Linking Biology and Political Behavior

Successive waves of the study of politics have had one thing in common: They have ignored the behavior of those ordinary biological organisms known as people.
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Successive waves of the study of politics have had one thing in common: They have ignored the behavior of those ordinary biological organisms known as people.

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle called humans the "political animal." He engaged in vivisection and was thoroughly convinced of the need to employ biology to understand social and political behavior.

In more modern times, E.O. Wilson famously encouraged a "consilience" of the social and life sciences. And for decades a group of scholars has championed the cause of "biopolitics" by pointing out the failings of traditional approaches to the study of politics.

Unfortunately, these protestations and scholarly leading lights have had little impact on standard approaches to the study of politics, which, like most pursuits, has had different emphases at different times.

The first was an emphasis on legal-institutional features. Statutes and constitutionalism — structure and function — were the topics while politicians and citizens were nowhere to be found in this style of academic work.

Then, the study of politics was bitten by the "behavioralism" bug. Primarily through opinion surveys and computer-based statistical packages, the emphasis shifted from institutions to people. Why did some vote and some not? Why did some care about politics and some not? Why did some tend to vote Republican and some not? Could people's views and behaviors be changed by parental socialization, persuasive co-workers, media presentations or salient events?

In recent decades, a "rational choice" perspective has become ascendant, with its emphasis on theoretical expectations regarding not actual behavior but the behavior of a rational organism.

Yet, there has long been something missing. Institutions, legal frameworks and judicial decisions do not fall from the sky. Survey responses may not reveal true attitudes or actual behavior — many respondents, for example, claim to have voted when they have not, claim to be tolerant when they are racist and are incapable of accurately expressing the reasons for their own political beliefs and behaviors. And calculating the nature of pristine rational responses may have precious little to do with the messy, real-world behavior of ordinary people.

Previous approaches to the study of politics failed to accept the foundational fact that politics is undertaken by biological organisms. Neither the legal approach nor the rational choice approach deigns to incorporate humanity at all. As viewed by work in these traditions, politics could just as easily be undertaken by automatons.

Mass-scale politics, arguably that most uniquely human of all activities, is too nuanced to be grasped merely by pondering legal statutes, asking survey questions or wondering WWARAD — "what would a rational actor do?"

Even behavioralism, growing out of the inflexible stimulus-response model of Skinnerian psychologists, sees no need to try to figure out the manner in which behavioral decisions are actually made.

Why look inside the black box of the mind if all organisms merely respond mechanically and identically to environmental stimuli?

All previous conceptions of the study of politics have been devoid of life, symptomatic of a larger failing in the way the human social world is typically analyzed. Traditional separation of the life and the social sciences is a curious phenomenon indeed. Is it possible for "social" to take place without "life"? So why is it that many who study politics attempt to do so without studying life? Whatever the reason, doing so is a grave mistake.

The mission of the social sciences, properly viewed, entails uncovering the rich range of environmental and biological forces that interact to produce complex social behaviors.

Only by teaming with our colleagues in the life sciences so that biological principles can be applied to the study of politics will there be any hope of obtaining the complete picture of human politics, a picture that will then allow us to place important events such as the 2008 election in its proper context.

Humans are sloppy, electro-chemical amalgams, shaped by evolutionary pressures, not to be mathematically pleasing, rational organisms, but to survive and to reproduce. Evolution is the ultimate satisficer. Out of these evolutionary pressures have arisen the human brain, human sociality, human political attitudes and, ultimately, human political institutions.

The study of politics must be joined with the study of the life sciences because only then will the realities of politics become evident.

It is not enough to ask people whether they voted or whether they are racist. Instead, we must roll up our sleeves and pursue an entirely different line of questions. What neural systems are activated when subjects see an interracial couple? What neurotransmitters are relevant when people consider members of what social psychologists would call "out-groups?" What genetic loci and alleles are associated with variations in racial and out-group attitudes? What are the evolutionary explanations for hostility toward out-groups and, perhaps more importantly, for the incredible variation in these attitudes across people?

Unfortunately, scholars continue in their legal, behavioral and rational choice approaches, and continue to ignore the biological component of human life. The well-intentioned biopolitics movement is almost exclusively data-free and frequently comes off as a screed aimed at non-believers.

We believe data-based, empirical work is absolutely essential if the biological study of politics is to move forward, just as we believe that the traditional political science approaches are not so much incorrect as badly incomplete. They need to be complemented with clear-headed recognition of the importance of biology to the human condition and, therefore, to human politics.

These are the motivations that led us to assemble the group of scholars that contributed to the October 2007 issue of The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science. The group's efforts reflect the diverse biological applications that are possible. Some scholars measure the genetic bases of politics, some take hormonal assaysto see if they correlate with subjects' political decisions, some conduct brain scans in order to trace the neural markers of politics, some use laboratory experiments with real monetary payoffs to isolate social tendencies, some use survey data informed by recent discoveries on emotion and neuroscience, and some use computers to simulate the evolutionary process as it pertains to the sociopolitical world.

None of these approaches is intended to — or will — identify the winner of the 2008 election.

But political science is more than "slow journalism" and true understanding of politics entails more than compiling and predicting current events. Biological approaches to politics deal not with proximal but with distal causes; they are the “deep background” of current events.

Kevin B. Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. John R. Hibbing is the foundation regents professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.