[Paleopsych] NYT: Some Politics May Be Etched in the Genes
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Tue Jun 21 16:59:56 UTC 2005
Some Politics May Be Etched in the Genes
[The article will follow in a moment.]
By BENEDICT CAREY
Political scientists have long held that people's upbringing and
experience determine their political views. A child raised on peace
protests and Bush-loathing generally tracks left as an adult, unless
derailed by some powerful life experience. One reared on tax protests
and a hatred of Kennedys usually lists to the right.
But on the basis of a new study, a team of political scientists is
arguing that people's gut-level reaction to issues like the death
penalty, taxes and abortion is strongly influenced by genetic
inheritance. The new research builds on a series of studies that
indicate that people's general approach to social issues - more
conservative or more progressive - is influenced by genes.
Environmental influences like upbringing, the study suggests, play a
more central role in party affiliation as a Democrat or Republican,
much as they do in affiliation with a sports team.
The report, which appears in the current issue of The American
Political Science Review, the profession's premier journal, uses
genetics to help answer several open questions in political science.
They include why some people defect from the party in which they were
raised and why some political campaigns, like the 2004 presidential
election, turn into verbal blood sport, though polls find little
disparity in most Americans' views on specific issues like gun control
and affirmative action.
The study is the first on genetics to appear in the journal. "I
thought here's something new and different by respected political
scholars that many political scientists never saw before in their
lives," said Dr. Lee Sigelman, editor of the journal and a professor
of political science at George Washington University.
Dr. Sigelman said that in many fields the findings "would create
nothing more than a large yawn," but that "in ours, maybe people will
storm the barricades."
Geneticists who study behavior and personality have known for 30 years
that genes play a large role in people's instinctive emotional
responses to certain issues, their social temperament.
It is not that opinions on specific issues are written into a person's
DNA. Rather, genes prime people to respond cautiously or openly to the
mores of a social group.
Only recently have researchers begun to examine how these
predispositions, in combination with childhood and later life
experiences, shape political behavior.
Dr. Lindon J. Eaves, a professor of human genetics and psychiatry at
Virginia Commonwealth University, said the new research did not add
much to this. Dr. Eaves was not involved in the study but allowed the
researchers to analyze data from a study of twins that he is leading.
Still, he said the findings were plausible, "and the real significance
here is that this paper brings genetics to the attention to a whole
new field and gives it a new way of thinking about social, cultural
and political questions."
In the study, three political scientists - Dr. John Hibbing of the
University of Nebraska, Dr. John R. Alford of Rice University and Dr.
Carolyn L. Funk of Virginia Commonwealth - combed survey data from two
large continuing studies including more than 8,000 sets of twins.
From an extensive battery of surveys on personality traits, religious
beliefs and other psychological factors, the researchers selected 28
questions most relevant to political behavior. The questions asked
people "to please indicate whether or not you agree with each topic,"
or are uncertain on issues like property taxes, capitalism, unions and
X-rated movies. Most of the twins had a mixture of conservative and
progressive views. But over all, they leaned slightly one way or the
The researchers then compared dizygotic or fraternal twins, who, like
any biological siblings, share 50 percent of their genes, with
monozygotic, or identical, twins, who share 100 percent of their
Calculating how often identical twins agree on an issue and
subtracting the rate at which fraternal twins agree on the same item
provides a rough measure of genes' influence on that attitude. A
shared family environment for twins reared together is assumed.
On school prayer, for example, the identical twins' opinions
correlated at a rate of 0.66, a measure of how often they agreed. The
correlation rate for fraternal twins was 0.46. This translated into a
41 percent contribution from inheritance.
As found in previous studies, attitudes about issues like school
prayer, property taxes and the draft were among the most influenced by
inheritance, the researchers found. Others like modern art and divorce
were less so. And in the twins' overall score, derived from 28
questions, genes accounted for 53 percent of the differences.
But after correcting for the tendency of politically like-minded men
and women to marry each other, the researchers also found that the
twins' self-identification as Republican or Democrat was far more
dependent on environmental factors like upbringing and life experience
than was their social orientation, which the researchers call
ideology. Inheritance accounted for 14 percent of the difference in
party, the researchers found.
"We are measuring two separate things here, ideology and party
affiliation," Dr. Hibbing, the senior author, said.
He added that his research team found the large difference in
heritability between the two "very hard to believe," but that it held
The implications of this difference may be far-reaching, the authors
argue. For years, political scientists tried in vain to learn how
family dynamics like closeness between parents and children or the
importance of politics in a household influenced political ideology.
But the study suggests that an inherited social orientation may
overwhelm the more subtle effects of family dynamics.
A mismatch between an inherited social orientation and a given party
may also explain why some people defect from a party. Many people who
are genetically conservative may be brought up as Democrats, and some
who are genetically more progressive may be raised as Republicans, the
In tracking attitudes over the years, geneticists have found that
social attitudes tend to stabilize in the late teens and early 20's,
when young people begin to fend for themselves.
Some "mismatched" people remain loyal to their family's political
party. But circumstances can override inherited bent. The draft may
look like a good idea until your number is up. The death penalty may
seem barbaric until a loved one is murdered.
Other people whose social orientations are out of line with their
given parties may feel a discomfort that can turn them into opponents
of their former party, Dr. Alford said.
"Zell Miller would be a good example of this," Dr. Alford said,
referring to the former Democratic governor and senator from Georgia
who gave an impassioned speech at the Republican National Convention
last year against the Democrats' nominee, John Kerry.
Support for Democrats among white men has been eroding for years in
the South, Dr. Alford said, and Mr. Miller is remarkable for remaining
nominally a Democrat despite his divergence from the party line on
Reached by telephone, Mr. Miller said he did not see it quite that
way. He said that his views had not changed much since his days as a
marine, but that the Democratic Party had moved.
"And I'm not talking about inch by inch, like a glacier," said Mr.
Miller, who makes the case in a new book, "A Deficit of Decency." "I'm
saying the thing got up and flew away."
The idea that certain social issues produce immediate unthinking
reactions comes through in other political research as well. In
several recent studies, Dr. Milton Lodge of the State University of
New York at Stony Brook has shown that certain names and political
concepts - "taxes" or "Clinton," for example - produce almost
instantaneous positive or negative reactions.
These intensely charged political reflexes are shaped partly by
inheritance, Dr. Lodge said.
It may be the clash of visceral, genetically primed social
orientations that gives political debate its current malice and fire,
the study suggests.
Although the two broad genetic types, more conservative and more
progressive, may find some common ground on specific issues, they
represent fundamental differences that go deeper than many people
assume, the new research suggests.
"When people talk about the political debate becoming increasingly
ugly, they often blame talk radio or the people doing the debating,
but they've got it backward," Dr. Alford said. "These genetically
predisposed ideologies are polarized, and that's what makes the debate
"You see it in people's eyes when they talk politics. You can hear it
their voices. After about the third response, we all start sounding
like talk radio on some issues."
The researchers are not optimistic about the future of bipartisan
cooperation or national unity. Because men and women tend to seek
mates with a similar ideology, they say, the two gene pools are
becoming, if anything, more concentrated, not less.
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