Wednesday, June 22, 2005

More on Political Genetics

Greetings, Cornerites! In lieu of the promised post on the politics of genetics, I want to emphasize a point made in my original post on the genetic basis of political belief. An e-mailer posed the following well-put question:
Is it possible that the study’s findings can be explained by there being a genetic predisposition to certain traits that in the particular circumstances of today leads to an affinity with one of the parties? For example, let’s say that timid people tend these days to be [conservatives] and reckless people to be [liberals], and that these underlying traits were strongly influenced by genes. Would it then make sense to say that that party affiliation is inherited, or that these traits are?
The e-mailer's point is spot-on, and can be taken even further. It is of course absurd to claim that genes would directly impact one's political beliefs (ie, natural selection has not had a long enough time to act on that basis), and the APSR article is careful not to suggest that. The NY Times article on the other hand, well -- don't get me started. In any discussion of genetics, it must always be emphasized that genes code for protein manufacture -- behaviors only emerge after a long chain of biochemical events lead to a functioning brain.

Still, certain basic behavioral tendencies (particularly evolutionarily more primitive traits such as recklessness/timidity, as in an example given by ), likely are influenced to some extent by genetic variation, and are likely correlated to some extent with political beliefs. In the APSR article, the authors invoke a construct of absolutism vs contextualism as two opposing personality traits that might be under genetic influence. I will let you guess which one is ascribed to conservatives, and which one is cast in the more favorable light. (HINT: The last sentence of the article is: "As loathe as contextualists and absolutists are to admit it, the presence of the other orientation may make society stronger.")

While the authors clearly are either flattering themselves or catering to their presumed audience, I think that consideration of putative "intermediate phenotypes" between biology and political ideology can be an interesting exercise. However, as Jonah and Derb realized pretty quickly, there can be no simple, one-to-one mapping of personality to politics. As a simple example, a contrarian personality raised in a conservative household (or community, or society) might turn out quite differently than one raised on a commune. Not to mention those individuals whose politics are actually idealized inversions of their own characters (I think of certain gluttonous, narcissistic movie directors and Senators whose politics are oh-so-selfless)...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is some evidence that academics in social studies and even biology line up this way:
conservatives tend to conclude that humans are not easily changed; thus the potency of nature in that sense is stressed; liberals tend to conclude that humans are much more easily changed; thus the potency of nurture in that sense--and perhaps of human freedom is stressed.It has been argued by people like Ernest Becker and Bainton that the rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin (or its more extreme forms) led social science, not to mention politicians, to almost utopian confidence in the malleability of social and political structures, partly inspired by the desire to imitate the success of Newton and others in the physical sciences--hence, social engineering. Lately, as a tactic and perhaps influenced by the new emphases on biology, homosexuals have shifted to a nature emphasis.
R.L.A. Schaefer Dubuque Iowa

4:25 AM  

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