Chris Mooney, evolution, and politics

February 9, 2012 • 8:52 am

Chris Mooney is back with a new book, The Republican Brain, and that means we’re going to be subject to the hard sell: loud self-aggrandizement in every possible venue.  Be prepared to hear things like “I guess I hit a nerve” when the book is criticized, as I am about to do. Note, though, that I haven’t read the book yet—it hasn’t been released—so my comments are based on Mooney’s summary of its thesis at HuffPo (in the Science section!): an essay called “Want to understand Republicans? First understand evolution.”

Mooney’s thesis is that the difference between conservatives and liberals is based on differences in their genes, and that those differences are reflected in physiology (we’ll get to the evolution part in a bit):

Santorum’s absurd global warming conspiracy theory is the kind of thing that absolutely outrages liberals — but to my mind, they really ought to be getting used to it by now. From global warming denial to claims about “death panels” to baseless fears about inflation, it often seems there are so many factually wrong claims on the political right that those who make them live in a different reality.

So here’s an idea: Maybe they actually do. And maybe we can look to science itself — albeit, ironically, a body of science whose fundamental premise (the theory of evolution) most  Republicans deny — to help understand why it is that they view the world so differently.

In my last piece here, I commented on the growing body of research suggesting that the difference between liberals and conservatives is not merely ideological in nature. Rather, it seems more deeply rooted in psychology and the brain — with ideology itself emerging as a kind of by-product of fundamentally different patterns of perceiving and responding to the world that spill over into many aspects of life, not just the political.

To back this up, I listed seven published studies showing a consistent set of physiological, brain, and “attentional” differences between liberals and conservatives. Later on my blog, I listed no less than eleven studies showing genetic differences as well.

The papers cited by Mooney do show some genetic evidence that differences in social and political attitudes have a reasonable genetic component (quantified as “heritability”: roughly the proportion of variation in social attitudes that is explained by variation in genes), though some work suggests otherwise. And, of course, there is also a large cultural component to social attitudes as well: conservative parents inculcate their kids with conservative values, and so on.

The genetic and cultural components can be separated by either adoption studies or twin studies. The latter have their own problems, since a greater similarity of political attitudes among identical than among fraternal twins (the evidence often used for a genetic influence) can be explained by both more similar genes—identical twins have identical genes, fraternal twins share half their genes—or more similar environments, since identical twins tend to hang around with each other more, are treated more alike, and in general experience more similar environments than do fraternal twins. It appears that a lot of Mooney’s data indeed rest on higher correlations of political attitudes between identical than fraternal twins.

I find the physiological and some of the psychological differences even less convincing. If there’s a difference in skin conductance or brain physiology between conservatives and liberals, or in the way that they react to pictures of Bill and Hillary Clinton (that was one test!), this could be a consequence rather than a cause of political attitudes.  That is, the “biological” differences need not be involved in the causation of poltiical attitudes, but be an inevitable result of adopting a set of political attitudes, whether that adoption be due to the influence of environments or genes. Your brain lights up in new ways when you drink coffee, or see a new love, but those brain patterns are the the result of drinking coffee or being in love, not a cause of those phenomena.

Mooney goes on to characterize differences between liberals and conservatives as reflecting fundamental life strategies, and that’s where the evolution bit comes in.

As the new research suggests, conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments. By contrast, liberalism can be thought of as an exploratory ideology — much more appealing to people who go through life trying things out and seeking the new.

Note that that conclusion is based on a single published study in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (a journal I consider good but not outstanding). Mooney continues:

To show as much, the Nebraska-Lincoln researchers had liberals and conservatives look at varying combinations of images that were meant to excite different emotions. There were images that caused fear and disgust — a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in an open wound — but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit. The researchers also mixed in images of liberal and conservative politicians — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

While they did all of this, the scientists measured the subjects’ “skin conductance” — the moistening of their sweat glands, an indication of sympathetic nervous system arousal — as well as where their eyes went first and how long they stayed there.

The difference was striking: Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or “attentional” patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and spent more time fixating on them. Liberals, in contrast, were less quickly drawn to negative images — and spent more time looking at positive ones. . .

As the authors concluded, “The aversive in life is more physiologically and cognitively tangible to some people and they tend to gravitate to the political right.”

Note again that this shows a difference is psychology and physiology, which could be a result rather than a cause of political attitudes.  And there is no genetic analysis of the difference in attitudes.

Mooney concludes, then, that liberals are a bunch of soft-nosed tree-huggers and bunny lovers, while conservatives are alert and wary, easy to perceive threat.  Where does the evolution come in? Because Mooney suggests that those differences, to the extent that they’re genetic, arose by natural selection.  Not only that, but “liberal” genes are less adaptive than “conservative ones”!:

The big question lying behind all this, of course, is why some people would have stronger and quicker responses than others to that which is perceived as negative and threatening (and disgusting). Or alternatively, why some people — liberals — would be less threat aversive than others. For as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers note: “given the compelling evolutionary logic for organisms to be overly sensitive to aversive stimuli, it may be that those on the political left are more out of step with adaptive behaviors.”

“Compelling evolutionary logic,” of course, is not data: it’s just the perceived ability to make a convincing story. I could easily make a story about why it’s more adaptive for people to smile at bunnies than to frown at Bill Clinton: perhaps that is a byproduct of devotion to one’s children and family, which is also adaptive.  The point, though, is that we have no idea a priori which sort of behavior is or was adaptive in the evolutionary sense of conferring reproductive advantage, and absolutely no data on the reproductive output of liberals versus conservatives.

And thus are we drawn to the only context in which we can make any sense of any of this — the understanding that we human primates evolved. As such, these rapid-fire responses to aversive stimuli are something we share with other animals — a core part of our life-saving biological wiring.

And apparently, they differ in strength and intensity from person to person — in turn triggering political differences in modern democracies. Who knew?

There is a thicket of problems here.  If conservative genes are more adapted (presumably because they enable their bearers to recognize and respond to threats more readily), why are there so many liberal genes still around?

In other words, what explains the pervasive variation? Usually, when geneticists see substantial variation in traits, like the frequencies of alleles for loci involved in histocompatibility, and we assume that these differences do make a difference in evolutionary fitness, we seek explanations for the variation itself: why do two (or more) types persist in a population?  If one type is better than the other, as Mooney suggests conservative genes are, why hasn’t that type come to nearly take over the population?  Evolutionists need other explanations to explain pervasive genetic variation. Historically, these explanations involve different variants having different fitnesses (reproductive output) in different environments, or at different times. Or perhaps the variants are maintained by “frequency-dependent selection”: when one form of a gene becomes rare, it gains and advantage over the other one.  “Liberal genes”, for example, could confer a reproductive advantage in a population that is largely conservative. (I see no reason why this should be so.) Finally, perhaps people carrying both types of genes (“heterozygotes”) are fitter than those carrying only one type (“homozygotes”).

The point is that one can’t just adduce “evolution” as a cause of variation, because only certain types of natural selection will maintain variation in a population.  The most commonly conceived type of selection—”directional selection,” in which one type of gene causes its bearers to have more offspring than the other—leads to the elimination of variation, not its persistence. That persistence is what needs be explained under Mooney’s “evolution” hypothesis.

And of course there’s the perfectly plausible alternative that being conservative versus liberal has no significant effect on reproductive output: that is, the traits are (or were in our ancestors) evolutionarily “neutral.” In that case one need not confect any adaptive explanation.  Or, “political genes” could have been subject to some sort of selection in our ancestors (not necessarily because of their effects on politics!), but selection that no longer operates. The first step in any real evolutionary study would be to assay reproductive output in modern populations of conservatives versus liberals, but of course that doesn’t address the question of why those traits evolved (if they did) in our long-dead ancestors.

In the end, Mooney draws two unwarranted conclusions from the data. The first is that the evidence for genetic/physiological differences supports the need for political tolerance between liberals and conservatives.

The Nebraska-Lincoln scientists interpret their results as a powerful argument in favor of greater political tolerance and understanding — and I agree with them. Politics isn’t war, and it isn’t zero sum. It requires negotiation and compromise. Surely our public debates should be guided by something more than threat responses and fight-or-flight.

So how do we get beyond our political biology? Well, the implication for liberals seems obvious: If they want to fare better politically, they need to learn to go against their instincts and stay focused and committed.

None of this has anything to do with genetics. You could draw identical conclusions even if the differences between conservatives and liberals were purely based on differences in their environment and social development. This is just a warm, fuzzy conclusion that is independent of science, and based purely on political observation and a desire to appear concilatory.

And I don’t necessarily agree with that conclusion, either, because compromise isn’t always warranted. Did Democrats compromise on civil rights in the Sixties, and should we compromise on gay rights now? And are liberals really less focused and committed? Maybe we are now since we have our own president, but we were pretty damn committed and focused when Obama was running against McCain.  This is all typical Mooney-ism, where he, like Elaine Ecklund, draws unwarranted conclusions from scientific data. It’s opinion perfumed with the odor of science without that science really supporting it.

And, of course, the remedy is that we have to teach more evolution—Mooney’s second error.

And the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we’d have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.

That assumes, of course, that evolution is responsible for differences between liberals and conservatives in the first place—a conclusion not at all supported by Mooney’s data. And even if those differences were based on evolution, what would that have to do with the political strategies we should adopt now? Neither genetic nor evolutionary differences in traits tell us whether the persistence of those traits is inevitable (a point that Steve Pinker makes eloquently in his latest book), nor how to heal those differences—if we want to.

Yes, there may be genetic differences between liberals and conservatives, but even if the heritability is around 50%, as suggested by one study cited by Mooney, that still means that the other half of the variation in political attitudes is due to variation not in genes but in environments.  Why concentrate on the genes, which we can’t change, on the environments, which we can?

But in the end, evolution seems largely irrelevant here.  At least in Mooney’s post, it appears to be a very fragile hook on which to hang his thesis.  But we’re used to that intellectual strategy from him.

I’ll have a look at Mooney’s book when it comes out in April.  But from this article—and my previous experience with many about issues like Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America and the “Tom Johnson” affair at their website—I’m not hopeful.  Yes, Mooney may think that Republicans need to accept evolution—and they do, like everyone else—but if Mooney thinks that’s going to breach the political gap, and if is going to throw around genetic studies to support his thesis, he’ll have to learn about evolution himself, and in a more sophisticated way.

148 thoughts on “Chris Mooney, evolution, and politics

  1. Anecdotal, but …

    My brother is a conservative Republican, with strong libertarian bent.

    I am a radicalized progressive, orbiting on a lonely outpost on Planey Chomsky.

    Yes we are biological brothers. In fact if I look at the whole nuclear family, and then the wider extended family, I see the whole spectrum of political thought — including things like bizarre global-warming conspiracy theories in Uncle Skootch, but Upper West Side liberalism in his sister, Aunt Penny. We’re all the map, ideology-wise.

    Aren’t most large families like this? Doesn’t that throw ice water on the loins of Mooney’s thesis?

    1. Wait a tick: we’re talking about genetic variation here, and that variation segregates within families because siblings, unless they’re identical twins, are genetically different. All of us are familiar with siblings who differ in other genetic traits, like eye or hair color, blood type, or presence of a genetic disease. Simple differences between relatives in a trait is not evidence against a genetic basis for variation in that trait.

      1. I was quite conservative in my youth but have become pretty liberal in my elder years.

        I like to think this is the wisdom that comes from experience, but maybe I just traded in my old genes for some better ones?

      2. Differences between relatives may not be evidence against a genetic basis on a case-by-case basis. However, in a trait with such evident variation in the general population, we would expect to see some evidence of heritability if there is a genetic basis. Anyone know of any studies?

        1. Well, 50% of Americans have a below average IQ and roughly 50% of Americans self-identify as conservative or conservative-leaning. Coincidence? Heh, heh.

          Of course when news broke that neanderthals may have bred with homo saps and some humans may have neanderthal antecedents, one is tempted to think of Republicans….

  2. Let’s see — I was raised in a Christian household in a small rural town. Went to college far from home, got exposed to the real multicultural world, and gradually became an atheist. Ergo, no “god” gene.

    Also, I was raised in a conservative household in a small rural town. Went to college far from home, got exposed to the real multicultural world, and gradually became a liberal. Ergo, no “liberal” or “conservative” genes.

    Just the “able to think for oneself” gene.

  3. Of course he fails right out of the gate by buying into the American myth that there are exactly two political viewpoints, “liberal” and “conservative”.

    1. And that what’s conservative and what’s liberal in America are the same as what’s conservative and what’s liberal everywhere else.

      And for the record, I used to be right-of-center with strongly conservative fiscal ideals. Now I’m pretty much strongly liberal on most issues. Guess that makes me a mutant or something.

    2. I hate to be defending Mooney (I was very critical of Unscientific America), and I also haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve been following much of the research he claims shapes the claims in the book. I don’t know how much of the book is exclusively shaped by this research, but I do know how the research describes ideology.

      Much of it comes from Dan Kahan’s work. Kahan classifies ideology on two axes: Communitarian-Individualist and Egalitarian-Hierarchist. And, indeed, in Kahan’s work, these two dimensions _are_ sufficient to capture most of the variability among ideology measures.

      The American myth you identify ends up trying to reduce it further, to just one dimension, and as many here note, this is _not_ sufficient to describe ideology.

      Mooney invited Kahan on the CFI’s Point of Inquiry podcast not long ago; the discussion there is probably the best lay-audience introduction to Kahan’s work I’ve found. And while there is much criticism to be levied towards Mooney, I do not think that this “dichotomous ideology” is necessarily a warranted complaint. (He could still botch it and describe it in those terms, or he could opt to use the terms as “shorthand”, which has the usual loss-of-information problems… but he could also reflect the research accurately in the book.)

  4. I hate to Godwin so early, but this comes very close to rascism. The differences between the two groups are genetic? It wouldn’t be a far leap for many people to say they are, therefore, irreconcilable, and that the only solution is some sort of separatism.

    As Grammar Pedant has already observed, this doesn’t explain differences within families (he and his brother, me and my sister). It also doesn’t explain differences through History. There was a time when, by his schoolboy definition of conservative, virtually everyone was conservative. The emergence of liberalism is an observable historical process, often spurred by very illiberal, competing demands for political and religious authority. Are we supposed to believe that, because there is a genetic component to this, that it was in fact inevitable?

    Poppycock, or worse.

    1. Noting a genetic distinction that actually exists is not racism. If it were the case that green people were less intelligent than purple people at a genetic level, that would not be racism against green people. Treating green people as second-class citizens because of that fact would.

      I can’t stress enough how wrong-headed your train of thought is. Facts are facts, and none of them are -isms. How we respond to facts is where those terms come in.

      I’m not saying that Mooney is correct. Just addressing your comment about coming close to racism.

  5. Pet theory — All life inevitably exhausts its resources, whether it’s germs/parasites killing their host or lemmings on their proverbial rush to the sea or humans using up everything. But before the resources are exhausted, each species enjoys some era of plenty. Humans have gone through countless eras of feast & famine, suffering through droughts and overpopulation, then arriving at new lands, then eating everything there and overpopulating again. So it seems the ability to reproduce under both feast and famine conditions would be selected, hence the tendency of humans everywhere to exhibit either liberal or conservative traits, where the liberals are ideally suited to feast (kindness, sharing, openness, creativity, gun control etc.) and the conservatives are best prepared for famine (selfishness, hierarchy, conformity, weapons, etc.). The takeaway would be that neither side is right in the complex modern world and everyone needs to submit their emotions to fact and logic. Comments?

        1. Hence use of the term “proverbial.” But my understanding is they do overpopulate and then leave en masse. Whether it’s to the sea or elsewhere probably depends on where they’re starting out from.

          1. I am fairly certain the quotation marks around “documentaries” indicate that they know this and that your point was what they were trying to convey without actually saying it.

    1. Bull pucky. “Liberal” and “conservative” are highly subjective terms and there’s nothing that links any of those traits you’ve listed either to each other or to being a liberal or a conservative. Hierarchy, for example, is found in pretty much every social structure around the world, from modern countries of millions of people all the way down to isolated hunter/gatherer tribes and yes, even hippy communes. Nor do conservatives necessarily lack creativity- just look at the stretching that goes on for some of them to find ways to criticize President Obama.

      I could write more on this, but my offline life intrudes.

      1. Are you taking issue with my post because you doubt there is any such thing as a liberal vs. conservative construct, or because the criteria I used for identifying same don’t line up with said construct? If the former, I’d encourage you to follow the news from the CPAC conference going on this week and compare it to any liberal gathering. If the latter, what criteria would you use to distinguish the two groups?

        1. One group wants to maintain status quo or move backwards to the idealized 1950’s (or with Santorum, the 1850’s). The other group wants to progress: civil rights for all, safety net for all. I have no idea what causes the difference, but it seems that there IS one.

          1. Well, in a sense sure. But in another sense, American “liberals” are the conservative ones while “conservatives” are the liberal ones. After all, liberals are trying to preserve the legacy of 20th century American liberalism — the New Deal informed almost all of 20th century politics. It’s the liberals who want to maintain that legacy while it’s the conservatives that want to overturn the apple cart.

            In another sense, environmentalism is a deeply conservative philosophy (hence “conservationism”) whereas “drill, baby, drill” is all about economic growth and therefore a model of progress (a bad one, I think). “Conservative” vs. “liberal” really isn’t as basic as Mooney wants to make them out to be.

        2. The problem is that pigeonholing people as being liberal or conservative ignores the fact that people don’t fall neatly into all of one or all of the other. Saying that, for example, liberals are pro-gun control ignores all the people in the US who are in favor of allowing private citizens to own firearms while also favoring social safety nets, legalizing gay marriage, and strong environmental protection laws. Would you call those people liberals or conservatives?

          1. Not sure why you’re replying to my post as your argument seems to be with the overall consensus of the thread that there are indeed notable differences between liberal and conservative people. Of course there are outliers to the liberal/conservative dichotomy in the same way there are outliers to any categorization. Even gender has its outliers. Humans categorize whenever the differences are distinct enough to merit such, as this makes communication, understanding, problem-solving etc. far easier. Go to CPAC this week and then attend service Sunday at your nearest UU church. Most people will notice significant differences between the two, outliers notwithstanding.

    2. Very much along the lines I was thinking. I pegged Liberals as more intelligent, and Conservatives as more ruthless, but I think effectively that would still result in the divisions you describe.
      You are on to something.

    3. Liberal societies cope better in times of famine.

      Consider, strictly hierarchal feudalism versus more open democratic societies. Why do democratic societies tend to eat better?

      Conservative instincts tend to be to more rapidly deplete resources while liberal instincts tend to be to preserve and expand upon them (EG: Conservationism, scientific research, exploration.)

      1. A good point, Bruce, but keep in mind the societies you’re talking about are modern, even if they’re thousands of years old, while our behaviors evolved for tens of thousands of years before that. I’d be very interested in knowing most effective survival strategies for hunter-gatherers, as that’s what we all were until very recently, evolutionarily speaking. In times of scarce resources, do the members of successful tribes require stricter adherence to superstition, hierarchy and morality, and are they more likely to consume without regard to the environment or others? In times of plenty, do the same folks reach out to strangers, experiment with morality, culture etc? If yes in both cases, my theory gets some support.

  6. I don’t care for Mooney, but I worry that your criticism of his specific claims may be missing the point of his overall thrust, which is that political perspective has to have a genetic basis.

    It may be something like sexual orientation, which does not have a neat natural selection cause, but it nevertheless has a genetic basis: I suggest that there’s a genetic proclivity toward empathy and liberals are simply those who can extend their circle of empathy beyond their immediate gene pool. That’s why it seems intuitive to me that gay people should be able to marry even if I’m not gay and I actually grew up in a homophobic culture without knowingly knowing any gay people. I can feel empathy for creatures that do not belong to my immediate family, tribe, race, nation, etc. Conservatives strike me as people on a sociopathic scale — many are sociopathic-lite and can function almost like normal people.

    The specific content of their current ideology is irrelevant since it can change without irony once it is adopted by the tribe. What matters is their devotion to tribal purity, however it manifests itself.

    I’m struck by how similar I find debates I’ve had with American conservatives to debates I’ve had with European communists. Their specific positions may be totally dissimilar but their ability to dismiss any fact that threatens their tribe’s isolating purity is eerily identical. One may defend torture and the other Stalin’s purges, showing no empathy toward anyone who’s suffered at the hands of their tribe. Both lack empathy toward outsiders.

    1. “I suggest that there’s a genetic proclivity toward empathy and liberals are simply those who can extend their circle of empathy beyond their immediate gene pool.”
      – that is a good way of putting it. Did you see this article on altruism & giving?
      “Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving” Stefano DellaVigna & John A. List

      1. “I suggest that there’s a genetic proclivity toward empathy and liberals are simply those who can extend their circle of empathy beyond their immediate gene pool.”

        I saw an episode of The Nature of Things recently that said that of our closest animal relatives, bonobos tend to do this, while chimpanzees tend not to.

    2. On the conservative/communist similarity, you might find Robert Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. Dangerously oversimplify the relevant part: there are results showing US conservatives and ex-Soviet communists are both associated with a common authoritarian mindset.

      Apropos to the current topic of Mooney, a study of twins raised separately and apart (doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00048-3) suggests the high-RWA mindset to be 50% genetic, 35% unshared environment, and 15% either common environment or assortative mating.

      This in turn is relevant to Jerry Coyne’s question:

      Why concentrate on the genes, which we can’t change, on the environments, which we can?

      My answer is that the extent to which genes are partly but not entirely responsible increases the importance of focusing on environments.

      * the high-RWA tendency is correlated (as cause, effect, co-effect, or coincidence) with a number of “undesirable” traits, such as impairment of abstract reasoning ability, easily expressed aggression, double standards, et cetera. Oversimplifying: a tendency to “fascist assholes”.
      * currently in the West, the highly religious tend to be disproportionately high-RWA, while atheists tend to be disproportionately low-RWA.
      * data from the ex-USSR, with high-RWAs tending to Communism (an atheist philosophy), suggests this association is not intrinsic; atheists can be assholes, too.
      * if the tendency is about half genetic, it seems likely that the high-RWA genes are more common among the theists
      * in a ratio circa 2:1, US unbelievers are the deconverted children of believers, rather than raised as unbelievers from the get-go
      * the number of unbelievers in the US is rising more rapidly than their birth rate; thus, this ratio seems likely to continue on that order
      * religious deconversion does not change one’s genes. =)

      This implies that as time passes, more and more Atheists are increasingly likely to have higher genetic predisposition to this sort of mindset.

      Ergo, if it is desirable to maintain the community’s present phenotype character as lacking these traits, it follows the atheist community needs to place increased emphasis on environmental/socialization normative efforts.

  7. Maybe we can do some genetic mapping.
    I live in Sweden, which compared to most places is both full of blonds and full of liberals (and the occasional Nazi).
    So, in keeping with our new scientific discipline of “Evolutionary Mooneyology” (EM), we have one data point.
    Perhaps the liberal gene is genetically linked to the gene for blond hair?
    Well, it makes about as much sense as Mooney’s hypothesis.

  8. Oh great, a theory that leads to the policy advice of “Can’t we all just get along and find a nice, reasonable centrist candidate that will just do the objectively right thing?” I hate that corporatist America Elects third-way bullshit more than just about everything.

    1. Yes. In fact one person ran as the reasonable, compassionate moderate conservative: George W. And we see how that turned out. To move the human race forward, not backward, we need to promote civil rights, democracy for all, and science. Only one party really fits the bill.

  9. In a sense, liberals and conservatives are a self-sorting group.

    “Liberal genes”, for example, could confer a reproductive advantage in a population that is largely conservative. (I see no reason why this should be so.)

    I would say the clue is in the word conservative – those who do not like change, whereas liberals are perhaps more likely to be outgoing innovators and so gain some advantage? Animals that take risks may die sooner or leave no offspring, but there could be a big payoff. Animals that do not, have perhaps a more reliable survival chance or a more reliable reproductive outcome. Maybe.

    Trying to sort cause and effect in such a small basis is to my mind pushing it – without more evidence – but I am I confess on the side of the evolutionary psychologists.

    One other thing – by most international standards the Democrats and Obama, are social conservatives (centrists? oh – you have a Centrist Party!) who only differ in degree from Republicans. At any rate, left wing they ain’t.

    1. Exactly. That’s why I hate any attempt to paint the midway point between Democrats and Republicans as the most “sensible,” “compromise” position. Anybody who thinks the Democrats are too far Left is well, basically an idiot. I guess I’d rather usher in American fascism by voting for a “Centrist” corporatist than voting for a straight-up Theocrat.

      I’m a political cynic of late. My bright-eyed optimism died sometime after I slept in the Wisconsin state capitol for a week to no real effect. It was great for a while, but damn, it didn’t last.

  10. I think it’s wrong to talk of “conservative” and “liberal” genes. But is does seem that conservatives and liberals have different personalities and intellectual proclivities. Consequently, adopting “conservative” or “liberal” attitudes is a manifestation of apolitical genetic factors.

  11. “given the compelling evolutionary logic for organisms to be overly sensitive to aversive stimuli, it may be that those on the political left are more out of step with adaptive behaviors.”

    JUST SO!

  12. Full disclosure: I think it is likely that there are indeed biological differences that strongly influence political alignment, although I accept that the data is not at all definitive.

    It seems, however, that Mooney is waaaay overreaching here. Like you, as soon as I read the thing that maybe having a personality type that predisposes one to conservatism is more evolutionarily adapative than predisposition toward liberalism, my first two thoughts were: 1) How do you know that?, and 2) you have to give a plausible account of why there would be an enduring polymorphism before you can even BEGIN to make that contention.

    Moreover, the exact direction in which Mooney is overreaching appears to be an extension of what I guess is his new schtick: “It may be true that this group is plainly wrong and this other group is plainly right… but the blame for the former group’s wrongness is goes squarely on the shoulders of the latter group!” Um, yeah, fuck you Chris.

  13. I am a bit confused here.

    Mooney is claiming that at least some of the reason people are right-wing and conservative is down to genes ?

    The US is most conservative and right-wing of modern liberal democracies. Therefore using Mooney’s argument the genes for being right-wing and conservative should be found in greater frequency in the US than in Western Europe. However a significant proportion of the population of the US has its origins in Europe less than 200 or so years ago. That is not enough time for evolution to have had a significant effect on the US population, so those who emigrated from Europe to the US must have had the genes in greater frequency than the general population.

    Is there something I am missing ?

    1. Yes – the immigrants to America are unlikely to have been a perfectly proportional representation of the genetic diversity in Europe. Plenty of selection bias there, even ignoring the substantial non-European component of the modern US gene pool.

      1. But is immigration into the US something that the risk-averse conservatives would be doing more than the bright-eyed explorer liberals? That’s how it would have to work, and it seems exactly implausible.

        1. Maybe not- the Puritans were a pretty conservative, isolationist group and they’re one of the earlier permanent settlers of what would become the US. And, of course, one of the major driving factors in European colonization in general was to grab territory and resources that could then be turned around and used by whichever country founded the colony against that country’s enemies.

          Plenty of conservatives from every era in history have been shown to be willing to take a risk when there was a large enough potential payoff.

        2. I’m not sure I even agree with your stereotypes. Conservatives aren’t necessarily risk-averse, they just have different assessments of what is risky. Black people, gay people and women wearing trousers, for example, are clearly extremely risky. As for your “bright-eyed liberal explorers,” I’m not sure I would class Columbus or Raleigh as liberal.

          But in any case, it’s the settlers not the explorers who would be contributing most to the future gene pool. And in the case of America, that would be an interesting mix people who were willing to forcibly take land from the natives; slavers and slave-owners; speculators and financial opportunists; and people who for whatever reason wanted to skip their own country. And, you know, the poor and huddled masses.

        3. I’m not myself committed to supposing that conservative means risk-averse or that liberals are bright-eyed explorers – it’s one mapping that was proposed in the thread, and I mistook the post to which I was replying for one with that identification in its heritage. (Looking back, that was Dominic @9, and he’s offering it I think just as some interpretation of Mooney. It does sound like a good interpretation to me.)

          I take it that conservative immigrants taking risks tends to count against the tie between conservatism. It would be interesting to see if there’s any linkage between the circumstances of one’s ancestors arrival here (possibly adventurous crossing of the Bering land bridge; leaving the staid, safe old country for a wild land of opportunity, versus being hauled here against one’s will or to avoid practically certain starvation) and any heritable personality trait that could be mapped onto a reliable, orthodox construction of right-left views. I am not holding my breath for anyone to pull that off in a rigorous fashion.

      2. The Scandinavians exported a lot of violent types a thousand years ago – hence their peaceful societies today, whereas the countries they settled increased in their violence because of all the new rapacious genes! 😉

  14. I see a lot of people dumping on the very idea that there could be genetic influences on liberalism vs. conservatism… but I think if you back up a step it is not so implausible. What we do know is that there is a strong (though not perfect) correlation between conservatism and authoritarian personality types. And it’s not at all crazy to think that an authoritarian personality would be heritable.

    That would explain how such a genetic predisposition could be persistent across the centuries even as the manifestation of what is “liberal” vs. what is “conservative” shifts wildly: Even though an authoritarian mindset once meant you favored preserving the institution of slavery, and it now means you oppose expanding the institution of marriage, it *could* still be driven by the same biological tendencies.

    Of course that’s all just a made-up story, as Jerry rightly points out. Might be true, might not be true. I’m just saying, it’s entirely implausible.

    What IS implausible is that there would be selective pressure acting on these tendencies while polymorphism persists in the gene pool, without some explanation for said polymorphism. If you don’t explain that, then your whole story goes out the window, even as a possibility.

    Personally, my wildly speculative guess would be that there is NOT strong selection pressure on the relevant aspects of personality.

    1. Well given how young the US is a country, and how recently most people’s ancestors arrived in the US any selection pressure is unlikely to have occurred since arrival in the US, which only leaves immigration as a selection pressure. Is there something about people who emigrated that makes them more likely to have genes that are likely to make them an authoritarian type ? Seems pretty unlikely.

      1. Unless he’s just saying it’s a relative thing? That, genetically, people are predisposed to vary from the mean in one way or another, but that mean shifts based on non-genetic cultural/political/economic/etc… factors?

        1. Yes, exactly, and in fact I suspect that to be the case (though the data is far from conclusive).

          People with authoritarian personalities tend to be conservative regardless of where the center is.

          1. So true. Jonathan Haidt, a conservative it turns out, is a UVA professor who has done studies on this subject and found correlations between authoritarians and conservatism, as well as a preference of conservatives for hierarchal structures and order. I think his presentations are on Youtube.

      2. But since the correlation is not perfect and it is only tendencies, you can think that authoritarian personality is heritable without having to explain why the US has been more conservative.

        Look at it this way: Say that a predisposition to contracting Type II diabetes is at least partially heritable. (IIRC, that’s already the current thinking? Even if not, this is a thought experiment anyway). The fact that there has been a meteoric rise is Type II diabetes in the US does not compel us to give some account for why a genetic predisposition to Type II diabetes should have suddenly jumped in frequency in the gene pool, because it almost certainly didn’t. Environmental factors determining whether that predisposition would manifest are what has changed.

        Again, this is all just a story: I am not arguing that there is a genetic predisposition to conservatism, I’m just saying that nobody here has made any knockdown arguments that there isn’t such a predisposition. I don’t think the idea is crazy (though I do think where Mooney goes with it is crazy)

  15. There is a parallel research program in contemporary comparative psychology that measures individual differences in “personality” in non-human animals, including fish and lizards. One of the common axes examined is bold vs. timid, also interpretable as risk-prone/risk-averse.
    Not sure what kinds of heritability estimates are available for such stuff, but it’s certainly plausible that something similar exists as a subconscious cognitive trait in humans.
    That said, I agree that Mooney’s full of crap as per usual.

  16. I found it hard to get past the report Mooney linked to.

    Stressing the importance for the country to provide cheap energy to its citizens, Santorum blamed the recession not on sub-prime mortgages or the derivatives market but on spiking fuel prices. “We went into a recession in 2008. People forget why. They thought it was a housing bubble. The housing bubble was caused because of a dramatic spike in energy prices that caused the housing bubble to burst,” Santorum told the audience. “People had to pay so much money to air condition and heat their homes or pay for gasoline that they couldn’t pay their mortgage.”

    And you thought it was just poor logic.

  17. I know the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and that I could be making a “just-so” point, but I’m not so quick to dismiss Mooney’s thesis just yet. And having been both a registered Democrat and a registered Republican in Colorado Springs, I’ve been privy to plenty of direct observations across the political speculum that I think uniquely qualifies me to weigh in on this matter.
    Many times I’ve noticed that jeans differ greatly, depending on which primary I happen to be participating in. At the Democratic primaries, I’ve notice much more ratty and faded ones, frequently with homemade patches sewn over the holes, whilst the jeans I’ve noticed in the Republican primaries were less prevalent on balance, and tended to be newer, crisper, designer, and not some knock-off brand. (intelligent-designer jeans?)
    I’ve seen this so often, I find it hard to ign… uh.. what’s that? Genes? Oh.


    1. There are actually four theses here:

      1. The difference between liberals and conservatives (or the personality traits that lead to those political stances) is based on differences in genes.

      2. The physiological responses seen in liberals and conservatives in psychological tests is causal in their political stances rather than being post facto results of their political stances.

      3. There is an adaptive evolutionary explanation for the polymorphism of genes leading to liberalism and conservatism.

      4. Knowing the genetic and evolutionary basis of political affiliations will help us heal the breach between them in our society.

      I am prepared tentatively to assent to the first one, but not the other three. And I have to look closely at the genetic papers to see how much they rely on identical twin data.

      1. Well said. I’d insert a “partially” into (1) before I’d assent to it, and I’m not quite as dismissive of (2) as you are (see, for example, here, which is at least suggestive that it could be partially causal). But overall, yes: (1) is entirely plausible (though not proven); (2) is at least conceivable, if a bit dubious and hard to prove; and (3) and (4) are just plain out there.

        1. Yes, I meant “partially” for #1, as of course the heritability is not 1, but close to 0.5 as reported in one study.

          Your reference seems to show only that people with different political leanings show different psychological reactions, which says nothing about causality as far as I can see.

          1. I guess I overstated… I guess the point I was making is that it’s not like the studies you referred to where, for example, conservatives had a different physiological reaction to pictures of the Clintons — in that case obviously the physiological reaction is a result of the political leanings, not the other way around. In the link I provided, the images themselves were apolitical, it was just stuff that was either pleasing or displeasing. But you’re right that it still could be that the people in the study become conservative FIRST, and then became squeamish about stuff second.

          2. Hold on there. In 2008 the repubs absolutely loved Hillary Clinton. Oh, she was running against a black man. Sorry, carry on.

      2. Yep. Even with my limited (and out of date) knowledge of molecular genetics, I despair of ever getting enough quality data on #1 to tease apart what would probably be a myriad of genetic factors – how they’re expressed or repressed… and to tease that apart from the “nurture” aspect (e.g. with twin studies).

        It doesn’t seem to stop people from ascribing all kinds of WAY upper level phenomena to this or that “gene”. If only it were that easy.

      3. To get past (1) you’d have to come up with a reasonable, relatively time-invariant (so as to be heritable) definition of liberal and conservative. And I’m not sure that’s as easy as many think. For example, we may try something like: conservatives are those “averse to change or new things”. Seems reasonable. But most conservatives are free marketers that tout the magic of innovation. Whether one agrees or not, that’s an avowed support for change (quite dramatic in many cases) that runs counter to the definition. On the other hand, many liberals and unionists view jobs/community in a conservative manner by this definition. Society should work to provide stability in these areas and compensate losers of jobs as well as communities that suffer due to instability. More relevant to current affairs: it is conservatives who wish to make the most radical changes to government policy and society both in the US and Europe.

      4. This is probably a dumb layman’s question, but could different sets of behaviors be switched on and off by different environmental cues like in locusts? They have a “normal” behavior and a “swarming” behavior–and these are associated with physical changes as well.

        Could something similar be happening in humans? I think of how depressed people seem to have physiological differences when compared to the general population, or how emotional stress can take a physical toll. Maybe environmental factors determine which “mode” a person ultimately expresses both physically and behaviorally.

        Or is that just crazy talk?

      5. To follow up a little on #1, my lifelong study of social networks and recent study of linguistic processes in networks has soured me on the possibility of even beginning to get a handle on #1, at least where it concerns really big picture stuff like attitudes, beliefs and behaviors on a large scale. I’d love it if my impressions were proven wrong, but I cannot get away from this overriding picture that we seem to have made a radical departure from evolutionary processes dominating our genetic development — since the invention of language. The overwhelming factor that influences stuff like liberal/conservative outlook (or even aptitude with machinery or abstract thinking) seems to me to be summed rather nicely with one word: culture. And culture seems to be a product of the ways we interact using language mostly among our peers — the way we WORK with language in our immediate groups. I also see, despite our differences, that most of us are dying to agree with those nearest us and/or gravitating towards those who do agree with us (kind of a chicken-egg problem).

        I’m left with the feeling that teasing out a genetic basis for things like attitudes, or even a propensity to be religious, is a needle in a haystack — a fool’s errand. Even if certain gene frequencies were found to correlate within certain subcultures, I can’t get away from the chicken/egg problem of what is causing what. Are genes influencing the attitudes, or is language/agreement/interaction influencing who is shacking up with whom, which ultimately affecting genetic similarity within those subgroups? Personally, I favor the latter as more parsimonious, and am dipped if I know how one would ethically test for the difference in any event.

        1. I very much agree with this. Given the amount of “plasticity” in “neuroplasticity” and the range of human behaviors that can be chalked up purely to culture — not to mention the context dependence of judging a behavior to be “liberal” or “conservative” — it seems fruitless to me to gesture vaguely at the notion that there might be a genetic difference between liberals and conservatives.

          I think people underestimate just how much of each of our internal worlds is culturally constructed rather than directly perceived.

  18. Oh goody, I just LOVE just-so stories, especially when they are based on spurious evidence.

    Here’s mine …

    The FOX (conservative) alleles are primitive. They are left over from a time in our ancient past when the humans were pro-war, anti-women, racist, religious, stupid, and definitely anti-gay.

    New liberal alleles arose a few thousand years ago and because they confer selective advantage (peace is better than war, for example) they have greatly increased in frequency.

    They haven’t yet become fixed so this explains the variation in today’s population.

    The original mutations probably happened in Europe and that explains why so many Europeans are civilized. Some Europeans felt very threatened by these new liberal attitudes so they emigrated to other countries where they could carry on their traditions of religious fundamentalism, mysogyny and racism. (Puritans are a good example.)

    Never fear. Those former colonies can’t escape evolution. The liberal alleles have invaded and it’s only a matter of time before the entire population becomes civilized.

    (How’d I do?)

    1. Wonderfully, Larry! It’s got exactly as much proof going for it as Mooney’s account, and it has the advantage that it’s at least plausible. (Unlike Mooney, you’ve given an account for why we would observe polymorphism in the gene pool)

    2. Can I try? I’m going to give an account based on sexual selection and the Red Queen idea.

      A recent study correlating Google search results for pornography with election winners found data suggestive of the hypothesis that men become more aroused when the party they support wins an election. More arousal means greater reproductive success.

      However, we know from political science that any time the economy is doing poorly (which it invariably will from time to time), incumbents tend to get voted out.

      So, assuming that the economy can reliably be in the dumps a non-trivial fraction of the time…. A short term increase in conservative alleles in the population means more conservatives become elected, which means individuals possessing conservative alleles got hornier and procreate more — until their frequency in the population is so high that they are winning all the elections, so that the next economic downturn will result in massive losses for conservatives, along with accompanying impotency for carriers of the conservative alleles.

      Meanwhile, liberals find themselves with huge boners, meaning they reproduce more, increasing the frequencies of liberal alleles, until now liberals dominate — until the next economic slump, when the pendulum reverses.

      Sure, I’ve got no proof, and the timescales are far too compressed for natural selection to be actually doing anything here… but it sounds cool, and I cited a recent study! I can haz book deal now?

  19. Setting aside the dubious science and the even more dubious inferences drawn from the science, isn’t Mooney’s argument here shooting his own mandate for “positive framing?”

    The last thing people want to hear from the other side is that the other side thinks their views and opinions aren’t the result of an analysis of the evidence, but due to their genetic structure. And the last thing people need to believe about the other side is that the other side only believes what it believes because they were born that way. Conclusions aren’t arrived at through reasoning: there are different kinds of people. No consensus is therefore possible.

    Mooney would probably deny that this is where he intends to go, but this is how he appears to be framing the issue. This is what people will take from his book. “For those who believe, no evidence is necessary, and for those who don’t believe, no evidence is possible.” Truth comes through intuition. I can’t think of a worse framing strategy to use on matters of rational choice. You remove the common ground of reason and are left with propaganda, bribes, and threats.

  20. “I find the physiological and some of the psychological differences even less convincing. If there’s a difference in skin conductance or brain physiology between conservatives and liberals, or in the way that they react to pictures of Bill and Hillary Clinton (that was one test!), this could be a consequence rather than a cause of political attitudes. That is, the “biological” differences need not be involved in the causation of poltiical attitudes, but be an inevitable result of adopting a set of political attitudes, whether that adoption be due to the influence of environments or genes.”

    Is this the same Jerry Coyne who was telling us all a few weeks back that all our actions were predetermined by physical law and that normal people have no more free will or moral responsibility for their actions and beliefs than a crazy person whose actions and beliefs are determined by a brain tumor?

  21. I think I got it. Forget everything else: Conservatives lack the irony gene.

    That’s it. It’s not a mutation as much as a mental impairment, a disorder, a syndrome.

    Proof? Well, do you know any conservative comedians?

    1. Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy, Rodney Carrington…

      Oh… did you mean funny conservative comedians?


  22. We in Cananda have 3 sets of genes (4 if you’re from Quebec). Which makes my genetic make-up niether conservative or liberal, but new democratic. Yes, I glow all orange in the MRA scans…

    …um yeah, poor attempt at saying something funny. I’ll go back to lurking now.

    1. Edit: I think I meant to say MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan , although MRA (Magnetic Resonance Angiogram) I guess works just as well. Perhaps I had Justica on the brain or something, hense the unintended Freudian slip.

  23. Those of us with long memories can recall that Mooney’s chief ‘scientific’ argument against the outspoken approach of the new atheists was based on the studies of Brendan Nyman. These were mainly politically based – for instance regarding liberal and conservative reactions to evidence about climate change (he showed that showing conservatives more evidence in favor of climate change actually made them MORE certain that climate change science was wrong.)
    Mooney used this study to argue that the same thing happens with criticism of religion and claimed that this is the reason why an outspoken atheist should not be put forward as the face of evolutionary science and that outspoken atheism was causing religious people to become resistant to science.
    Well, according to his own model, wouldn’t that mean that Mooneys actions in attacking Republicans (in both this book and his first book ‘The Republican War on Science’) is simply going to backfire?
    It doesn’t make sense and just makes his arguments against the new atheist approach seem hypocritical and self-serving.

    1. You know, as a liberal, having Chris Mooney seem to explain again and again how conservatives are congenitally irrational doesn’t make me feel the divide is healing.

  24. In as much as there are certain personality types who will always be conservative or always liberal, regardless of upbringing, there’s something there, since nature beats the tar out of nurture when it comes to determining one’s basic personality.

    But there’s clearly a huge environmental component to political beliefs, which is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a red-state/blue-state map of the US. Even within states, there’s a huge geographical component. Why would conservative genes be concentrated in red states, or rural areas of blue states? What’s special about the south in particular, where the concentration of these putative conservative genes would have to be higher in the cities as well as rural areas (though not as high)?

    As for the phantom genes being more adaptive, I think it’s clear Mooney meant in hunter-gatherer times, which would mean you shouldn’t expect to see an advantage in reproductive success today. Of course, the implication there is that civilization has enabled liberal genes to spread, which further implies that liberal genes are more adaptive in the modern environment. Which (you guessed it) implies that we should be able to see an advantage in reproductive success for liberals today. I very much doubt that’s the case.

    The upshot is, some people are born conservative, some are born liberal, and some will take up the majority identify of where they grow up (or even just where they live – many people change political positions after relocating).

    And, of course, the notion that these differences would call for more compromise, is completely the opposite of what a reasonable person would conclude. If the opposition is genetically determined to do the wrong thing, you fight that much harder to keep them out of power.

  25. I got about a third of the way through Jerry Coyne’s post and couldn’t go on because I see that his thrust in dissing Mooney’s book is to doubt that political views have a genetic basis. Coyne is hinting that environment could be doing it, causing people to tend to have the politics they have…

    Yes, that is possible. It could be that political affinities are created by environmental factors alone. It could be that the differences we see in the personalities of children in a family and puppies in a litter are all to do with external influences that are not yet understood. But isn’t it highly likely that genes play a role, too? And if we agree that that is a reasonable assumption, why can’t we concede that genes could play a role in a person’s politics, too?

    1. You obviously didn’t read either my post or the comment above. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that differences in political views DO have a genetic basis, and if the papers cited by Mooney adduce solid evidence for that (I’m a bit worried about the twin studies, and need to look at the papers more carefully), then I have no problem with it. The truth is the truth.

      As I note in the comment above, my problem is with other things: his suggestion that genetic data can somehow be used as a nostrum for breaching the political divide in America, and his notion that any genetic differences have a basis in adaptive evolution. Further, if one has an evolutionary hypothesis for political differences, how does that hypothesis explain the variation, and how do we test that explanation? Finally, there are problems with the physiological correlates of politics: does a correlation mean causation?

      Yes, I do suspect genes play a role in differences between those who gravitate to liberal politics and those to conservative politics: genes play a role in almost all variable human behaviors. The question is how MUCH of a role, and whether that role means anything in trying to deal with the political divisions in America. Mooney implies that it does. In contrast, I doubt that even if liberals show significant genetic differences from conservatives, it’s going to help us deal with political differences. How could it help? Are we going to give Republicans gene transplants?

      It’s basically the same problem Mooney had in Unscientific America. He states a fact that nobody doubts: that America doesn’t like evolution and has a lot of scientific illiteracy, but then he draws a faulty conclusion about how to solve the problem (in the case of that book, atheists should be less shrill and we should start training scientists to be better communicators).

      1. I agree with all these criticisms. I found the opening points of your post off-putting, though. I haven’t read either this or Mooney’s other book (Unscientific America), and from what I gather about this one it is simply divisive. No good can come from it. As you say, what can we do, get gene transplants? Republicans will not process this information at all well (because of their bad genes!).

  26. Well, there’s something to this line of thinking. When it comes to evolution, we know that diversity is a good thing, and successful species will probably be those that employ a diversity of survival strategies. These strategies probably do fall along a continuum ranging from distrustful insularity to friendly cooperation. The environment and circumstances might occasionally select for or against some of these strategies.

    For instance, a highly insular religious sect might become too isolated from the general population to remain culturally relevant and whither away. Or conversely the sect’s isolation might protect it from the ravages of a disease that sweeps through the general population.

    There is a new show coming out that I think exemplifies this in the extreme. It’s called “Doomsday Preppers” and it’s about survivalists who are preparing to be self-sufficient in a post-apocalyptic world. Now, this is extreme fringe behavior. The world is probably not going to end anytime soon and all these people hording canned goods in bomb shelters are probably wasting their time. Probably. But if the world is decimated by cataclysms, here is a small group of humans most prepared to survive the change.

    So Mooney is correct in that cultural diversity can be thought of as a form of natural selection insurance–hedging our bets as a species, so to speak. The conclusions he draws from this observation remain dubious, however.

  27. OK, it’s speculation time in the comments.

    My pet hypothesis is that this all related to balance of our two fundamental competing systems that maximize reproductive success: individual competition and collective cooperation. Even just the basics in The Selfish Gene would work here.

    Conservatives appear to tends towards and individualist view of society. They seem to think in terms of individual transactions (freedom to work, start business, criminal choices), with society being a “bottoms-up” collection of individuals. In that view, government gets in the way of individual transactions so must be small, and the Austrian school of economics reigns. Libertarians and Ayn Rand Objectivists are the extreme versions.

    Liberals appear to tend towards a top-down systematic view of society. Complex systems show emergent behaviours and dynamic properties. They see society rules to be set for sustainability and the best good for all in the long run. They note a distinct difference between proximate and ultimate individual best interest via the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. They see government as the solution to the PD problem by making the “cooperate” choice mandatory. Keynesian system-level economics reign. Value in programs is seen at the system level statistics. Crime reduction is more important than individual revenge on specific criminals.

    I suspect the extreme right are more active in their “maximize proximate benefit via self-interest” system and the extreme left are more active in their “maximize ultimate benefit via cooperation” system. This assumes these are independent systems, I suppose. But I would predict that from the selfish gene model anyway.

    I’m curious to see if this model fits the data. If I only had time and funding for such endeavors.

  28. This seems like a perfect opportunity to post this very amusing video.

    If you observe the herd carefully you can see who the liberals are and who the conservatives are.

    The liberals are the curious early-adopters who engage most directly and in the nearest proximity to the novelty item.

    The conservatives hang to the rear, exercising a much greater level of caution and circumspection.

    I don’t know when human culture began to evolve, but at some point somebody had to figure out how to make and use a stone ax. That would have been a liberal of course. And somebody had the courage and curiosity to approach a burning lightening struck tree and grab hold of a burning branch and have the epiphany that the stuff might be controllable and useful. That would have been a liberal.

    And somebody had to figure out how to gain leverage while throwing a spear by extending the arm’s length with an atlatl or woomera. That would also have been a liberal.

    While liberals were huddled around the fire dreaming up new ways to make life better for everyone, the conservatives were peering into the dark, startling upon every rustle in the bushes and investigating for possible threats, Muslim conspiracies, and scary foreigners. the innovators and the nightwatchmen, part of the earliest glimmerings of division of labor, a partnership of mutual dependency.

    I base this theory on my close observation of human nature and on the extremely scientific data contained in the above video. LOL.

    I rest my case…;)

    By the way, anyone know what the data is on how many scientists are liberal vs. conservative?

  29. FYI – Amazing.

    Researchers Discover Remains of Possibly Earliest Known Ancestor

    While doing geological research in the Namibian desert, scientists believe they uncovered proof of the first animal to have existed on Earth. The sponge-like fossil, Otavia antiqua, is known to be between 760 and 550 million years old and appears to have evolved before, and survived through, the environmental extremes of snowball Earth.

    The scientists were part of an international team to have uncovered what they think is proof of the first animal to have existed on Earth. The important find, made during geological research in the Namibian desert, could push the emergence of animal life back many tens of millions of years.

    St Andrews’ geologists Dr Tony Prave, Donald Herd and Stuart Allison played a key role in the discovery and subsequent documentation of the sponge-like fossil found in the ancient Namibian rocks. Known to be between at least 760 and 550 million years old, the fossils appear to be ‘hollow globs’, the remains of what could be classed as the stem group organism, the ancestor of all animals.

    The discovery of the oldest animal fossil found to date was made by palaeoanthropologist Dr Bob Brain, from South Africa’s Ditsong Museum, along with Dr Prave and Mr Karl-Heinz Hoffmann of the Namibian Geological Survey. They made the find in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, a huge flat area of land known as ‘the place of dry water’.

    Named Otavia antiqua, the submillimetre-sized fossilis a sponge-like organism that was preserved in ancient marine rocks. It is thought to date to a time when the most extreme climatic changes in Earth’s history – the ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations – occurred, up to 700 million years ago.

    Until the discovery, it was thought that the first animals emerged between 600 and 650 million years ago. The team’s findings echo the predictions of the key dates of early life forming by geneticists studying the ‘molecular clocks’ of other species.

    Dr Prave, who has worked on ancient rocks around the world, commented, “The findings are a tribute to the labours of Bob Brain who has worked tirelessly for the better part of two decades hunting for such fossils. It was deeply satisfying to hold them in the palm of your hand and realise that these could mark the advent of animals.”

    The findings, published this week in the South African Journal of Science, involved a team of ten scientists from Namibia, South Africa, Australia and the UK.

    Dr Prave, a co-author of the paper, said that the tiny creatures were pierced by different-sized openings that were probably used to pass nutrients into their bodies. They also found a ‘network of internal passageways’ thought to be a primitive gut.

    He continued, “What is remarkable is that this organism appears to have evolved before, and survived through, the environmental extremes of snowball Earth. This implies that the causes and conditions for the evolutionary leap from bacteria to animals have to be searched for much deeper in time than previously thought.”

  30. “fraternal twins share half their genes”

    I didn’t realize that siblings had so few genes in common.

  31. I’m just waiting for some rabid, clueless spokestwit from the Republican far-right (sorry for the multiple redundancy) to start jumping up and down and bellowing about “leftist Darwinist eugenics” or some-such word-salad upon reading Mooney’s book. Hell, Michelle Bachmann’s probably doing it already, having just seen the cover – which I assume is as far as she gets with any reading material. Imagine her at a restaurant:
    “What would you like from the menu, ma’am?”
    “A Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant!”
    “That’s where you are, yes, but you’ll need to select a specific dish. Have you opened the menu and looked inside?”
    “Stop confusing the issue with your questions! Bring me my dinner, fascist!”.

    Anyway … 🙂

    Frankly I think Mooney’s dug himself another hole. Sometimes I think he says stupid things on purpose so the ensuing criticism can give him something to write about.

    1. The spacing got stripped out of the above table. For each row, the first column is polling from a sample representing the general public, and the second column from a sample representing the scientific community.

  32. “And, of course, there is also a large cultural component to social attitudes as well: conservative parents inculcate their kids with conservative values, and so on.”

    Erm, let’s not ignore the fact that those children often share the genes of their parents, and so growing up to be conservative need not necessarily be the result of cultural inculcation, but rather genetic inheritance after all.

    People would do well to read Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” about the subject of genetic vs. cultural influence on how a person turns out. Especially those who immediately jump to accusations of racism when the idea is suggested that conservatives and liberals may be so as a result of their genes.

    Frankly, that people are the way they are as a result of their genes (including conservative or liberal bents) seems self-evident to me.

    1. The Blank Slate is one of my favorite books. Highly recommend it as well.

      Regarding inculcation, I think I was born with the anti-inculcation gene. I rejected the beliefs of my parents from a very early age. As a young boy I was fascinated by everything my parents hated, including Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Viet Nam War protesters, and Woodstock.

      One of the points Pinker made, as I recall, in the Blank Slate was that as far as environmental inculcation goes, parents have much less influence than they would like to have, and much less than peer groups from a fairly early age.

      1. Yes, that’s probably one of the most surprising claims in the book, that the influence of parents on their children’s future personality and behavior is almost non-existent.

        Of course, I still think that the environment a parent creates for a child can be constructive or destructive, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that even despite a conservative upbringing, if a child is going to become a liberal adult, there’s not much that can be done to stop it, barring *extreme* cultural factors like certain Islamic societies which actively suppress liberalism.

    2. Considering that it would be trivial to raise a child who is incapable of ever learning simple mathematics (you’d have to strictly use a 1-2-many counting system at home and prevent the child from learning to count elsewhere up until probably about puberty or a little later) I’m pretty sure the differences between liberals and conservatives could be easily swallowed up by cultural factors.

  33. “None of this has anything to do with biology. You could draw identical conclusions even if the differences between conservatives and liberals were purely based on differences in their environment and social development.”

    I agree with the basic point but I wouldn’t want to suggest that environment and social development have nothing to do with biology. Perhaps better to say “None of this supports the notion that these differences are coded in the genes or hardwired in the nervous system.”

    1. Yeah, I agree: what I meant was that none of this has anything to do with genetics. I’ve made that change Thanks!

  34. ..unwarranted conclusions from scientific data. It’s opinion perfumed with the odor of science without that science really supporting it.

    Now that’s old-school scientism: take something that sounds like science and distort it to justify whatever conclusion suits your fancy. Almost as good as religion.

    1. Good point, this is like the first legitimate example of scientism I’ve actually seen in the 21st century atheist community.

  35. The whole book can be dismissed with one look at history. Germany pre- and post-1930s. Pre- it was the height of Western civilization with arts, sciences, entertainment, culture, everything… then post- it was the depths of barbarism. Did the genes change? No. It was cultural and social forces.

    Perhaps this is a uniquely American thing? but as a society we yearn for simple answers to complex issues, and a simple genetic explanation to complex socio-cultural phenomenon brings us calm and allows us to flip the page or change the channel; it requires no follow-up critical thinking and research; this is an attractive solution in a society of sound bites.

  36. Here is a good example of the promise, complexity and intense difficulty of creating “theories” and predictive explanatory models in “science.” From the recent Science magazine:

    “Critical Truths About Power Laws

    The ability to summarize observations using explanatory and predictive theories is the greatest strength of modern science. A theoretical framework is perceived as particularly successful if it can explain very disparate facts. The observation that some apparently complex phenomena can exhibit startling similarities to dynamics generated with simple mathematical models has led to empirical searches for fundamental laws by inspecting data for qualitative agreement with the behavior of such models.

    A striking feature that has attracted considerable attention is the apparent ubiquity of power-law relationships in empirical data. However, although power laws have been reported in areas ranging from finance and molecular biology to geophysics and the Internet, the data are typically insufficient and the mechanistic insights are almost always too limited for the identification of power-law behavior to be scientifically useful.

    Indeed, even most statistically “successful” calculations of power laws offer little more than anecdotal value.”

  37. My family: 7 siblings, all +/- very bright, 4 liberal Democrats, 1 middle of the road, 2 very conservative Republican (fans of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin). My father voted Republican every time for two decades or more, but now votes Democrat every time (a change caused in part by the rightward shift of both parties, but in part by changes in his ideas). I chuckle at the idea that genetics cause political opinion.

    However, in this family political party choice does seem to have a lot to do with personality — and that may be caused by genetics. Sigh.

    Still, I don’t think that Republicans are necessarily doomed to lives of poor voting choices.

  38. The conservative genes stayed in the trees eating nuts and fruits. The liberal genes moved out on the savanna and eventually became humans. The conservatives of today are regretful of that move and wish to rewind. In another thousand years the christians will be claiming that the christian bible says that it is a sin to touch the ground.

  39. “If conservative genes are more adapted (presumably because they enable their bearers to recognize and respond to threats more readily), why are there so many liberal genes still around?”

    While I don’t want to defend Mooney’s thesis, is it not plausible that relaxation of a selective constraint active in the past would result in an increase in genetic variance in the present? In other words, if the trait is neutral in today’s environment, it would be expected to randomly accumulate genetic variance.

  40. George Lakoff (Moral Politics, The Political Mind) gives a better explanation of what drives the sentiments or values between American Conservatives and American Liberals.

    Also, I think the word ‘Liberal’ is completely misused. Democrat would be a better term, as liberalism is based on individual values and not cooperation.

    Finally, in America it is more a case of Conservative and Conservative, your politics is right wing, there is no left.

  41. Sam Harris posts a reference to that has an interesting discussion of the possible propensity of persons with lower cognitive ability to endorse more right-wing conservative ideologies. Another example of lack of free will?

  42. Just wondering…If one were to show slides of dismembered, bloodied bodies of tiny innocent babies recently extracted from their mothers’ wombs…and the democrats were shown to be less “averse” to th images than republicans, what, do you think would be Mooney’s “scientific” conclusion?

    1. I wonder what the christians would conclude if they were shown slides of all the bloodied bodies of the tiny innocent babies their gods abort every day? Do you think the christians would start crying for someone to please kill their god or are the christians selective about which abortionists they want murdered?

      What of the tiny innocent babies that are delivered with horrible defects that cause them unbearable and constant pain for their short lives, will the christians then call their gods monsters?

      If the fetus that eventually became me would have been aborted, I wouldn’t have existed and wouldn’t have known anything about it. No one remembers experiences in the womb because they weren’t in any meaningful sense there.

      1. I’m pretty sure that it has been proven that the unborn feel distress and pain. But after the distress and pain of having their bodies dismembered and/or brains sucked out, I guess you’re right, they probably don’t have much of a reaction anymore. So, OK…you win. There is no God and it’s OK to kill babies that don’t remember anything for any reason (or no) reason at all.
        Thanks for setting me straight!
        I think I’ll go down the hall where my baby daughter is sleeping and dismember her body. She may feel the pain and be distressed, but she obviously doesn’t remember anything about being alive at this age so really it’s OK. She was keeping me up at night anyway with all that crying. It was starting to cause me serious health problems!

        1. Christians are the only group that I know of that don’t know the difference between a fetus and a baby. I feel sorry for the brainwashing that you have endured.

          Please don’t kill your baby daughter! That is far different than the abortions christians think their gods perform.

  43. The problem, of course, is that people change over time. Either become more liberal or more conservative.

    I became more liberal over time. As proof, I offer the confession that I actually voted for Richard Nixon. (To be fair, at the time he presented himself as the anti-war candidate.)

    The other issue is that the definition of the traits that includes the sets “conservative” or “liberal” changes dramatically over time.

    Herbert Hoover was a conservative who thought the government had no business interfering with the free enterprise system to prevent economic disaster. The result was the Great Depression.

    George Bush (and his Treasury Secretary) were conservatives who initiated the big bail-outs of the “too big to fail” corporations. Remember, it wasn’t Obama who started TARP, it was Bush.

    The first American President to advocate a balanced budget amendment was Thomas Jefferson. (Of course, like a good Reaganite conservative, he then went off and made the Louisiana Purchase with money the treasury didn’t have).

    So, no. Conservatism and liberalism are social constructs that are way too plastic.

    Some people above are proposing is a notion of conservatives being risk-averse and liberals being risk-takers. Newt Gingrich would eliminate federal regulations, radically revise Social Security, and act in ways that are fundamentally enormous changes from the status quo. In other words, major risks. Nobody is accusing him of being liberal. A hypocritical megalomanical kook, sure.

  44. Well speciation, Darwin’s basic principle can be understood in Genesis 1 — provided the mind is open to such an idea.
    I can convince a group of teenagers who minds has not been poisoned by the so-called “creationists” in a very few minutes. Older folks – well it takes a little longer or should I say >never< can they be persuaded to understand such a ridiculous idea.
    Professor(emer.) of Geology
    University of WEstern ONtraio
    London Canada

  45. Again, sorry, credit where due.

    The study is called “economics knowledge by ideology” and is by Psychologist Zeljka Buturovic of Columbia University and Danield Klein, Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *