July 03, 2005
Blue genes?

Quick intro and hello: I'm Ellen, from Hello Helliemae, and am thrilled to be a guest at Off the Kuff. Now back to the regular programming...

"Issues do not explain Americans' politics."

Boy, that's an understatement. But what does? Last year's election left lots of folks on the left scratching their heads. If so many voters disagreed with President Bush on important issues, how did he win? A recent article in the American Political Science Review posits an interesting, and new-to-me, explanation.

In last month's "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?", three political science professors argue that genetics exert a surprisingly large influence on individual political attitudes. Using data from twin studies in the U.S. and Australia, they disaggregate the effects of three influences on political ideologies: heredity (genetics), shared environmental factors (common experiences growing up in the same family), and unshared environmental factors (individual life experiences).

Using correlations on survey items relating to political views, the authors find that on average, heredity explains roughly a third of the variation on political attitudes, about twice the amount attributable to shared environment; the rest is due to individual experiences. This genetic influence is much higher than many people would have guessed - certainly much more than I had assumed.

The authors suggest two "political genotypes": absolutist and contextualist. Many people might substitute the names conservative and liberal, but these political scientists believe what's more interesting is to classify people based on their openness. This approach is particularly useful given that the research did not find a strong genetic component to political party affiliation. (Shared environment was much more important for that outcome.) Thinking about the 2004 election results: the strong differences in these two genotypes may trump positions on issues. So, an absolutist could easily disagree with President Bush's actions and statements in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, but still vote for him due to his/her fundamental, genetically-influenced political profile.

These findings point to a number of implications, but I'll focus on a couple that are of most interest to me. One is the influence of "assortative mating". If parents choose each other based on genetically-determined characteristics, the heredity effect will necessarily be increased. The authors address this question, noting that this practice increases the role of genes in determining children's political attitudes. They go on to state that since people do tend to choose partners with similar ideologies, the divisions between absolutists and contextualists could increase over time. I'd take that a step further: working from the assumption that absolutists are likely to have more children per capita than contextualists, someone on my end of the political spectrum might well think that we're bound to lose in the long run. We'll just plain be outnumbered.

Another possible implication, far less serious but a lot more fun to contemplate, is for matchmaking services. If I were Dr. Neil Clark Warren, with his "traditional beliefs" and ties to Focus on the Family, I'd seriously consider incorporating political ideology into my matching algorithms. Let's see, pair off as many conservatives as possible, match liberals with more open/contextualist orientations to conservatives who are strongly absolutist (in the hopes the latter's genes will trump), and tell the remaining liberals that there's no one out there for them. Might not generate enough revenue to cover his $80 million in estimated advertising costs this year, but sure could advance the cause.

Update 07/07/05: A friend (and former professor of mine) sent me a thoughtful response to this piece, one that I'd like to share.


I read with interest your blog about the genetic component of political behavior. A few thoughts -- almost like I was a professor commenting on a student's paper.

The problem with your argument is that it ignores the very high correlation with political ideology and party id. This correlation has grown in strength over time with the realignment of southern white voters from the D column to the R column.

The very low (and statistically insignificant) connection between party and genetics is thus generalizable to ideology and genetics. That is to say, since party proxies for ideology, there also cannot be a strong correlation between ideology and genetics. Thus the logical jump to the conclusion that conservatives are more absolutist (less pragmatic, flexible, nuanced) than liberals isnít sustainable. The more accurate conclusion is that there are people that are absolutist on the left, just as there are on the right Ė a few months in Boulder should provide ample evidence of this. Similarly, there are pragmatic, flexible, nuanced people at both ends of the ideological spectrum. Put differently, partisans of both stripes can be absolutists; likewise some partisans of either stripe (though not all) are able and willing to entertain shades of gray. In fact, you might be able to think of examples of both.

It is true that the fertility rate among educated, middle income liberals is lower than conservatives, more generally. But the long-term evolutionary implications are not about the breeding patterns of the right versus the left, but the breeding patterns among absolutists versus gray-scale types. Are absolutists more or less likely to mate and produce offspring? Is this more or less likely among gray-scaler? On this question, I donít think there is enough evidence to hazard a guess. Maybe left-leaning absolutists are willing to make commitments and produce babies at a higher level than their left-leaning gray- scale counterparts. Or maybe left-leaning gray-scalers are more willing to look beyond their ideological blinders to find true love and breeding opportunities wherever those opportunities present themselves. Similarly on the right. I donít think we can know based on the current research.

So the moral of the story, if there is one, is to trust that genetics arenít destiny, even if they play a role. Or maybe the lesson is that genetics also programs people, whatever their ideological predispositions, to go to enormous lengths to seek mating opportunities, despite the possibility that they may occasionally cancel out the votes of their lovers.

Dissertation over.

Cheers, Ken

Posted by Ellen Forman on July 03, 2005 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack