Does heritability of political orientation matter?

By Razib Khan | June 17, 2011 2:40 am

At The Intersection Chris Mooney points to new research which reiterates that 1) political ideology exhibits some heritability, 2) and, there are associations between political ideology and specific genes. I’ll set #2 aside for now, because this is a classic “more research needed” area at this point. But as I mentioned in the comments the heritability of political ideology is well known and robust. From what I can gather most people assume it’s mediated through personality traits. In the comments Chris asks:

That sounds sensible. What i find amazing is that if the heritability of politics is so robust–and I agree, it would happen via personality–why is this so widely ignored?

There are I think several issues at work. First, many people are not comfortable within imagining that beliefs which they attribute to their conscious rational choice are not only subject to social inculcation, but that may also have an element of genetic disposition. Second, most people have a poor grasp of what heritability implies. Take a look at some of Chris’ commenters. The response is generally in the “not even wrong” class. Finally, what’s the actionable component to this? In other words, what are people going to do with this sort of information?

I think there is a possible way in which heritability information might be used: you could consciously try to reshape the environmental context in which it is expressed so that the norm of reaction is recentered. This is related to the concept of the “Overton window”. Gay rights in the United States is the best illustration of that. Today a moderate conservative position is to favor civil unions. Yet in the year 2000 the very socially liberal state of Vermont was riven by conflict over the very possibility of civil unions. The “center” has moved, and so has the “right” and “left.”

The disposition toward conservatism and liberalism does not manifest in absolute tendencies, but attitudes and actions comprehensible only against a reference which allows for one’s own bias to come to the fore. This is why heritabilities of being conservative and liberal can remain the same over time and across cultures, even though conservative and liberal can mean very different things in different contexts. Some natural genetic variance in the traits which allow for political ideological difference may also suggest to us there is little possibility of a “end of politics,” where there is total unanimity on all topics. When consensus is achieved, there will presumably always be some who wish to push the boundaries of innovation further, and those who resist just as fiercely. Just as there will always be a minority who may pine for the days of yore, while everyone else looks at them as if they’re loony.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics, Politics
  • JL

    There’s a related new paper by Michael Woodley in Intelligence. It’s a response to a study arguing, among other things, that lower IQ people are drawn to right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) because they are incapable of the sort of complex information processing that (left-)liberalism requires. Woodley argues that this is a false interpretation and that to the extent that lower IQ is associated with RWA it is because contemporary enlightened Western norms are opposed to RWA and higher-IQ people are more adept at adapting to such norms. In a different society with different norms IQ could be positively correlated with right-wing attitudes and authoritarianism.

    Quoting from the end of the paper:

    The cultural-mediation hypothesis should be treated as the default hypothesis of why political attitudes correlate with IQ in a given direction. Only when the influence of potential cultural mediators has been thoroughly ruled out should consideration be given to theories invoking personality pathology, defective cognition, evolutionary novelty, rational word-views or anything else.

  • Charles Nydorf

    Maybe the categories of liberal and conservative have very little to do with politics. In Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” the author recalls that people from both sides of the spectrum ended up supporting or opposing the Nazi movement.

  • http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/neuronculture David Dobbs

    I’ve been wondering if the problem with (and my unease with) “genetic disposition toward ___” findings and coverage of this sort is that the blank is too often filled in with a behavior rather than a trait. Political identity of course lies in some muddy place between trait and behavior: It’s an identity composed of traits, I suppose, but more so through behaviors (arguing X, voting Y, supporting Z, etc.)

    Problem with this is that genes and evolution don’t produce behaviors so much as they do traits: aggression v passivity; attraction to novelty v aversion to same; tolerance of risk v avoidance; and so on. Perhaps those things aren’t sexy enough? Maybe not, but it seems to me they explain and mean more. It’s more meaningful and gives broader insight to say a gene seems to generate higher attraction to novelty than it does to say it’s a drinking gene. But the drinking gene is bunk. We only just started making the stuff!

  • http://genotopia.scienceblog.com genotopia

    I greatly appreciate your critical approach to this kind of handwaving science, and I glow with camaraderie when you observe the widespread misconstrual of heritability.

    And you’re right, of course, that if you want to do something with this information, you basically have two choices: reshape the environment or reshape the genetics. The latter is eugenics. The former, euthenics. In the Progressive Era, Ellen Swallow Richards developed the notion of euthenics as a counterpart to eugenics. It never really caught on, but it’s now seen as a precursor to home economics. It might also involve euthenics, Josh Lederberg’s term for reshaping the phenotype, or modifying the development, through various means (http://www.pachs.net/blogs/comments/euphenics_algeny_and_orthobiosis/).

    So…what do you have in mind? How might we reshape environment and developmental context to influence political views? And who’s going to do it? As with eugenics, the question is always, Who’s in control?

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “The disposition toward conservatism and liberalism does not manifest in absolute tendencies, but attitudes and actions comprehensible only against a reference which allows for one’s own bias to come to the fore. ”

    Agreed. Also, there are “extremes meet” circumstances in which there are separate conservative and liberal ways of reaching the same conclusion on the same contested specific issue of public policy. For example, a conservative might favor reducing prison sentences for an offense in order to reduce government spending while a liberal might favor the same statute because the current sentence is too harsh for the offense.

    This component of heritability is also an area where the question of population level differences in inherited predisposition is a particular powder keg. What does it mean for political theory if you can know from a statistically significant set of blood samples from registered voters that 70% of voters in New Hampshire are genetically predisposed to be conservative, while 70% of voters in Vermont are genetically predisposed to be liberal?

    What about political appointees, candidates for public office and judicial candidates? Does the public have a right to know their genetic political predispositions if they can be reliably determined and the public is relying on these individuals to make political decisions? The notion of a political litmus test is increasingly starting to sound like a literal possibility.

  • Violet

    How would this apply to other multi-party political systems? Usually there is a large group of ‘independents/undecided’ which swings elections in Parliamentary systems. A person need not lean the same way throughout their life.
    How would heritability of political orientation measured then, I wonder?

    Perhaps it would have been more useful for people outside ‘liberal-conservative’ divide if the study specified ‘traits’ that are linked to these orientations.

  • Markk

    I am still confused as to what “heritability” means in this context after reading your pointers. It either makes no sense or is pretty obvious and useless. I guess I (also?) have trouble with how much the heritability is genetically determined inheritance vs inherited from the family. A re-examination by you of heritability in terms of behavioral traits wouldn’t go wrong for me.

    All of this seems to have pretty low predictive power. I am having a hard time thinking about the statistical model that would be accurate to these results yet give any reasonable prediction, and I’m coming up short.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    All of this seems to have pretty low predictive power. I am having a hard time thinking about the statistical model that would be accurate to these results yet give any reasonable prediction, and I’m coming up short.

    heritability is just the slope of the regression line between offspring and parents. does that help? if the heritability is high it can be highly predictive on an individual level even if you have parental information.

  • http://MaxEntropy.squarespace.com Bruce

    ” This is why heritabilities of being conservative and liberal can remain the same over time and across cultures, even though conservative and liberal can mean very different things in different contexts.”

    Possibly, but there’s a physiological basis underlying the liberal/conservative bias. The latter has been traced to differencies in dopamine neurotransmitter chemistry which are innate to the individual:

    http://www.americanthinker.com//blog/2010/11/genetics_and_politics.html

    This does not change with external circumstance. Accordingly, Liberals are feelings-driven and respond to political issues emotionally. They cherry-pick facts that support their pre-conceived conclusion. Conservatives are logic-driven, weigh all the facts and reason sequentially to a conclusion. Liberals cherish security; Conservatives cherish liberty. All else stems from those values.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    bruce,

    1) i am aware of the dopamine research

    2) this: . Accordingly, Liberals are feelings-driven and respond to political issues emotionally. They cherry-pick facts that support their pre-conceived conclusion. Conservatives are logic-driven, weigh all the facts and reason sequentially to a conclusion. Liberals cherish security; Conservatives cherish liberty. All else stems from those values.

    sounds kind of retarded honestly, kind of like how liberals sometimes like to sat their ideology is based on reality and not norms. and just so you know, i vote republican usually and consider myself a conservative. unfortunately as humans we have a strong tendency in general to “cherry-pick facts that support their pre-conceived conclusion.”

  • Michelle Dulak Thomson

    I can’t imagine any study that would confirm this with any reasonable reliability. Most children who are not openly antagonistic towards their parents do tend to agree with their parents politically. But some don’t; I’m a lot more conservative than my parents are, and I know other folks that are much more liberal than their parents, without dislike on either side.

    I don’t see how any genetic link could be proved, absent studies of adopted children and their birth parents, which confidentiality makes very difficult to construct.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #11, stupid.

  • Michelle Dulak Thomson

    Well, that was sure a constructive exchange.

  • miko

    Razib, maybe you should license commenters with a short quiz on heritability. Or in the case of Bruce, a quiz on anything. Because good comments cherish smart, and all bad comments cherish stupid. All else stems from those cherishings.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    like a lot of people i have trouble understanding heritability. i found this helpful:

    http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/homepage/45829.html

    i wrote a blog post about trying to understand heritability, the gist of which was, “so if i understand right, heritability could be translated as ‘amount of difference among people attributable to genes.’ please correct me if i am wrong!”:

    http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com/2011/06/ap-central-understanding-heritability.html

  • Walenty Lisek

    “what’s the actionable component to this?”

    Have more babies if you want your side to have more votes in the future.

  • miko

    @mike: close, but it is not “among people”–it is within a population. Heritability is context-dependent; it varies over time/environment for a given organism/trait. And strictly speaking, it is the variation attributable to heritable factors, genes are the major ones, of course, but not the only ones. In addition to organelles, you probably also inherit your microbiome, pathogens, aspects of your metabolism, etc.

    Re: “actionable component”: get on internet, shout about how it supports what you’ve been saying all along.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    thanks miko!

  • Douglas Knight

    People obviously get their politics from their parents. That seems to me much more actionable than nuance about nature vs nurture, but people ignore it.

    Older people are more conservative than younger people, but they rarely try to impart their wisdom to the youth, rather than just saying “Someday you’ll agree with me.” Have they learned something or have their personalities just changed?

  • Miguel Madeira

    “Accordingly, Liberals are feelings-driven and respond to political issues emotionally. They cherry-pick facts that support their pre-conceived conclusion. Conservatives are logic-driven, weigh all the facts and reason sequentially to a conclusion. Liberals cherish security; Conservatives cherish liberty. All else stems from those values.”

    These does not make much sense – after all, are the liberals and progressives who believe that human reason can build a perfect (or, at least, a better) society, and conservatives who believe that social order is maintained not by reason and logical, but by shared values, traditions, religion, prejudices, etc. (note the criticism of Edmund Burke against “sophists, economists and calculators”, or the reaction of the – usually conservative – german Romanticism against the Enlightment values).

    If anything, it seems that are liberals/progessives who are obsessed by logical reasoning and conservatives by emotion.

  • Miguel Madeira

    A point about the heritability of political ideias is that is not much clear how this applies to countries who had a very big change in political topics over the years. Look to Portugal:

    1820-1834 – Liberals vs. Absolutists
    1834 – 1890 – Democratic Liberals vs. Anti-Democratic Liberals
    1890 – 1926 – Anarchism vs. Republic and Secularism vs. Monarchy and Catholicism
    1926 – 1974 – “Anti-Fascism” vs. Conservative Dictatorship
    1974-1975 – Communism vs. Western Democracy
    1976-… State-leaning mixed economy vs. Free-market-leaning mixed economy

    How heritability works in this scenario? If I am a liberal in 1825 (the most left-wing faction, supported by small artisans and defending a constitutional monarchy), what my grand-grandson will be in 1925 – an anarchist (the most left-wing faction)? a republican (the faction of small artisans and shopkeepers)? a monarchist (of the constitutional variant)?

  • Miguel Madeira

    Reading the article of American Thinker, makes more sense than appeared by the synopsis of Bruce.

    If we look only for the realistic vs. intuitive dimension, of course that radicals (I prefer this word to “liberals”) will be more in the intuitive side, and conservatives in the realistic side. After all, the definition of conservative is exactly “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…”.

    When they spoil everything is when (probably because of the pop culture right-brain/left-brain nonsense) they mix the realistic vs. intuitive dimension with the logical vs. emotional dimension as if they were the same thing (when they are two different – and possibly orthogonal – dimensions).

    Explaining better – you can perfectly to prefer imagination to reality and to be a logical (or even extreme logical) thinker; a good example are the abstract revolutionary intellectual who wants to destroy the present social order because “it is illogical and it is the result of ancient historical accidents that are outdated” and replace it with a “rational and logical” society, planned out of nothing from pure abstract principles (like the 18th century Philosophes or the 19th century Utilitarians), perhaps with days of 10 hours.

    Or the opposite – you can prefer the reality exactly because your emotional connection with the reality you knows (your family, your village, your church, your royal family, your country, etc.).

  • http://MaxEntropy.squarespace.com Bruce

    Re: Miko 14: Did you read the reference I cited in support of my argument or did you just reflexively respond (emotionally) and jump to calling me stupid? No reasoned response just snark. Liberals (right-brain dominant) typically respond this way when they’re challenged. Thanks for your (inadvertent) support of my contention which was/is based on the legitimate work of others (i.e; a reasoned conclusion).

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »