't get discovered and published in the scientific literature until 2005?

    “AFAIK, genetic determinants of personality should be more, not less, important in younger children.”

    “Why?”

    I suspect you might also find some evidence of genetically determined medical conditions that don't express themselves until later in life. This might strengthen your scepticism here.

    BTW : if commitment to a political position is genetic, does that make it an irrational spasm rather than something rational? To what extent should we devalue the claims that someone is making for their political position if we think that it's an irrevisable genetic given rather than something where they've sat down, looked at evidence and thought through the consequences?

  7. Phil,

    Welcome to the conversation on genetic politics! I'll be taking a class in this next semester, so hopefully it will just get more interesting! :-)

    Regardin teh politics of genetics research:
    The misperception that they were right-of-center has amused and bemused both Dr. Kurzban [1] and Dr. Hibbing. They both consider themselves liberals, and I believe both are democrats.

    Regarding Earl Warren's “dangerously misinformed and/or miscalculating state”..

    Warren's mistake is one of all the great political centralizers and modernizers. While the grand failure of the major such philosophers of the 20th century (Communism, Fascism, Welfare Statism, and the general project of the Eastern Establishment) was not then known, much had been written on the benefits of decentralization and tradition (Burke, Hayek, etc).

    Warren was a man of his time, place, and class, and shared the delusions of his fellows. He was not particularly bad relative to them, only nearly disasterous in retrospect.

    Regarding “rational'

    Rationality, which means having good reasons for one's beliefs and actions, is rather too vague and subjective to enter into the discussion here.

    From the perspective of logical (vertical) thinking, criticism of an idea because of its origin is the genetic fallacy, and criticizing it because of its proponenent if the ad hominem fallacy. Both are logically baseless.

    People generally don't think logically, though — they think analogically (horizontally), tieing elements of present situations to those already experienced. This is for the best, as the time for problems is too short for full statistical analysis of the situation, and calls for something closer to bayesian calculations anyway. From this perspective, the genetic component is a pre-weighting of evidence by individuals. (Whatever the harms of benefit to individuals, the systematic competition this entails is good for humanity as a whole [2] ).

    I've earlier examined the consequences of moving beyond the pre-set weights people have, and the subsequent weakened ideological immune system. [3] The consequences of such liberal thinking has oftne been disasterous

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/12/01/university-of-pennsylvania-evolutionary-psychologist-visits.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/03/17/review-of-global-brain-by-howard-bloom.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/01/22/liberal-education-part-i-the-petty-troika.html

  8. “Regardin teh politics of genetics research:
    The misperception that they were right-of-center has amused and bemused both Dr. Kurzban [1] and Dr. Hibbing. They both consider themselves liberals, and I believe both are democrats.”

    Agreed. The idea that genetic research or evolutionary psychology (or even sociobiology) is “right-wing” is unfortunate. (Although I have some theories as to why this idea has taken hold.)

    “Warren's mistake is one of all the great political centralizers and modernizers. While the grand failure of the major such philosophers of the 20th century (Communism, Fascism, Welfare Statism, and the general project of the Eastern Establishment) was not then known, much had been written on the benefits of decentralization and tradition (Burke, Hayek, etc).”

    Well, you weren't attacking Warren on Burkean or Hayekian grounds. You picked him, explicitly, because of the question of school prayer. An issue on which intransigence is apparently now discovered to be genetic. But this was certainly unknown at the time. Or is your argument simply that it's human nature to resist “change”? (Which I guess may be Burkean.)

    I agree “rational” is way beyond the scope of this discussion. But most definitions of rationality I know, including the “critical rationalism” I hold and many rival versions, tend to assume that it entails “revisability”. A rationally held opinion is one you can change if and when the appropriate evidence changes. On the other hand, a belief which *can't* be changed by, or isn't contingent, on evidence is usually not held to be rational.

  9. Phil,

    Warren was not a smart liberal compared to his contemporaries the West Germans, who were. He couldn't tell the nature of the rocks he ran his ship against, but the Germans were perceptive enough to know that perceptions matter, and that changing the substance of a society is more important than changing its decorations. But Warren insisted on complete victory, and for his efforts may yet suffer near complete defeat.

    Genetic research indicates that genes interact with environment — it is too much to say that any belief is “unrevisable or “can't be changed” because of genes.

  10. The current administration stated once that they were trying to build alliances with liberal Muslims.

    I know of one place that sort has liberal Muslims.

  11. I do wonder why it has taken somebody so long to realise this. We are foremost emotional animals not logical animals. We use are logic to justify our decisions not make them. If you look closely at every decision anybody makes from a politician advocating war or somebody choosing a mobile phone the ultimate arbiter of the final decision is the emotions. I will add though that i don’t think our emotions are completely predetermined by our genetics. For a great deal of what we are is conditioned into us as we develop. Our genetics playing a part as far as determining how we may react to certain types of events which we face. But if we don’t face a particular event they won’t come into play.

  12. Perhaps it’s because I live in Maine, but I had no idea that many people regarded being called “liberal” an insult.

  13. Elana,

    Thank you for your comment!

    I should not have sad ‘while in American politics “liberal” is used as an insult by almost everyone’ — like you, I was blinded by the cultural environment I live in!

    I should have said something like, the word liberal is generally negatively charged among Americans, and so those self-identifying as liberals will be suppressed by the desire to avoid displeasing the interviewer…

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