Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hard-Wired Politics: Is the Liberal/Conservative Divide In Our Genes??

Now that politics are really heating up, some scientific studies suggest we should take a hard look at how much influence all those political shows and pundits really have. First, check the wiring: could we really be born to have one political leaning or another? Is it all in our genes? As reported in New Scientist, several studies on twins and personality traits indicate that our politics are really hard-wired. Seriously - we're naming names, like D4DR, the "conservative" gene; or MAOA, the "get out the vote" gene; or 5HTT, the "liberal" gene. OK ... not exactly. But "The point is that certain genes shape personality traits, and these are linked to political opinion." In this view,

... political positions are substantially determined by biology and
can be stubbornly resistant to reason. "These views are deep-seated and built
into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to
persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion," says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Does this mean talking heads are wasting our time? How, oh how, could that be? No, it can't be! But then, maybe there's another side to this. Consider the evidence.

In 2005, Alford published a paper in which he analysed two decades of work in behavioural genetics, including a huge database containing the political
opinions of 30,000 twins from Virginia (American Political Science Review, vol 99, p 153). He found that identical twins were more likely than non-identical twins to give the same answers to political questions. For example, on the issue of whether property should be taxed, four-fifths of identical twins gave the same answer, compared to two-thirds of non-identical twins.

This and similar results were then joined to another study of the relationship between personality type and political viewpoint.

In 2003, John Jost, a psychologist at New York University, and colleagues
surveyed 88 studies, involving more than 20,000 people in 12 countries, that
looked for a correlation between personality traits and political orientation
(American Psychologist, vol 61, p 651).

People who scored highly on a scale measuring fear of death, for example, were almost four times more likely to hold conservative views. Dogmatic types were also more conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences tended to be liberals. Jost's review also noted research showing that conservatives prefer simple and unambiguous paintings, poems and songs.

Which explains why Britney Spears, for example, voted for Bush. Or why Clinton played jazz sax. But it doesn't explain why Tony Snow played jazz flute. Nor, for that matter, why Dan Rather likes "simple" folk music. Or Britney Spears' apparent penchant for "new experiences". Is Munch's The Scream not very unambiguous? Then why does Norway have socialized medicine? Is this an exact science or what?

Many psychologists believe personality can be categorised into five
classes, relating to conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, agreeableness
and neuroticism. The latter two seem to have little to do with political
orientation. Scores on the conscientiousness scale, however, show a significant
correlation with position within the political spectrum.

A much stronger link exists between political orientation and openness,
which psychologists define as including traits such as an ability to accept new
ideas, a tolerance for ambiguity and an interest in different cultures. When
these traits are combined, people with high openness scores turn out to be
almost twice as likely to be liberals.

Combine the genetic influences on personality with the political tendencies of different personality types, and the idea that genetics shapes political tendencies seems very plausible indeed. All of the big five personality traits are highly heritable (Journal of Research in Personality, vol 32, p 431), with several studies suggesting that around half of the variation in openness scores is a result of genetic differences.

This idea was further developed to show that these and other personality traits could be traced to specific genes, as I named above - so you can check your genome before you vote. Or at least, stop arguing with your neocon Uncle - it's useless.

However, the world of politics tends to be much more complex, and what we're talking about are that most occult thing, tendencies, making this theory sound strangely like astrology, also known for making fairly good predictions every so often. And although my political tendency is liberal, I also have a practical tendency that tells me Kucinich won't fly through a general election filled with people whose fear of death by Afghanis in New York trumps their fear of future grand-generations living in a third world has-been America. Barack Obama didn't bring up Reagan because he loves him, but because he hopes to win votes from the general population who don't know any better. So if it's all hard-wired to begin with, maybe that explains why we keep trying to choose people in the center.

But there's another angle to this.

In a paper presented in April 2007 to the annual conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, held in Chicago, Ira Carmen, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed D4DR, a gene involved in regulating levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Itis known that high levels of dopamine can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder. Carmen speculates that dopamine might therefore be linked to the need to impose order on the world. If so, variants of the D4DR gene that lead to higher levels of dopamine should be found more frequently in conservatives.

Can we circumvent this genetic thing by developing dopamine inhibitors? Or, conversely, would conservatives secretly inject liberals with dopamine to "sway" them to the viewpoint that we need to simply eliminate taxes, go to war, build more missiles and weaponry, and eliminate those "social services" that are such a burden on the patriotic people who really deserve those inspiring wars?

At any rate, it's not all cut-n-dried. Many, not all of them conservatives, note that the personality-trait thing is rather hard to pin down, and that many are based on assumptions.

Personality studies in particular have been singled out as sloppy science, in part because qualitative traits like openness cannot be measured in the way that height or eye colour can.

Evan Charney, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, noticed a more suspicious trend.

...a rather unflattering view of conservatives emerges from the studies. They are portrayed as dogmatic, routine-loving individuals, while liberals come across as free-spirited and open-minded folk. "I keep expecting Jost to show that conservatism is negatively correlated with penis size," jokes Charney. He feels that inherent biases in the make-up of academia, which is dominated by liberals, leads to the "pathologising of conservatism".

He should worry more about correlating the neocon type, in particular, with cerebellum size, for which I'm sure there's more powerful evidence than The Scream. And it doesn't explain why my father, a preacher who voted for Nixon, unexpectedly walked out of his church to join me and a large number of others marching down the main street in protest against the Vietnam War.

If there are political genes, then it may be a sign that built-in conflict and disagreement is a good thing. But in either case, I believe there are both universals - "self-evident truths" - to which we all intuitively agree, and complexities, in which we are all inextricably entangled. The genome is, after all, not encased in a crystal ball.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in Brack's site:

I've been working on the evolutionary origins of our two political natures;

Omyma said...

Checked out your site and it's absolutely a must-see! When you say "working on..." it's an understatement. This should revolutionize the way people see politics, and your take on the "gentleman/gentlewoman scholar" thing is absolutely on the money. Thanks