A political animal in the genes

By Razib Khan | August 28, 2012 9:49 pm

Trends in Genetics has a review article, The genetics of politics: discovery, challenges, and progress. The main reason I point to these sorts of papers isn’t that I think they’re revolutionary. Usually they aren’t. Rather, the public domain has totally forgotten about this domain of study. Most of the informed and high-toned discussion presumes that almost everything of worthy note is socially constructed. If not, then the counterpoint is a crude caricature of genetic determinism which is refutable in a blink of the eye. It’s as if someone was commissioned to paint R. Daneel Olivaw, and ended up using crayon to sketch out the Frankenstein monster.

For example, in sex differences the public debate veers between evolutionary psychological Leave It To Beaver, pre-scientific cultural traditionalism, and de facto Blank Slatism. On the one hand you have to deal with people who use “scare quotes” around the “highly speculative” “hypothesis” that males have a greater tendency toward inter-personal physical aggression than females (including in the comments of this blog, so spare with lectures about how this is a marginal perspective; I’m pretty sure I talk to people about behavior genetics a lot more than you do, though if not I’d like to hear from you!). Set against this you have an elevation of a particular specific and historically contingent nuclear family structure in the post-World War II West as normative by the laws of biology. Never mind that you need to leave the hearth to gather, and that someone must have been minding the farm when citizen soldiers were away at war. Some aspects of the ideal of American social conservatives may actually be socially constructed and economically contingent, rather than being a consequence of the natural laws of society. And just because something is socially constructed does not mean that it is not good or worth defending. And just because you believe that something is natural does not mean that you think that one should never rein in one’s natural impulses. Is and ought are not the same, and they do have relationships, but they’re complex and need to be teased apart precisely. As it is most discussions deal in rhetorical preening and misrepresentation of one’s interlocutors.

But before we can have intelligent discussions about these topics we actually need to revisit robust facts (I no longer believe that it is currently possible to have informed and civil discussions on these issues in public, though it is generally possible in private). In this area the Trends in Genetics review does have one weakness: the authors note that critics of behavior genetics presume that they are attacking a Mendelian genetic architecture (e.g., “the god gene”), when it fact behavior genetic traits are polygenic and highly distributed across the genome. And yet they themselves seem to have in mind a very narrow range of architectures when it comes to ideology being polygenic, as they cap the article with a laundry list of genetic loci.

In any case, here’s the chart (I’ve reworked it in terms of dimensions) that I want readers to peruse. Notice the disjunction between heritability of political ideology and political party. What the results here mean is that if you adopt children they are likely to follow your own political party orientation, but not necessarily your political ideology.

There is one interesting aspect of the paper which I had not been aware of:

One important finding that emerged from extended pedigree studies is that long-term mates correlate more highly on political ideologies (0.65–0.71) than on almost any other clinical, behavioral, or psychological trait…Spousal similarity was not due to convergence or social homogamy…Once assortative mating was accounted for, the genetic similarity for political traits between DZ twins increased; the effect being that less genetic variation between twin types accounted for more of the overall phenotypic difference. This recognition led to the conclusion that possibly the most important social influence on a child’s ideologies is the parent’s choice of mate, which affects a whole repertoire of downstream effects, including genetic transmission, familial environment, and the range of person-specific environments that offspring experience.

Here’s a personal anecdote. My parents are Democrats, and always have been. They may be socially conservative, but they never really abandoned their faith in the 1970s Third World socialism which they left 30 years ago. And yet I have strange instinctive sympathies toward paleolibertarianism (I am not a paleolibertarian because in the domain of politics I make it a policy not to extrapolate from my peculiar intuitions to humans as a whole). Interestingly, I have a sibling 15 years younger than myself who has the exact same predisposition! Mind you, this is an individual who I had little contact with growing up because I was an adult out of the house during their formative years. One thing about being similar to someone in terms of aptitudes and orientations, and yet half a generation older, is that you can dissuade them from compelling, but ultimately fruitless endeavors. A fixation on the minutiae of politics is exactly one of those things.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Behavior Genetics

Comments (12)

  1. Riordan

    Looking at the paper, I still do not quite understand how they managed to link, let alone prove, those various social political tendencies to genetic variance. Can someone explain it better to me? Surely its not merely dressing up for the simple fact of general parental influence.

  2. yes! A behavior genetics post. Its hard to find substantive articles on this as the field is so young. Seems like the last big one was the David Dobbs piece in Wired two years ago (excluding gnxp material.) anecdotally, I think I might be genetically oriented to be a liberal. If It were not for the Internet Inform me of what Is goIng on In the world I probably would not be socIally conservatIve.

  3. Karl Zimmerman

    Due to the liberal/conservative divide seemingly being mostly hereditary, I’ve found myself increasingly thinking the “great sort” that is purportedly happening is a good thing (although I doubt it’s real). In order for democracy to work properly, we need some level of consensus. Perhaps not consensus on actual policies, but a core of shared values. For example, I think a society can debate whether it’s better to favor economic growth or reducing poverty and which policies are most effective at achieving either goal (or even both goals). But if a substantial proportion of the population believes that economic growth isn’t needed at all or that poverty isn’t a bad thing, it’s impossible to come to any consensus. Thus I find myself thinking that, within the U.S. context, maybe it would be better to have some states overwhelmingly liberal, others conservative, and let each be a test-bed for the policies they desire. Even if they are not totally effective, at least the state and local governments will be more able to initiate changes to tinker with them as problems arise.

    More generally, I know I’ve also read that there are only two things which typically change the partisan affiliation of adults past the age of 30 or so. One of them is changing economic classes. The other is marrying someone with the opposite political stances. This suggests that partisan affiliation is mostly unconsciously held, and if you pick up social cues from your peer group, most people will slowly conform to the new norms.

    Your personal story is funny however, because it reminds me of my own ideological awakening. I had always assumed that my parents were pretty typical liberal Democrats growing up, but as a teenager I became interested in further left politics. I openly identified as a revolutionary socialist (although I never joined any party group), and didn’t vote for anyone who wasn’t a third-party candidate for many years. Talking to my mother as an adult, I found out she also didn’t vote for any Democrats at all before Bill Clinton, barring McGovern. She never shared with me that she had radical left politics (aside from occasional comments that rich people were assholes and couldn’t be trusted) – I just independently developed an interest in them, and came to the same conclusions that she had.

  4. Its hard to find substantive articles on this as the field is so young.

    it’s not young. it’s been around for a while. just ignored.

  5. Riordan

    I am not aware of any epigenetic or traditional method that would explain this correlation. That’s all it seems to be, correlations….I don’t think the field is there yet, this article wont hold up

  6. #6, what traditional method are you talking about? explain in detail. the results have been around for a while, and are now getting some support for genomic methods.


    Preferences are fundamental building blocks in all models of economic and political behavior. We study a new sample of comprehensively genotyped subjects with data on economic and political preferences and educational attainment. We use dense single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data to estimate the proportion of variation in these traits explained by common SNPs and to conduct genome-wide association study (GWAS) and prediction analyses. The pattern of results is consistent with findings for other complex traits. First, the estimated fraction of phenotypic variation that could, in principle, be explained by dense SNP arrays is around one-half of the narrow heritability estimated using twin and family samples. The molecular-genetic–based heritability estimates, therefore, partially corroborate evidence of significant heritability from behavior genetic studies. Second, our analyses suggest that these traits have a polygenic architecture, with the heritable variation explained by many genes with small effects. Our results suggest that most published genetic association studies with economic and political traits are dramatically underpowered, which implies a high false discovery rate. These results convey a cautionary message for whether, how, and how soon molecular genetic data can contribute to, and potentially transform, research in social science. We propose some constructive responses to the inferential challenges posed by the small explanatory power of individual SNPs.

  7. ryan

    No lecture. But I wonder if you speak to a lot of young people about behavioral genetics. I went to college and spent my 20’s with loads of feminists who believed that previous generations just hadn’t raised their boys right. But when my friends raised their boys ‘right’, the boys still wanted matchbox cars and turned sticks into guns when mom wouldn’t let them have guns. And they all recognized that nature had something over nurture on this particular question. My point being, I think blank slatism is a pretty marginal perspective among people 30 and over who live in at least mildly heterosexual circles, but it probably still thrives among 20-somethings without kids and among any small groups of queer separatists out there – both of which I’d guess are much more prevalent in academia than in the rest of the country.

    I talk to people, and most of my friends are liberal, about this sort of thing. Certainly not as much as you, but I do. And I pretty much never run into blank slatism except as something that someone used to believe.

  8. #8, there’s a difference between public and private opinions. among friends candid objectivity and detachment about the state of the world is possible. but not when you are in a situation where you are worried about being pinned as a witch. mind you, the witch-burners are a minority, but they are a real hassle. so that’s how you have a strong disjunction between private assumptions about how the world works, and public platitudes.

    you could say that this isn’t sustainable. i don’t think it is. but an economic system as idiotic as democratic centralism in a marxist-leninist mode persisted in russia for 70 years. so there’s inertia in these things.

    i agree age matters.

  9. ackbark

    They don’t find any association with tax-phobia, or with mob enthusiasms –where some people seem highly motivated by marching around and making the loudest noise.

    Also sports interest, conservatives seem much more motivated by sports than others.

  10. I’ve been making the case for some time that political ideologies are just reproductive strategies designed for r and K-selecting environments (Environments of copious resource abundance, or limited resource availability).

    The r-strategy entails avoiding competition, supporting promiscuity, supporting single parent rearing, supporting earlier age of sexualization of young, and diminished loyalty to in-group/group competitiveness. Even the sexual dimorphism reverses, with manly females who provision and protect their young alone, and feminine males, who avoid conflict and competition as they mate with many females.

    The K-strategy entails being aggressive/competitive (to get resources), monogamy/mate-guarding (competing by monopolizing mates), high-investment two-parent rearing (fitter kids who win their competitions for resources and carry genes forward), later age at first intercourse, and high loyalty to in-group/group competitiveness. Although it never comes up I would assume those in a K-selective environment would adapt to care less about the losers in the competition for resources. Even the sexual dimorphism matches, with aggressive competitive males who provision/protect, and feminine females who avoid competition and nurture in the two parent family.

    The only difference between ideology and classical r/K is that humans may have adapted over many cycles of resource availability and resource shortage to adapt their strategy psychologically based upon environmental perceptions, adding a further level of adaptability over their genetic foundation. I see Dennis Mangan’s speech on supernormal stimuli as a key ingredient there.

    If this is so, the coming financial hardships will probably diminish our population’s desires to provide free cell phones, easy home mortgages, and adjust the credit scores of the poor, for fairness.

  11. ackbark

    Also it would be interesting to distinguish an interest in government, as opposed to an interest in politics.


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


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar