22
Sep
08

Do our political beliefs have a biological basis?

Yes and no; if you believe a recent Newsweek article, it’s all about the biology, and strictly speaking, it is. Our biology certainly plays a large role in our political beliefs, to the same extent that biology influences our favorite music and what our favorite afternoon beverage happens to be. This, I am not disputing, I am disputing the findings in both the paper AND the article, so I won’t be calling this blogging on peer-reviewed research…more like pointing out the problems with making overreaching claims based upon shoddy evidence. The paper is called “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits” by Douglas R. Oxley et al. The paper itself is quite explicit in stating:

Our data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes but do not permit firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes at work. Particular physiological responses to threat could cause the adoption of certain political attitudes, or the holding of particular political attitudes could cause people to respond in a certain physiological way to environmental threats, but neither of these seems probable. More likely is that physiological responses to generic threats and political attitudes on policies related to protecting the social order may both derive from a common source. Parents could both socialize their children to hold certain political attitudes and condition them to respond in a certain way to threatening stimuli, but conditioning involuntary reflex responses takes immediate and sustained reinforcement and punishment, and it is unlikely that this conditioning varies systematically across political beliefs.

This is a far cry from what the Newsweek article states:

The results seem to suggest that our ideas about the world are shaped by deep, involuntary reactions to the things we see. As evidence, the study found that greater sensitivity to the images was linked to more fervent support for a conservative agenda—including opposition to immigration, gun control, gay marriage, abortion rights and pacifism, and support for military spending, warrantless searches, the Iraq War, school prayer and the truth of the Bible. In other words, on the level of physiological reactions in the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may =s piders = gay marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces. Before liberals start cheering, however, they don’t come off much more noble or nuanced. They were less sensitive to the threatening images, and more likely to support open immigration policies, pacifism and gun control. But according to the research, that’s hardly desirable, since it suggests that liberals may display mammal-on-a-hot-rock languor in the face of legitimate threats.

I have a few questions for Newsweek, first of all, the paper doesn’t make any claims about different reactions being “desirable” or not, it just states what the reactions are. Alford’s OPINION is that said reactions are not desirable. Another thing which Dokoupil doesn’t mention is that the part of what Mr. Alford said in his interview is EXPLICITLY contradicted by the opinions of most of the authors of the paper. Alford said:

We came to this work after establishing that there is a genetic component to political ideology, so that made us interested in understanding how you get from the genes to political attitudes.

While the paper said:

More likely is that physiological responses to generic threats and political attitudes on policies related to protecting the social order may both derive from a common source.

If a genetic basis has been discovered, I certainly haven’t found it. There may be inclinations towards specific ideologies based upon certain genetic traits, just like there may be a genetic link with handedness, but I haven’t seen evidence of either. All I see are certain traits which have some influence from genes, but these traits aren’t even completely controlled by genes. So to say that trait x is partially genetic and belief y is influenced by trait x, thus belief y is genetic is going far beyond what the claims happen to be. Trait x is INFLUENCED by gene A and belief Y is INFLUENCED by trait x, thus, you can conclude, at least and at most that belief Y is influenced by genes, and not completely the result of it.

I could sum it up nicely this way: genes may influence behaviors, but they do not dictate them completely, nor do experiences dictate behaviors completely, our ideology is a blend of both of these. An example of this is aggressiveness and genetics. You do not see dominant/recessive traits (and, in fact, you rarely see this in any gene expression), but a smooth gradient of behaviors. Because political affiliation also lies upon this smooth gradient meaning many things influence it, news writers should be careful to not confuse influences with causations. My vote may influence the election result, but it will not cause the election result as it is unlikely that I will be the only vote.

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5 Responses to “Do our political beliefs have a biological basis?”


  1. September 24, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I have seen on Scientific America how the propensity to vote is genetically determined. Its makes sense as political groups are about forming groups and forming groups is an advantage in evolutionary terms so yeah can see why there might be a basis for the idea.

  2. 2 Gene Ledbetter
    September 24, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Newsweek only interviewed John Alford, who is a political scientist, not a biologist. Newsweek did not interview the coauthors who are biologists. This suggests that Newsweek, like a number of other publications, based their article on the press release circulated by Rice University, which naturally emphasized the contribution of their man Alford.

  3. 3 jaredcormier
    September 24, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Unique, propensity to vote SEEMS genetic, this is based upon twin studies. In the event you are not familiar with genetics, gene expression is not completely static. So to say that something “seems” genetic based upon a twin study is only saying “it seems that both identical twins have the same inclinations.” This does not mean it is genetic, it could have genetic influences (as I’ve stated) but may, in fact, be based upon environmental triggers which activate certain genes. When they find a gene which varies consistently between the two groups, they can say it’s genetic, until then, it’s developmental. I’m all for things being linked to genetics, but to say something is caused by genetics means that genes are the determining factor. In many other instances, we know genes play a part, but are not the exclusive cause.

    Precisely my problem with the article, Gene. They did not read the article, and Alford did not even come close to supporting the assertion that there is a genetic component to political ideology. It was only speculation, and article did not take the opportunity to question him further to back up his assertions.

  4. 4 Gene Ledbetter
    September 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Of the seven coauthors and one contact associated with the article in Science (Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits), seven are political scientists and one (Mario Scalora) is a psychologist. Not one is a biologist. None of these people have any expertise in genetics (nor have I, incidentally).

    The study reported in the article only tests the emotional reactions of people with strong political views and tries to distinguish between conservatives and liberals. The study fails to test the reactions of people who do not have strong political views, so it does not establish a baseline that represents a normal (in this context) reaction to the tests. I am not impressed.

  5. 5 jaredcormier
    September 25, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Well, I think they overreached the research, but it does give something more to look into. While I think the research itself was decent and helps to explain those extreme views on both sides, it still needs work. I’m fairly impressed with the research paper itself, but not at all with the interview. Reading news articles about science reminds me of this comic.


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