Expert Commentary

The genetics of political orientations: Review of the evolving field of “genopolitics”

2013 review of studies on the connection between human genes and political preferences. Research from both political scientists and geneticists are reviewed.

Scholars continue to debate the role genetics may play in the formation of a person’s political beliefs. Over the past decade, numerous studies have examined this issue, and many have found a link between genes and political preferences — the idea that political attitudes might be “heritable,” and to some extent beyond our control. In the media and blogosphere, some of these research findings are reviewed and deployed to suggest that liberals are X or conservatives are Y — inherently inclined to behave in certain ways. The research literature in this respect is rich and growing. For example, see the study “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits,” published in the journal Science.

What is the true scope of this academic subfield, and where does it stand?

Direction of “genopolitics”

The study of political socialization and polarization goes back decades. But research activity in the area of genetics and politics has increased in parallel with heightened polarization among the American electorate, and as academics have looked for new and more fundamental ways to understand this problem. But the field and the associated methods of analysis are diverse; research is being done by political scientists, economists, psychologists and geneticists.

Indeed, researchers’ ability to definitely establish the genetic basis for social behavior remains contested. The interplay — and competition — among “lab” scientists and social scientists remains a fascinating component of this hybrid area of research. For example, a March 2013 paper in the American Political Science Review, “In Defense of Genopolitics,” by James H. Fowler of the University of California, Riverside, and Christopher T. Dawes of New York University, argued for the validity of this subfield against prior criticisms that its methods, definitions and findings are flawed. Still, a June 2013 study in Political Psychology, authored by Stanley Feldman of Stony Brook University and Christopher Johnston of Duke University, launched new assertions that the definitions of political ideology used in prior research are too narrow and need to be expanded to account for underlying social and economic beliefs. For a useful overview of new findings, see Dawes’s 2013 post at the political science blog “The Monkey Cage.”

Landmark study

The touchstone study in this evolving subfield remains a 2005 paper published in the American Political Science Review, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” which analyzed data from existing social science studies involving more than 10,000 sets of identical and non-identical twins from 1980 to 1994 to determine the correlation between genetics and political orientation. Subjects were scored on the basis of their reactions to 28 short phrases with explicit or implicit social and political biases such as “death penalty,” “abortion,” or “nudist camps.” The researchers, John R. Alford of Rice University, Carolyn L. Funk of Virginia Commonwealth University and John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, also considered additional variables such as whether each set of twins shared the same environmental conditions.

Scholars in this field have noted that this 2005 study “in large part launched a new era of genetic exploration for the social sciences.” Its findings include:

  • “Shared influences (genetic and environmental) account for about half of the variation in these political reactions, with unique individual and environmental factors accounting for the remainder.”
  • The influence of heredity on social orientation for identical twins exceeds that of environmental factors for every phrase response; this alignment trumps the correlation scores of non-identical twins and all types of twin pairs raised in different environments.
  • The phrases that elicited the highest levels of hereditary-based correlation were “school prayer,” “property tax,” “Moral Majority,” “capitalism” and “astrology.”
  • The impact of shared environment exceeded that of hereditability in 4 of the 28 test phrases — “living together,” “gay rights,” “abortion” and “liberals.”
  • The political attitudes of twins are not determined by the views of their parents; when researchers controlled for parental views, there was no significant difference in the level to which identical twins would still agree with one another.
  • While respondents’ attitudes correlated strongly with heredity, their party affiliations correlated more strongly with environmental factors: “Clearly, party identification is, at least for the United States, a different sort of beast than reactions to issue items.”

The authors conclude: “Why do social, more than economic, issues tend to hit people in the gut, even though both constitute ongoing and equally complex societal concerns? In light of the new findings, one distinct possibility is that easy ‘gut’ issues tend to be those that are more hereditable.” (Also see the authors’ defense of their work, published in Perspectives in Politics, several years later.)

Advances in the field

In 2010 the study “Not by Twins Alone: Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, took into account the findings of that landmark 2005 American Political Science Review study and looked to advance the field of knowledge. It validated the general direction of research, finding that “previous claims that additive genetic influences account for at least 40% of the variance in political and social attitudes hold up even when more sophisticated modeling techniques are employed on data from family members other than just twin pairs.”

Voters-(Wikipedia)The following year, a paper in Biodemography and Social Biology, “Integrating Social Science and Genetics: News from the Political Front,” reviewed the previous five years of research in the field in order to look at methods and theoretical frameworks, and to examine findings relating to “attitudes, ideology, partisanship, vote choice, and political participation.” The researchers conclude the following with respect to the subfield: “Remarkably, in just a few short years, political scientists have far surpassed the original behavioral genetics studies that explored political traits. In doing so, it is not simply that the genetics of political behaviors are being better understood but rather that political behavior is becoming more fully understood. New pathways that link proximal psychological mechanisms informed by genetic differences, such as cognition and emotion, are being identified. In addition, the limits of environmental predictors are being realized. Though it remains quite early in this research program, additional methods and improvements in methodology in each of these domains is continually progressing and offer exciting analyses to further explore genetic influences.”

Scientific critiques

However, a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The Genetic Architecture of Political and Economic Preferences,” sounded a strong cautionary note from a more fundamental scientific perspective. Some of the results of the study, which analyzed a dataset of some 3,000 people — including comprehensive genetic data and information about their beliefs — suggest the following: “That molecular genetic data could, in principle, be predictive of preferences. Our other results, however, suggest that excitement about the practical usefulness of molecular genetic data in social science research needs to be tempered by an appreciation that much of the heritable variation is likely explained by a large number of markers, each with a small effect in terms of variance explained. As a consequence, for economic and political preferences, much larger samples than currently used will be required to robustly identify individual SNP [single gene] associations.” The lead author, Daniel J. Benjamin of Cornell University, notes that “an implication of our findings is that most published associations with political and economic outcomes are probably false positives. These studies are implicitly based on the incorrect assumption that there are common genetic variants with large effects.”

Finally, because many studies have analyzed twin siblings to better isolate the variables that might confound and weaken results, an entire literature has been produced just on the question of whether this is an appropriate method or “research program.” A July 2013 study in Political Analysis, “Genes and Politics: A New Explanation and Evaluation of Twin Study Results and Association Studies in Political Science,” by Doron Shultziner of Tel Aviv University, suggests that such studies can “neither prove nor refute the argument for a genetic basis of political traits such as liberal and conservative preferences or voting turnout.” Shultziner calls into question how some studies on the biological basis of political attitudes can show heritability measurements that exceed those of, for example, medical disorders: “There is clearly something suspect about the fact that heritability measures for political traits are greater than the expression of biological conditions.”

Recent related research

Political science scholarship has long focused on the transmission of beliefs from parent to child, and the general conclusion has been that there is a strong relationship. Scholarship also continues to probe the relative importance of other early “environmental” or family-related factors in terms of political attitude formation. For example, an August 2013 study published in The Journal of Politics explores evidence from a “natural experiment” and draws the following striking conclusion: “Having sisters makes males more politically conservative in terms of gender-role attitudes and partisanship. Particularly for gender-role attitudes, we find that these effects persist into adulthood. Since sibling gender is randomly assigned, we can interpret our results as causal evidence that the household environment (cleaned of genetics, social forces, and other such omitted variables) influences political attitudes.”

Tags: cognition, parenting

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