One gene, two genes; Red genes, blue genes

Posted by Jesse Reynolds February 14, 2008
Biopolitical Times

Your faithful bloggers here at Biopolitical Times are not the only ones with an eye towards the intersection of biotechnology and politics. The cover of a recent issue of New Scientist caught my eye, featuring a crowd of individuals colored red or blue (representing American Republicans and Democrats) with the large caption, "Two tribes: Are your genes left-wing or right-wing?" This conveniently captures almost all that is wrong with media coverage of genetic discoveries. It implies that that genes code, directly and in one of only two ways, for variations in modern social behaviors.

The article itself, though, is more balanced. It offers a summary of research indicating that political preferences may have a significant genetic component. The underlying thinking is that genetic differences can influence general behavioral characteristics such as openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, and extroversion, which in turn impact political orientation and engagement. While there is some evidence of such a relationship, investigation into behavioral genetics contain fundamental shortcomings. The article brought up some:

But some studies linking biology to political attitudes need to be taken with a pinch of salt. One recent brain-scan study, published in The New York Times as an opinion piece, was pilloried in the press for being marketing, not science. The study was criticised in part because the researchers involved had links to FKF Applied Research, a firm which employs brain scanning in its market research work. And there is no shortage of critics who question the whole idea of linking politics with biology. Personality studies in particular have been singled out as sloppy science, in part because qualitative traits like openness cannot be measured in the way that height or eye colour can. To gauge personality, psychologists generate a series of questions designed to measure the trait of interest. Asking a subject whether they "jump into things without thinking" is one way to measure openness. But some of the questions on the tests assess issues that are political in nature, such as a subject's views about foreigners. If this is the case, "the correlation is completely circular", says Evan Charney, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Furthermore, much of the evidence is based on twin studies, which have come underfire themselves.

Even with these caveats, such research has disturbing social implications - and the New Scientist article only makes this potential worse. My greatest concerns is that accepting that genes determine political orientation could cause deepening political apathy. The article opens and closes with this:

The race to become the most powerful politician on earth is well under way, and the US is gripped by election fever. In newsrooms and bars across the land, liberals and conservatives are slugging it out, trying to convince each other that their way of thinking is right. They may be wasting their breath....

So the guy at the bar may never agree with you, but perhaps realising that can be liberating. "We spend a lot of energy getting upset with the other side," says [Rice University political scientist John] Alford. We often think our opponents are misinformed or stubborn. Accepting that people are born with some of their views changes that, Alford points out. Come to terms with these differences, and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion on figuring out ways of accommodating both points of view.

Heck, why bother voting when you could just have your cheek swabbed?

The fact is, some contrasting points of view can't be "accommodated" or reconciled. Society works through some of these differences through politics. It's not always pretty, but it is necessary to a functioning democracy. And while some individual tendencies may have genetic components, history unambiguously indicates that ideas which are more persuasive and backed by better organizing become not only policy, but also widespread social norms - at least until the next ones supersede them.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: