Is Politics Partly Guided By Our Genes?

By Chris Mooney | June 16, 2011 3:07 pm

I figured the recent post on conservatives and the amygdala, and liberals and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), wasn’t controversial enough. So why not go farther and discuss recent research that ties our political views to our genes?

I point you to the following paper: Peter K. Hatemi et al (there is a long list of als), “A Genome-Wide Analysis of Liberal and Conservative Political Attitudes,” recently published (2011) in the Journal of Politics. A PDF of the paper can be found here. And here is the abstract:

The assumption that the transmission of social behaviors and political preferences is purely cultural has been challenged repeatedly over the last 40 years by the combined evidence of large studies of adult twins and their relatives, adoption studies, and twins reared apart. Variance components and path modeling analyses using data from extended families quantified the overall genetic influence on political attitudes, but few studies have attempted to localize the parts of the genome which accounted for the heritability estimates found for political preferences. Here, we present the first genome-wide analysis of Conservative-Liberal attitudes from a sample of 13,000 respondents whose DNA was collected in conjunction with a 50-item sociopolitical attitude questionnaire. Several significant linkage peaks were identified and potential candidate genes discussed.

The technology used, “genome-wide linkage,” is one that the authors say was used to locate the BRACA1 and BRACA2 genes linked to breast cancer…. Basically, all the subjects (13,201) had completed the aforementioned political attitudes questionnaire and had given blood. Then there was an attempt to find chromosomal regions with polymorphisms–i.e., these regions vary in people–where the variance correlated with political views.

The rather amazing result–for any of us who stops to think about the incredibly vast distance between the genes we are born with and our political attitudes as adults–was that three regions were found to be linked in a way that was “significant” (one reaching the most stringent test of it) and one was linked in a way that was “suggestive.” (The technical stuff on all of this is in the paper.)

What could this mean? Well, as the authors write:

As we identified four regions of interest, and one that meets the strictest criteria, our findings are consistent with what might be expected if the genetic component of variation in Conservatism-Liberalism resembles any other polygenic human trait, for which the genetic resemblance between relatives can only be resolved reliably into the effects of a large number of genes with small effects that typically cannot be identified by linkage.

In other words, no gene is acting directly to determine our political views–there is no “liberal” or “conservative” gene–but there might be a combination of genes acting together that somehow predispose us to have particular politics, presumably through their role in influencing our brains and thus our personalities or social behaviors. Indeed, the most promising gene regions turned up in the study all involved “NMDA and glutamate related receptors.” The authors couldn’t resist speculating here:

Thought organization, information processing, capacity for abstract thought, learning, and performance are related to blockage of NMDA. Of particular interest to political ideology is the relationship between NMDA and performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST). The WCST is a neuropsychological test of the ability to display flexibility in the face of changing schedules of reinforcement. By definition Conservatism and Liberalism have much to do with flexibility of opinion in the face of a changing world.

These are highly exploratory results. The scientists can’t even say that they identified, for sure, a single the genetic pathway that influences our political views. But at the same time, the genome wide fishing expedition didn’t turn up empty. They caught some things that will definitely be subjected to further research.

What’s the big picture? Here are the authors again:

To find a significant linkage region that may implicate certain genetic markers is not to say that a particular gene determines a particular behavior. Nor do our results advocate that genes have some greater effects than that of the environment. This is certainly not the case. Rather, we are starting from two opposite ends of a very complex process: DNA, somewhere near the very basic matter of what living organisms are made of on one end; and an expressed complex behavior (political ideology) on the other. Behavior is the final end product of all that goes in and out of what it is to be human, interacting in a complex and changing environment during one’s lifecycle (e.g., puberty, menopause, etc.). We have barely begun to understand what goes on in between those two spaces, which makes this area of research exciting, while also inspiring caution. The understanding that we cannot yet accurately map how genes influence brain processes and biological mechanisms which in turn interact with our upbringing, social life, personal experience, the weather, diet, etc, to somehow be expressed in part as a ConservativeLiberal orientation, is the exact reason that genomewide analyses are valuable and necessary for political science. Human behavior emerges from the interaction and interplay of genes, socialization and environmental stimuli, working through ontogenetic neurobiological processes embedded in an evolutionary framework (Dobzhansky 1973). So far as the data suggest, a theory and method which includes genetic influences, no matter how large or small, accounts for portions of Conservative-Liberal orientations that environment-only models do not.

I truly find this amazing. But, if this is what the science says for now, there is only one thing to do: more science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (25)

  1. hey chris,

    1) be skeptical of reports of positive findings on any specific genes.

    2) the heritability of political attitudes is pretty robust. this is a well known finding. probably has more to do with heritability of personality and such (e.g., “openness” on the big five), not politics as such

  2. Chris Mooney

    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?

  3. Anna

    Was this an American study? I think Americans relate differently to politics than at least the Europeans do. Americans, show it (ok the Brits do it too but a bit less). Political views are not personal, it is part of the invidual’s expression. My parents never told me who they voted for, neither did my friend’s parents. I still don’t know what my father votes for.

    Most European countries have a wide range of parties in the parlaments. In Sweden we have eight, ranging from democratic socialists, the green party, christian democrats, liberals, green liberals, conservative and I am sad to say that since the last election we -just like most other European countries- have racist bastards in the parlament.

    It is not unusal that people vary between parties during a life time and we often support different parties locally than we do on the state level. These days we also vote for the European union. I have never voted for the same party ffor the different levels of power and I have voted on both sides of the “left right” map, although I have voted more for one side…

    We have a saying that goes “if you do not vote left when you are young you have no heart and if you do not vote right when you are older you have no brain”.

    So how come our “cousins” on the other side of the atlantic are genetically wired to end up with only two ways on interpeting the world? We should have approx the same genes?

  4. Chris Mooney

    I think this was an Australian sample.

    Every culture has different politics to some extent. The premise here is that something fundamental may nevertheless underlie the left-right divide.

    People change views all the time. Genes, even if they’re involved (as this study suggests), don’t overpower culture or experience. Rather ,the two go together….one analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like baking a cake. Genes are one of the ingredients.

  5. That would mean that if political parties are genetic, we should not allow any governance to be prejudiced by an accident of birth. We should abolish political parties because they are just a club based purely on genetics. To select a political candidate based on left or right leanings is no different than electing them for eye color.

  6. Chris Mooney

    @5 again you are missing the complexity of the gene-environment interaction. This is what the study authors are warning against.

  7. Got the complexity. What I missed was genetic resemblance of my post to a joke. A study looking for genetic marker(s) for humor would be funnier. A pair of identical twins walk into a bar…

  8. In rough numbers, is there some degree or percentage of influence that the researchers tentatively say this may cause?

  9. GregM

    @8 Socratic Gadfly:

    from the study, page 10, right hand column:

    “our largest chromosomeregion
    effects explain ~13% of the total variance,
    implying that the gene accounting for this QTL is
    substantially correlated (O0.13 5 0.36) with Conservatism-
    Liberalism. However, we recognize the larger
    estimates of QTL effects in genome scans are typically
    biased upwards and our simulations show that estimates
    of 8% are not unusual even if there were no true
    linkage.”

    so *MAYBE* genes explain 5% of the variation in Liberal/Conseratism when the data were collected between 1988 and 1990?

  10. GregM

    Chris Mooney writes: “I figured the recent post on conservatives and the amygdala, and liberals and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), wasn’t controversial enough. So why not go farther…”

    If controversy is your aim, you are competing with the National Enquirer. Is that really where you want to be? Why not aim scientific explorations and discussions that engage a diverse audience in common enterprise of further exploration?

    You have engaged a diverse audience here, but it seems to me that you have explicitly favored the liberal side of the issue, to the delight of the people who agree with you. You have occassionally thrown a bone to the conservative side. But I don’t see much evidence that you have effectively reached the conservative side other than to inspire criticism and scorn. A convenient and dismissive response to this would be that conservatives are unreachable because they have withdrawn into a cocoon of confirmation bias. But then why would they read your blog and then make an effort to comment? True, some critics only cast aspersions, but I also see very thoughtful comments among the critics. This suggests to me that there is still an opening for a gifted communicator, who understands science and politics, to offer a description of the intellectual landscape of our day in a way that people from a wide range of perspectives can say “yes those are the key ideas we disagree about, and I can understand how thoughtful people of good will can favor the range of perspectives that I disagree with.” These days, if you disagree with someone on a particular issue, the default response is to find some reason why they are evil or stupid, or have the wrong genes or are trying to modify human nature. I find it rather sadly ridiculous, especially given the wide variety of information available at our fingertips.

  11. varcher

    @2 “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?”

    Because people are deeply attached to the concept of free will, self-determination, limitless potential, and other concepts.

    Suggesting that their personality may be determined in part, except in case of “disease”, from birth, tends to frighten people. And, as you well know, frightened people will tend to ignore or reject the facts and theories that upset their worldview.

    It’s a bit cultural – go back a few centuries, and you have the ideas that moral qualities were inherited by the aristocracy, and that kings were born with the “kingly qualities” be prevalent, at least in the official culture – despite numerous examples to the contrary.

  12. Chris Mooney

    I want to repost a quote from Razib’s post–trackback above–because it’s really great:

    “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.”

  13. Chris Mooney

    @10

    “But then why would they read your blog and then make an effort to comment? True, some critics only cast aspersions, but I also see very thoughtful comments among the critics.”

    You disagree with me to some extent, and are valued here.

    A lot of blog commenting is a variety of motivated reasoning and belief affirmation. So to some extent I do ignore the emotional attacks that are often streaming in. The rule of this blog is that I want to create a place for comments that reflect our more considered, dispassionate side. Comments from either right or left that have this character will be appreciated.

  14. 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?

    Because political choices are dominated overwhelmingly by where people sit in society, not by their genetics.

    My problem with this series of posts is that you’ve been conflating terms. So,

    ( liberal = Left = Democrat ) and ( conservative = Right = Republican )

    I realize that this is standard everyday usage, but if you’re going to start arguing genetics you need to be much more precise than that. Liberal and conservative are personality traits. Left and Right are ideological markers. Democrat and Republican are partisan identifiers.

    So the Republican “War on Science” is due to the Leftward shift in scientific expertise because liberals have more gray matter in the ACC? That’s where you’ve lost me. These aren’t the same things, even if we treat them the same in conversational shorthand. Denial of climate science isn’t an inherently conservative position. It just happens to be the position of today’s Republican party.

    I have no doubt that emotional and personality traits are in part heritable, but this does not map directly to political choices.

  15. Chris Mooney

    @16 you don’t get my view because you are making all kinds of connections that I’m not making. I have been cautious here to talk about the nature-nurture complexity of it all. I have no doubt for instance that you can have “liberal” personality traits and be a conservative/Republican by affiliation and identity.

  16. #16 Twin studies into the heritability of political views generally find low heritability of party affiliation (compared to heritability of positions on specific issues or overall conservatism) and significant influence of shared environment.

  17. shams

    @14 That is not a comment, that is from the body of razibs post. Note the title– Does heritability of political orientation matter?

    The problem here is that razib is a conservative explaining the heritability of political ideology. He cannot exclude his own bias long enough to note that this is an emergent phenomenon and not static. There is a growing chasm of separation between the two sides. For example Salam-Douthat stratitification on cognitive ability results in fewer and fewer individuals with conservative tendency in academia.
    Grand New Party page 152.
    This is not a new thesis, the savannah principle hypothesis and the U of Toronto study point to the same conclusions.
    I would argue that there is not just genetic tendency but memetic tendency. People are rewarded for different attributes on different sides of the aisle. Conservatives value loyalty, obedience, ancestor worship (Hayek), authoritarian impulse, accumulation of wealth. Liberals value education, intelligence, altruism, social justice, innovation, future worship, as opposed to ancestor worship….entirely different value sets.
    Conservatives and liberals self select, based on political genetic tendency. For example conservatives get social capital for NOT having a “fancy” education. In gaming this is called rubberband theory. Social levelling for IQ and education makes the game more fun to play for conservatives.
    The other big difference is that there are incredibly few third culture intellectuals on the conservative side…possibly none. The nature of conservativism is preservation of the status quo, defering to the authority of the past as risk management. That means the theories of first culture intellects like Hayek and especially free market economics are accorded disproportional weight, because they results of these philosophies are anti-empirical– ie, they do not work as intended.

    @Jinchi
    “So the Republican “War on Science” is due to the Leftward shift in scientific expertise because liberals have more gray matter in the ACC?”
    No, but AGW denialism is REWARDED on the right hand of the aisle and MOCKED on the left. It pays off in social capital, and makes playing the politics game more fun.

    @Mooney You should know that until recently razib denied a biological basis for the heritability of political tendency. He is being whelmed by data showing the opposite.

  18. shams

    GregM

    These days, if you disagree with someone on a particular issue, the default response is to find some reason why they are evil or stupid, or have the wrong genes or are trying to modify human nature.

    There is a biological basis for human behavior. It seems as if only conservatives dispute that.

  19. Forgive me if someone already made the observation–but what makes you think “heritability” is the explanation? MAYBE a predisposition, but the host affects gene expression. If you spend formative years enculturated to a certain worldview, this probably shapes how genes are expressed as much as anything else. We have here a snapshot of these people in adult life and looking at patterns of gene expression–these are not established at birth necessarily! Particularly when it comes to the plasticity of neurological functions and activity.

  20. shams

    Like Chris Mooney said, molecular genetics are a part only.
    But there is an emerging body of evidence across multiple scientific disciplines that backs up the MCD findings.
    Evo theory of culture, SBH, EGT, SNT, cognitive anthropology and evo bio are all part of the emerging picture.
    But I object to what razib said mostly–

    The disposition toward conservatism and liberalism does not manifest in absolute tendencies

    In contemporary America this is manifestly false.
    There may be overlap between the distributions, but the within group variance is narrowing, resulting in radical partisanship and profoundly absolutist tendancies. The between distribution gap is widening, while the within group variance is shrinking, resulting in political polarization.

  21. shams

    And this is going to freak people out…but there is an emerging between group measurable difference in cognitive ability and religiosity.

  22. shams

    @Chris

    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?

    Because people don’t want to know.
    And especially razib khan and other conervatives doesn’t want to know.
    America’s dirty little secret is that one of the two major parties in America is religious and race-based.
    And the negative correlation between religiosity and IQ is well documented.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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