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.

10 thoughts on “Blog Reaction to Genetic Influences on Political Behavior”

  1. Hah, I wonder if Amethyst hasn't considered the possibility that the 'conservative'-related genes are dominant whereas the 'liberal'-related genes are recessive!

    Actually, the very consideration of 'conservative' and 'liberal' needs to be rethought, since whatever genetic link is present is probably related more to specific issues or types of issues or manners of looking at the world which have generally but not entirely come to be associated with different parties or the bipolar con-lib dynamic; or more likely, I wonder: the very personal OODA process. Since I am no scientist, I can only vaguely express my impression: most issues related to taste or personal proclivities are probably related to the ways we experience various forms, such as proportions, shapes, harmonies, disharmonies, and so forth. Slight alterations in these have an aggregate effect on the 'larger' issues.

  2. Curtis,

    “Hah, I wonder if Amethyst hasn't considered the possibility that the 'conservative'-related genes are dominant whereas the 'liberal'-related genes are recessive!”

    That's the neat thing about this research: that's an unknown empirical question. It may be, it may not be. This stuff is wide open.

    “Actually, the very consideration of 'conservative' and 'liberal' needs to be rethought, since whatever genetic link is present is probably related more to specific issues or types of issues or manners of looking at the world which have generally but not entirely come to be associated with different parties or the bipolar con-lib dynamic;”

    You're right. At the lecture, John Hibbing proposed “Contextualist” and “Absolutist” as possible underlying phenotypes, but again (a) we don't know and (b) a factual answer should be out there.

    Research by one of his understudies in Australia indicates vote-choice is an indirect effect through political orientation, and that there is not a “democrat” genotype. so much as a “contextualist” genotype.

    Fantastic comment! 🙂

  3. Curtis brings up a great point:

    “Since I am no scientist, I can only vaguely express my impression: most issues related to taste or personal proclivities are probably related to the ways we experience various forms, such as proportions, shapes, harmonies, disharmonies, and so forth. Slight alterations in these have an aggregate effect on the 'larger' issues.”

    NLPers would say these submodality processing patterns and metamodels are THE genetic key to these differences, and the Boyd model, in which observations play a key role in the orientation model, would seem to support that opinion.

    It would be interesting to see if combinations of these mind mechanisms generally correlated to “contextualist/absolutist”!

    Cheers,

    Mike

  4. I have a more general question about his type of research. Don't genetic traits merely imply we have certain pre-dispositions? I take the view that human behavior is purposeful (regardless if the choices made do not correspond with what most people view as “normal”.) Our genetics traits give us certain proclivities, but we choose whether or not to indulge them. Forgive the poor choice in words, but I am simply trying to express that our genes provide certain abilities (or handicaps) and we must choose what we must do with them. The idea of “contextualist/absolutist” is intriguing, but I think these bi-polar dynamics are very limiting, even as a scale with these two descriptors being extreme ends.

    Regards,
    TDL

    P.S. I still have to dedicate an entire weekend and just read some of the series you have produced Dan. I keep procrastinating on that though (huge commitment of time and I think my brain might explode.)

  5. “The idea of “contextualist/absolutist” is intriguing, but I think these bi-polar dynamics are very limiting, even as a scale with these two descriptors being extreme ends.” [TDL]

    I agree somewhat. In fact, today I've been thinking that the contextualist/absolutist paradigm is a dichotomy that appears to be an absolutist framing of these things! (An absolute dichotomy.)

    My guess would be this: If we could isolate what Mike has called the “submodality processing patterns and metamodels” — perhaps also isolate each of these as they relate to each of the five basic physical senses — you will find that there's a broad mix in each individual of 'absolutist' or 'contextualist' renderings. So for instance, my interpretation of the harmonies of smells might be 'absolutist' whereas my interpretation of visual cues might be 'contextualist'; and so forth. (In truth, it would probably be broken down further; e.g., consider my 'rendering' of visual colors, visual shapes, visual proportions, and so forth — just in the 'sight' domain. For one I might have an 'absolutist' rendering, for another a 'contextualist' rendering, etc.)

    The question become even more complex if we consider how each person not only experiences but interprets the passage of time, as well as 'the past' & 'the present' & 'the future.' These may in fact be aggregates of so many smaller modalities. But I bring this up because the general association of 'conservative' with time seems somewhat absolutist and contextualist together — i.e., traditionalism — whereas for the liberal progressive it also seems absolutist and contextualist although you find more likelihood of anti-traditionalism; so I wonder if it's that fine mix of various submodalities that makes this difference between wanting to adhere to long-standing patterns or wanting to shake things up.

  6. Guys,

    You're all thinking exactly right. This is a really fun thread. Remember that the /original/ article that started this research, the most downloaded article in the American Political Science Association's history, is available free online. [1]

    TDL,

    You're right that these are predispositions. We are not talking about “genetic determinism.” We are not slaves of our genes.

    Now, these are predispositions that develop and strengthen. The genetic impact on political orientation appears to start around age 20 and go up from there. But this is an effect, not a sole cause.

    Curtis & Mike,

    Your hesitations about absolutism and contextualism are wise. We really don't know what's going on here. The Absolutist-Contextualist split is a working hypothesis to support further research, but only that.

    We have this set of variables that correlates with the American left-right split, and a similar (but not identical) set of variables that correlate with the Australian left-right split. There's a tremendous amount of overlap, but some categories are unique to one or the other (Australian “conservatives” tend to be royalists, an idea that would be met by scorn & charges of treason from the Weekly Standard.) So it makes sense that there is not an “abortion gene,” a “monarchy gene,” etc, but some genetic influence that in one environment helps influence an American conservative, in another helps influence an Australian conservative, etc.

    Whatever this is, it seems to be independent of almost everything. “Liberalism” is weekly correlated with “Openness” in the OCEAN Big Five personalithy model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) but only with openness and only weekly.

    We know something is going on here. We don't know what.

    The next stage of research is to give people functional MRIs while answering political questions. Maybe they'll be a neurophysiological difference between conservatives and liberals in answering these questions. If that's the case, we can assume the genetic effect on politics works through something big like that. If not, then go onto something else.

    It's amazing research. There's a lot of open questions. There are many discoveries to be made.
    [1] http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/GeneticsAPSR0505.pdf

  7. Fyodor,

    After several snarky remarks (and yes, to answer your rhetorical question, it is in your imagination), you summarize this way:

    Here is the problem, kiddies. Only fools and/or materialists (same thing, really) believe people are simply things. Or machines. Or animals. All attempts at explaining human behavior that do not involve recognition of man’s immortal soul and free will are dangerous and will lead (and have lead!) inevitably to incorrect conclusions, at best. At worst, they will lead(and have lead!) to the abolition of humanity and incomprehensible horror. (See: “twentieth century, history”)

    This is as ludicrous as responding to a a Bible study by writing:

    Here is the problem, kiddies. Only fools and/or spiritualists (same thing, really) believe people are simply souls. Or ghosts. Or spooks. All attempts at explaining human behavior that do not involve recognition of man’s status as an animal and biological mechanisms are dangerous and will lead (and have lead!) inevitably to incorrect conclusions, at best. At worst, they will lead(and have lead!) to the abolition of humanity and incomprehensible horror. (See: “middle ages, history”)

    Obviously, such a combination of rhetoric and half-truths paints a deceptive picture.

  8. You seem to be easily deceived. The stench of the corpses of 100 million [give or take a few dozen million] animals just like you wafting from the twentieth century’s materialist abattoirs tends to keep me focused on reality. You should try it.

    By the way, that straw-man strategy does not work on grown-ups.

  9. Fyodor,

    What straw-man?

    The passage you object to is merely a reductio ad absurdum of your own beliefs. Your latest comment likewise reads like nothing but a reductio ad absurdum of Richard Dawkins.

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