The Politics of Genetic Determinism

Another article has just appeared on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology relating to the influence of our innate mental wiring on the likelihood that our political outlook will be conservative or liberal. Entitled, “Extending the Behavioral Immune System to Political Psychology: Are Political Conservatism and Disgust Sensitivity Really Related?” it isn’t fundamentally different from other papers that have appeared in behavioral science journals recently exploring the same theme.

The conjecture that human beings have an innate tendency to identify with ideological points of view that are either to the right or the left of the political spectrum has been around for a very long time, and recent research seems to verify it. However, such work must necessarily be carried out in the context of human societies charged with the types of emotion it seeks to study. It is hardly as irrelevant to those emotions as, say, research into the behavior of some new type of amoeba. It should come as no surprise if the results of such studies are crudely distorted and transmogrified into propaganda weapons by one ideological faction or the other.

Specifically, there is a danger that research in this area will be trivialized to “prove” determinist arguments the same way other research into innate aspects of human behavior has been used in the legal system to claim that criminals are not responsible for their behavior because “their genes made them do it.” An example of what I’m talking about turned up on the Foxnews website today. Referring to a different but related study, it carries the headline, “Researchers find the ‘Liberal Gene’”. This is immediately followed by the byline, “Don’t hold liberals responsible for their opinion – they can’t help themselves.” The rest of the piece is considerably more nuanced. For example, a bit further down we read,

“The way openness is measured, it’s really about receptivity to different lifestyles, for example, or different norms or customs,” he (research paper author James Fowler) told “We hypothesize that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal” — but only if they had a number of friends when growing up, Fowler cautioned.

This isn’t a typical gene association study,” he said. “There’s a combination of genes and environment that matter.”

No matter, as all good propagandists and students of the media are aware, a great number, if not most, readers never look beyond the headline and the byline. That’s where you should always look if you want to get the “message” straight up. That “message” is set forth a great deal more explicitly in an “opinion” piece that is linked directly under the main article entitled, “A ‘Liberal Gene’ You Say — Now That Explains It All, Doesn’t It?” The author, Martin Sieff, quickly hammers the nuanced scientific observations of the original article into a handy propaganda tool:

Can there really be a liberal gene? They’ve got to be joking.

But no here it is, straight from Fox News today: James Fowler, a professor medical genetics and political science (cool combination) says liberals can’t help being – liberal.

Sieff goes on to “rearrange” the research paper to suit his own political point of view:

Of course, what Fowler calls the “liberal gene” he also explains as being the “open minded” gene. And that might well apply to modern conservatives instead of liberals, because which of them is more open-minded?

After all, Fowler defines his “liberals” as being open minded and open to new ideas and new solutions. But does that fit modern American liberals, who stick to disastrous failed ideas and policies in the face of all the evidence? Or does it apply to American conservatives, who are right now thrashing out a redefinition of conservative policies for the new century?

So perhaps Fowler’s “liberals” were really open-minded conservatives all alike, and his “liberals”, while certainly not conservative, were just rigid, closed minded defenders of a disastrous, failed status quo all along.

The deterministic message is again served up straight in the “zinger” lines at the end of the article:

This means of course, that conservatives should show more tolerance the next time they hear President Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After all, they can’t help it, can they?

It also means that so-called principled liberals, like Obama, are far more likely to run the country into the ground than cynical opportunists like President Bill Clinton did. Obama and Pelosi, by contrast are what they are, and they always will be. Not even national ruin will change them.

My intention here is not to single out conservatives for criticism. Leftists can and will bowdlerize exactly the same research papers to create deterministic mythologies supporting their own points of view. In the process they will be just as adept as conservatives in transmuting nuanced predispositions into rigid instincts.   In fact, there is no single gene that determines an individual’s political point of view, nor is environment irrelevant to shaping that point of view, nor are our highly developed rational minds incapable of overriding ideological predispositions. Perhaps more importantly, the degree to which ideas are true or false is not altered by the degree to which they fall on one side or the other of the political spectrum. Researchers might do well to lay more stress on these facts in their research papers, and at the same time bear in mind the fact that they are not immune to the emotional behavior they are studying themselves.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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