Your Politics – Nature or Nurture?

Why do people vote the way they do… and believe what they do?  A growing number of studies show a link between attitudes linked to heredity and political beliefs.  The issue has gotten hot enough that one U.S. congressman spearheaded an amendment to the National Science Foundation budget last May to cut a billion dollars. While the amendment failed, Congressman Jeff Flake’s second amendment to the NSF budget – one that banned any NSF funding of political science research – did pass, because Flake did not want the NSF funding research into the biological roots of political behavior.

According to a recent article in the British New Scientist, “there is a substantial body of data suggesting that conservatives and liberals really are different tribes, divided not by opinions so much as by temperament and even basic biology.”  Also interesting is the fact that the article and research were written by Americans and published in a British science magazine.  The article itself is comparatively even-handed, pointing out correctly that most research in the field is conducted by liberals and that there are difficulties with some studies.  But one of the underlying problems is that, by temperament and biology, the majority of scientists in most fields, excepting those involving engineering and directly related fields, tend to be “liberal” in outlook and politics.

All that said, more than 25 years of study indicate that political attitudes have a high degree of inheritability, and such studies include identical twins raised in totally different environments, who are far more likely to share political attitudes than do fraternal twins or genetically unrelated family members.  As a rule, but not invariably, conservatives are more likely to prefer people of their own ethnic background, straight people, and high-status groups.  Liberals are more comfortable than conservatives with those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as with members of ethnic or sexual minorities. Liberals tend to be more morally offended by inequality, while conservatives tend to be more morally offended by betrayals of the in-group, by disrespect for authority, and by signs of sexual or spiritual weakness or impurity.  These characteristics have been linked to anatomical differences in the size of various brain structures.  Conservatives have a higher need for certainty, while liberals tend to revel in mental challenges.

In this regard, I’ve always had the feeling that conservatives can’t find the truth because they’ve known it all along, whether it’s true or not, and liberals will never recognize it because they’re so involved in looking for the next thing that they’ll look right past it.

What is clear about all this research is that all of us are biologically inclined in a certain direction in what might be called our social outlook, some more so than others, whether that direction be conservative or liberal.  What is also true is that each of us does have the ability to examine those predilections… and to decide whether blindly following our feelings makes sense in any given situation or whether we need to examine what we feel more closely. Obviously, both outlooks are necessary in human society… or those with one inclination or the other would have been weeded out or marginalized, and given the near equal polarization in political outlooks in the United States, that hasn’t happened… and that means, again, blind insistence on doing either just the “conservative” thing or the “liberal” thing is counterproductive.  Working out a compromise is necessary.

Unfortunately, I don’t see many signs of this happening in our political situation here in the United States at the moment… and it’s something that needs to occur.  As a society, we can’t afford to follow blindly just one of the genetic predilections that evolved to make us successful hunter-gatherers. Nor can we turn our back on what science is revealing about who and what we are. Those are recipes for disaster in a high-tech complex world.


11 thoughts on “Your Politics – Nature or Nurture?”

  1. Tim says:

    It is interesting that you refer to New Scientist. I subscribed to this for many years after graduating until I realised that the articles were definitely leaning more to the left. Additionally the advertisements for upmarket BMW and Mercedes cars appeared at odds with these increasingly liberal articles. However, it may be my genes speaking.

  2. I also subscribe to others, such as Scientific American, and reference them as well.

  3. j says:

    Many people seem to underestimate the heritability of personality and other mental traits, and as a consequence they tend to explain observed social outcomes by citing the wrong causes. Twin studies show that most personality traits, including political orientation, have a heritability of ~.50, while adult intelligence, like height, has a heritability between .80 and .90. Religiosity is heritable but religion is not. Homosexuality is significantly less heritable than many would like it to be. The following paper has some figures for heritability drawn from twin studies:

    Once you take into account the fact that traits are distributed differently between population groups, demographics turn out to be of overwhelming importance to politics in a democracy. The elite may–or may not–follow Mr. Modesitt’s suggestion and make the effort to overcome their biases, but the masses are very unlikely to do the same. So policies that lead to demographic changes are bound to reshape the political landscape of the following generation, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    While I’m not keen about anyone wanting to kill research, I don’t see that this particular research is essential in a time of austerity.

    Worse, I don’t see that any research that attempts to find an inheritable basis for political leanings should EVER be undertaken by a government.

    How many presidents (of both parties) are alleged to have had lists of (domestic!) enemies? Why help those that are already a danger due to their appetite for power to be even more dangerous?

    Anyone that can imagine that the Constitution has some unwritten right of privacy should be even more appalled by the concept of this research. But one hardly needs to imagine such a right to imagine the abuses possible by applying the results of such research.

    The only answer is transparency, and lots of it, in anything done by government that has domestic applications.

    The left already wants to treat killing the very young and the very old as if it were a right. Combine that with the ability to predict who would oppose their eternal bid for eternal power, and they’d be a horror beyond anything yet seen.

    1. j says:

      R. Hamilton: I seriously doubt there’s a way to keep the genie in the bottle for very long. Even if we don’t undertake genetic research, the Chinese, Koreans, etc. will, and the results won’t stay secret. Trying to suppress genetics might keep the truth out of the hands of the general public, but certainly not out of the hands of government agencies.

      If you’re worried about avoiding dystopia–and you are probably right to be worried–you need to plan ahead and find a different solution than stopping research. Making sure people are informed about the nature of the beast would be a good first step and I think it’s one that hasn’t really been taken yet.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        I did say “transparency”.

        A little more investigative journalism (rather than just repeating the talking points of one’s favorite side) couldn’t hurt. But sooner or later it’s going to reach the point where to preserve freedom will require significant numbers of individuals participating – “crowdsourcing” in modern speak. Maybe it always did, and we’ve just been lucky for awhile…

  5. Joe says:

    The premise behind democracy is that averaging the opinions of experts that think differently produces a more accurate portrayal of reality. Mathematically this is true, for non biased experts: each expert tends to “overfit” their model of the world to their own personal experience, which like any other statistical sample of the world, has sampling error. Averaging removes this sampling error.

    However, the whole scheme fails if the experts do not give a true opinion but try to manipulate the result out of anxiety. Understanding the biases of the experts may give us a way to correct for it, and create a more successful system than democracy. Biased people won’t like it, but then many people disliked the introduction of democracy and the abolishment of feudalism.

    Nothing here however means anyone should be on anyone’s “list of enemies” as feared by R Hamilton. Federal research in basic science should not be limited by people’s fears. Better we all know, than that only a few know.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Federal research shouldn’t mostly _be_ in basic science, notwithstanding that businesses won’t often (and shouldn’t often) be doing it either. And for the similar reasons: the Constitution doesn’t name research as a federal responsibility, therefore the federal government shouldn’t do it (what’s so hard to understand about only ENUMERATED (ok, and some implied to support them) powers?); and a business shouldn’t do it, unless it satisfies their obligation to their shareholders.

      Colleges and universities should be doing this mostly, instead of cranking out larger numbers of semi-literate people that can maybe prove they’ve memorized a minimum of material rather than learned to do original thinking too. Which is not to say that business or government can’t support them when their responsibilities align with the interests of institutions of “higher” learning. This happens of course…but a lot of the other basic (as opposed to selected _applied_) research that the federal government does kind of on its own is just over the top waste of money and abuse of authority.

      The least amount of government is an acceptably necessary evil. Any more than that is just evil. Period.

      1. Joe says:

        @R. Hamilton: If you had your way, the US would be an agricultural backwater, just like it was 100 years ago. I wonder if you’d like it that way.

  6. Tim says:

    Don’t knock the US so much. What other country spends so much on space research which arguably benefits little else other than understanding the cosmos. I used to work for ESA which is the poor relation to NASA. I would say that without the US contribution to pure scientific research, the work would be a much less-enlightened place. Of course, I would prefer that England had that bouquet but times have changed 🙂

  7. Jay Oyster says:

    I like your statement at the end of this post,
    “Nor can we turn our back on what science is revealing about who and what we are. Those are recipes for disaster in a high-tech complex world.”

    It reminds me of the basic thesis of one of my favorite books; one that is, at its core, a sociological study, The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan.

    But Left-Right is such a limited way to describe the human animal. There are several other fundamental dimensions: authoritarian-libertarian, collectivist-individualist, rationalist-whatever the heck neutral term is opposite rationalist. (Chaotic- Orderly. :-). Mostly, the prolem for individuals is when one of these dimensions becomes too strong in the culture, and you’re not one of the people who naturally fits on one or the other of those ‘teams.’

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