An interesting article in the New York Times today reports on a new study that claims political views may be influenced by genes. Excerpt:
[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. […]
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 idea is a little puzzling and the story leaves a lot of questions unanswered (which may be answered in the original journal article — I haven’t had a chance to read it).
One should always be suspicious when researchers in one field (politics in this case) take data from another field (genetics) and then apply their own selective analysis — it invites statistical abuse, whether intentional or not.
The researchers talk about "two broad genetic types, more conservative and more progressive," but choosing those particular labels seems rather specific to 21st-century America. Surely our genes aren’t that time- and location-specific. And does it have to be just two types? I don’t think all countries are quite so bipolar in their politics.
Their ultimate conclusion seems like quite a leap to me:
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.
Hopefully this will get more coverage. I would love to read a critique by someone more knowledgeable about genetics.