genetic factors in political orientation?

An article by Jim Giles published in New Scientist, and posted by the Center for Genetics and Society, surveys a variety of studies leading some people to see genetic factors in political inclinations, including liberal v. conservative, and likelihood to participate or not.

The studies include twin studies, gene studies and personality studies. This calls for some degree of skepticism, but some of it seems worthy of consideration.

The findings seem related to what used to be called “Individual Differences” in Ed Psych classes, and some of what is now treated as differences in “learning styles.” They suggest that factors beyond information and experience may be relevant to the success of “multicultural education.”

I am about the last person to accept biological reductionism, but some degree of openness to these lines of investigation might be in order — or maybe I’m just genetically predisposed to ambiguity and openness (traits considered by some of these studies in relation to more liberal political orientations).



  1. jess13
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    “Liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain activity” simply tells us a fact in the present moment. It is also plausible that having liberal or conservative tendencies may cause different patterns of brain activity as the other way around.

    “The fact that identical twins gave the same answer more often than non-identicals suggests the answer must be influenced by their genes.” Indeed? When does a relatively new science allow such strong inferences based on such meager data? “Must be influenced”? That’s not a scientific conclusion – it is indeed biological reductionism articulated as ideology.

    I don’t buy it. But I do agree that many of my fellow social science practitioners are loathe to admit the possibility that the body and its processes are part of the equation of human behavior and experience. Of course, like Tony, I’m probably just predisposed to ambiguity through my genetic makeup. :) I should ask my daughter what she thinks about this. She’s a bio-geneticist.


  2. Kevin Currie
    Posted July 11, 2008 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Not having seen these studies, I think they would probably suffer from the “nature or nurture” fallacies that many such studies frequently fall into.

    The difficulty may be this: it seems to me that if biological make-up has something to do with influencing one’s political temperment, then one will generally be brought up by one’s biological parents, who will tend also towards that temperment.

    So, the difficulty may be to figure out whether it was the genetics or the parenting that is the primary factor. (Are there any studies which find that twins raised by different sets of parents with different political persuasions end up with the same political persuasion?)

    It is similar to the dilemma I read of in Steven Pinker’s “Blank Slate” where he disucsses this dillema in the context of studies showing a biological predisposition towards violence. (He rightly pointed out that it is just as plausible that one LEARNS the violence from violent parents as it is that one INHERITS the violence from them genetically.)

    I see no problem – as do neither of you – with biological causal explanations such as these, but they are very sticky. I hope no one says that there is a “gene for” conservatism (or liberalism).

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