If the current presidential campaign shows us one thing, it’s that political passion arises from somewhere beyond the rational intellect. Consider the visceral excitement surrounding the Barack Obama campaign, or the deep dislike of John McCain among certain right-wingers (his conservative voting record notwithstanding). In both cases, the issue is one of gut feeling, not reasoned argument.
But what is driving these reactions? Why are some people intensely interested in politics while others barely pay attention? And how does a person end up at a given point on the left-right spectrum?
According to an intriguing new line of research, the answer lies — partially — in our genes. Combining neurology, genetics and political science, researchers are gradually discovering how genetic and environmental factors come into play as we form our political identities.
“All liberals know conservatives don’t have a heart, and all conservatives know that liberals don’t have a backbone,” joked John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University and one of the first academics to explore genetic influences on ideology. “So the issue has always been biological. I’m just moving it into the genes and the brain.”
Traditionally, political scientists have debated which environmental influences have a bigger impact on a young person’s nascent political ideology: the belief system of one’s family of origin, or the alternative ways of thinking one is exposed to in the outside world (say, at college). Alford and his colleagues contend genetics are an important third factor to add to this equation.
They are not advocating biological determinism; Alford believes genetic predisposition accounts for 50 percent of our political ideology at most. Nevertheless, he is convinced that our genes play an underappreciated role in our political behavior, and new research suggests he may be right.
James Fowler and Christopher Dawes of the University of California, San Diego recently completed two studies indicating that people with certain genetic variations are less likely to engage in political activities, including voting. When the initial study comes out in an upcoming issue of the journal Politics, it is expected to be the first published paper linking a specific gene with political behavior.
This is a significant follow-up to the work of Alford, who co-wrote a seminal study suggesting a genetic component to political behavior. The paper, written with John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and Carolyn Funk of Virginia Commonwealth University, was published in May 2005 issue of the American Political Science Review.
Alford stumbled upon the subject almost by accident.
“John Hibbing and I were interested in biology and evolutionary approaches to political behavior,” he recalled. “In our casual reading, we read (evolutionary psychologist) Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate. In it, he refers in passing to a series of things that have been shown to have genetic influences, including political ideology. That intrigued us.”
After much digging around, Alford discovered Pinker was referring to a 1980s study of 12,000 twins in the United States. The same-day siblings were asked a variety of questions, including 28 that dealt with political issues.
He immediately realized this was a gold mine. By comparing identical and non-identical twins, it would be simple to separate genetic from environmental influences. If genetics were an important factor, identical twins would agree on issues much more often than fraternal twins.
Which they did, across the board. One example: Asked whether property taxes are too high, four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.
“We found that political attitudes are influenced much more heavily by genetics than by parental socialization,” Alford said. “For the overall index of political conservatism, genetics accounts for approximately half the variance in ideology while shared environment — including parental socialization — accounts for only 11 percent.”
In other words, he concluded our political ideology is essentially shaped by a combination of outside environmental influences (friends, books, professors, etc.) and genetic predisposition. Your parents’ genes played a role, but the dinner-table talk probably did not.
The first objection Alford hears to this concept is usually along the following lines: “That can’t be true. I’m liberal, and both my parents were conservative.” His answer: “Look at hair color, eye color, height — there are a whole series of genetic traits that are not produced identically from parents to offspring. Chances are you picked up a recessive liberal gene, which can probably be found elsewhere in the family tree.”
“This takes some of the onus off of parents,” he added. “If your kids become liberal and you’re a conservative, they’re usually not doing it to poke a finger in their eye. It wasn’t a choice for them, so it doesn’t reflect a deliberate flaunting of your beliefs.”
Alford is in the process of setting up another twin study, this one devoted strictly to politics and ideology. It will get under way in May. By designing more detailed questions, “We can study with much more subtlety the dimensions that underpin people’s participation in politics, as well as left-right orientation,” he said.
But as Fowler noted, some researchers are skeptical of twin studies contending that the shared beliefs of identical twins can be explained by factors other than biology. While he doesn’t share that viewpoint, he concluded that the only way to win them over would be to find links between political behavior and specific genes. To date, he has discovered several.
In one study, “We looked at the MAOA gene, which regulates a protein that breaks down both serotonin and dopamine in the brain,” he said. “One version of the gene has been associated with antisocial behavior. We hypothesized that voting, which is considered pro-social behavior, must be associated with the opposite version of the gene.”
The hypothesis turned out to be correct. “Our main findings are that people with the normally functioning version of the MAOA gene vote at a rate about 5 percent more than people with the less-efficient version of the gene,” he said.
To date, Fowler and his colleagues have looked at five genes, all of which are linked to participation in social activities. “None of them predict whether you’re a liberal or a conservative,” he said. “But that’s five down, 24,995 to go!
“I’m sure that John Alford’s genes are out there somewhere. We just haven’t found them yet.”
Alford is aware his research disturbs some people, who are quick to envision brave-new-world scenarios of genetic manipulation and reprogramming. In contrast, he sees this line of study as promoting tolerance.
He reports that realizing one’s ideological bent is inherent and unchanging has made him less argumentative and more aware of the value of varying belief systems. “When it comes to structuring social life,” he said, “there is probably some utility for having people with different points of views interacting together.”
And even when he can’t reconcile his beliefs with others, he is more relaxed about it. “I’ve always had good working relationships with people across the ideological spectrum,” he said. “(I accept the fact) this is just the way their brains are built.