Blog Reaction to Genetic Influences on Political Behavior

Scientists study political-genetic link,” by Anna Jo Bratton, Associated Press, 2 November 2006, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061103/ap_on_sc/politics_genetics (hat-tip to Mark Safranski).

John Alford’s, Carolyn Funk’s, and John Hibbing’s research on genetic factors in political ideology, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” was recently presented at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Happily it also made the Associated Press:

Politics may not be in the blood, but it could be in the genes.

That’s the theory a team of political scientists and geneticists is trying to prove with extensive studies of twins, genes and brain scans.

“I perfectly understand that some people are skeptical,” said John R. Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who is involved in the research.

Some criticisms of online criticisms:

“Maxedoutmama” argues that this is an example of a hideous alliance of nazis, Leftists, and ecowhackos. However, in between rants she makes an important mistake:

You might, if you are one of those skeptical-gened people, be wondering why the population of Minnesota is reported to be so much more religious and has so much more conservative social beliefs than the current population of northern Europe, given the commonality in the gene pool. Undoubtedly the answer will turn out to be some sort of Reagan-era gene manipulation program spread by ADM, in cooperation with the CIA. Because everyone at DU knows that science is never, ever wrong, unless they have genetic defects that prevent them from achieving enlightenment. They are, after all, the reality-based party. (But even DU is becoming concerned about the “human garbage” theory of political life.)

An answer might me that white Americans are not genetically identical to white Europeans. White Americans are generally descended from those white Europeans who got fed-up and left.

“Cktung” ponders “Honestly I doubt there is one. It’s like, is there a gene to decide nice-looking or not? Seriously doubt it. It’s probably gene related, but I just don’t see how to identify it at molecular level. .” I think Cktung’s confusion here is actually reasonable. Just because something is “genetic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s part of the DNA that makes proteins. It could be part of the “junk DNA” that seems to gear up genetic processes, or even epigenetic items such as the non-DNA proteins that are passed from parent to child.

“Technologyfilter” notes “They’re trying to show that genetics can actually determine our personalities and even social talents–like an adroitness for politics, for example. ” He’s generally right, but I would be careful about the term “determine.” Genes interact with the environment. Ask yourself if your genes “determine” your height: they have a lot to do with it, but grow up eating ramen and I bet you’d be shorter than you are now! (Just ask the North Koreans…)

“John Adam” thinks “I totally believe this to be true. Except that it probably has more to do with intelligence rather than some other trait. Liberals generally have stupid ideas, therefore it doesn’t surprise me that more stupid people are liberals..” This is a genetic claim, and it’s false. Except for the well noted fact that longer formal education correlates with liberalism, intelligence and political orientation do not seem to correlate with each other.

“Karen Spencer”‘s interpretation, Politics can be inherited. That’s the headline on the MSNBC website right now. They are saying that researchers are testing if being conservative or liberal is in the genes..” I think this is accurate

“Florida Gaters,” in big red leters, screams “Oh, I get it! We can’t seem to decide for ourselves the difference between right and wrong.” More quietly, Sir Humphrey claims something similar. Nothing like that was said in the article or the lecture, so this post is hard to respond to.

“Amethyst” thinks like a scientist by noting an apparent outlier: I highly doubt it. Both my mother’s side and my dad’s side of the family are very conservative. I am the only liberal member of my family AFAIK, with the possible exception of my cousin who moved out to California for college… If politics were inherited genetically, then logically, I should be conservative. But I am not, and will probably never be unless the Republicans make a great many changes. Again, genes interact with the environment to determine political orientation. However, the genetic affect apperas to start around age 20 and increase from there. If Amethyst is young, which seems probable, she may just be too young to experience a genetic effect yet.

An online pagan quips that this research is weird. It wouldn’t be fun if it was not. :-p

While MSNBC chooses to put science to a public vote, I previously blogged this research. This story is also available on digg.

A personal note, and a disclaimer. It has been my pleasure to have met two of the three original authors. I respect them tremendously. Their writings have expanded my horizons and allowed me to understand our world better. I am grateful for all their help and kindness to me.

Update: katieallisongranju whacks out, hazellouise asks for money to be diverted from my department to border security, Pajamas Media disgraces itself, Simonesmith hosts a threaded discussion, and TheChurchMilitant attacks science, and towelroad is curious.