Are our political views encoded by our DNA?

July 9, 2019 • 1:30 pm

There’s a new op-ed in the Washington Post, “Our politics are in our DNA”, written by Sebastian Junger, an American journalist and author.  His primary data, which, based on the article, seem reasonable, suggest that a large part of the variation among Americans in their political attitudes—conservatives versus liberals—resides in our DNA, with roughly half of that variation ascribed to variation among genes.

But his conclusions—that political attitudes evolved by natural selection, and that we should encourage the persistence of both liberals and conservative—are questionable. Junger has committed the naturalistic fallacy by assuming that what has evolved not only remains useful, but is essential to preserve in modern society. And that doesn’t follow.

The article is below, but if you can’t get it by clicking on the screenshot or on the link above, judicious inquiry will yield you a copy.


The article begins okay, noting the resistance to biological determinism of people on both Right and Left, but for different reasons:

. . . the point is that anti-evolutionary bias makes rational discussion of the human race far more difficult.

This particular bias is prevalent at both ends of the political spectrum for different reasons. Cultural conservatives often reject the theory of evolution because it elbows aside the proposition that God created humans in his own image. Secular liberals, on the other hand, have a different agenda. They are comfortable with a godless universe but can balk at the prospect of living in a society that is deeply influenced by biological realities. Worldwide phenomena such as aggression and warfare are ascribed to culture — rather than genetics or biology — because to do otherwise would be to give up, as it were, on the struggle for social justice.

“Heritability”—the way geneticists determine the degree of genetic variation underlying the variation of a trait in a single population—is defined as the proportion of the total observed variation in the trait (in this case political affiliation) that is based on variation among people’s genes. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but this will do for now.) It ranges from 0 (no genes contributing to variation) to 1 (all trait variation based on genetic differences). The remainder of the variation among people for such traits can, for our purposes, be imputed to variation in people’s environments, both pre- and post-natal. The heritability for height among Americans, for instance, is about 0.6 to 0.8, which means that more than half of the difference among people in how tall they are resides in different genes affecting height. The heritability of IQ is roughly similar: 0.5-0.8.

There are a variety of ways to measure heritability, all involving correlation of traits among individuals of known but different relatedness. In animals and plants, parent-offspring correlation gives us one way, but for human traits like religiosity, wealth, or political affiliation, parent-offspring correlations don’t just involve correlations between genes, but also correlations between environments. Religious people tend to give children a religious upbringing, rich parents have rich kids, and so on. The heritability of wealth is huge, but that reflects not parents sharing “money-acquiring genes” with offspring, but largely cultural inheritance of both wealth and social position. To get good measures of heritability for behavioral traits, we need a way to break the cultural correlation between parents and offspring.

One way to do that is look at the correlation between identical twins (which have identical genes) and fraternal twins (which share half of their genes). If the former is higher than the latter for a trait, that suggests—but doesn’t prove—an important genetic component to variation. The reason it isn’t definitive is that identical twins are often treated more alike than are fraternal twins, which can be an environmental effect that inflates the genetic similarity between identical twins.

One way around the “identical treatment” issue is to compare fraternal twins raised together with identical twins raised apart. The former must surely experience more similar environments than do the latter, which are raised in different families. Thus,  if the correlation for a trait remains higher in identical twins raised apart than in fraternal twins raised together, that’s a pretty good sign that there is a genetic component to variation in the measured trait. It also gives us a lower-bound estimate for heritability. And this seems to be the case for political affiliation, as Junger reports (my emphasis):

The effect of genetics is so strong, however, that according to empirical studies, identical twins who are raised apart are more likely to hold similar political views than fraternal twins who are raised together. According to Avi Tuschman, author of “Our Political Nature,” between 40 and 60 percent of the variance in our political attitudes is heritable, stemming from genetic differences between individuals; the rest comes from our environment, especially during our formative years.

What could these genes be doing to affect someone’s political views? Junger reports that brain structure may be responsible, but his statement, at least in the article, isn’t convincing:

Political opinion also relates to brain structure: An experiment measuring the sizes of the anterior cingulate and the right amygdala accurately predicted a person’s political orientation 72 percent of the time. Some of these political proclivities appear to be connected to Chromosome 4 in a neurotransmitter receptor called NARG1.

The problem here is that we don’t know whether brain structure affects political views or vice versa. After all, your ideology and how you treat others could affect your anterior cingulate and right amygdala. But if the product of NARG1 is measured at birth, and then only later political differences show up that are correlated with its initial level, that would suggest that that gene, at least, is causal. But the article doesn’t say, and I don’t know.

So far so good. But then Junger begins suggesting that both liberalism and conservatism were selected for as adaptive traits, and here he goes off track:

The fact that political opinion is rooted to some degree in our genes and biology means that both liberalism and conservatism may be adaptive traits that got passed down through thousands of human generations because they helped us survive. But another trait that is clearly adaptive is our ability to get along. Political arguments may rage within families, communities and even nations, yet they only rarely threaten the cohesion of the group. On some level, humans seem to understand that differences of opinion are unpleasant but splitting up may be even more unpleasant — or downright dangerous. Humans don’t survive alone in nature.

First of all, political opinion (or its ancestral equivalent) need not have been selected for directly: they may be “spandrels”—byproducts of differences in brain structure subject to selection for other reasons. Or they could reflect genetic differences that persist but weren’t subject to natural selection at all—they could have been “neutral” traits. After all, do we know whether there was a correlation in our ancestors between political opinion and reproductive output? I don’t think so!

Another problem is why, if the traits persisted because they were adaptive, both liberal genes and conservative genes persisted over aeons? Wouldn’t one worldview be more adaptive than the other, and take over? Only special kinds of natural selection (for the cognoscenti, “frequency-dependent selection” or “balancing selection”), can maintain several forms of a gene in a population.

Junger even suggests some kind of group selection here: politically diverse groups lasted longer, or disappeared less often, than did politically homogeneous groups.

But there’s no evidence for any of these forms of selection; it’s all speculation. And a group-selection explanation for genetic/ideological diversity is subject to all the weaknesses of group selection, including the fact that selection for the best ideology within a group (by “best”, I mean “causing you to produce more offspring”) will overwhelm the effect of differential group proliferation.

Finally, even if somehow liberal and conservative genes were selected in our ancestors and still persist, that doesn’t mean that we should promote their persistence. That is a form of the naturalistic fallacy: what evolved is what remains good in modern society. Junger:

If liberalism and conservatism are partly rooted in genetics, then those worldviews had to have been adaptive — and necessary — in our evolutionary past. That means that neither political party can accuse the other of being illegitimate or inherently immoral; we are the way we are for good reason. Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict. A society entirely composed of liberals risks being overrun by enemies, and a society entirely composed of conservatives risks breaking apart over issues of inequality — “social justice,” as it’s now termed.

Put those groups together, however, and you have addressed the two greatest threats to human welfare: enemies and discord.

It goes on, but you can see that Junger thinks we should do what we can to promote the persistence of liberals and conservatives.

That doesn’t follow, for whatever milieu promoted the existence of genes affecting ideology no longer obtains. And of course the nature of ideology has changed as well, for genes aren’t destiny. (Even if the heritability of height is large, that doesn’t mean we can’t change height by intervening, as has happened with changes in nutrition in both Japan and the Netherlands.) Conservatism in the 18th and 19th centuries is very different from conservatism today, even in the U.S. Very few conservatives, for instance, now insist that slavery was really okay. And remember that Lincoln was a Republican! People change their ideologies as they grow older, and, as Steve Pinker emphasizes, the whole nature of human moral ideology has moved in a progressive direction over the past few centuries.

So yes, I’m prepared to accept that a substantial amount of variation in human ideology is based on variation in their genes—though I’m taking Junger and Tuschman at their word here. But I’m not prepared to say that we need to keep both liberals and conservatives around because they both evolved as adaptive strategies. Perhaps a society that comprises both liberals and conservatives is indeed a more resilient and rational society than one composed (as I’d favor) of more liberals. But that is an empirical matter, and we can make political policy without taking biology into account. We don’t need to say “we need Republicans because Republicans are the result of natural selection.” Maybe conservatism, or at least many of its principles, are inimical to social progress.

Junger may be right, but when he gets to the evolution part and floats the naturalistic fallacy, he’s entered the realm of pure, unsupported speculation.

h/t: Bruce

68 thoughts on “Are our political views encoded by our DNA?

  1. Republicans of the early 1860s were not conservative. Comparing them to today’s Republicans shows that parties can move around on the political spectrum. This would be the case whether or not political attitudes are determined by genetics.

    1. It’s a good trivia question in the UK to ask what political party Abraham Lincoln belonged to. The majority of people almost certainly would answer “Democrat”.

  2. Always felt ambivalent about separated identical twin studies as you’re always going to have extremely small sample sizes. Adoption agencies try to provide matches for culture and race of origin, it’s not as if separated twins will end up in completely dissimilar environments with a totally different zietgeist. Don’t know a lot about this but a first sight studies like this seem to carry their own problems.

    1. Without having looked at the particular study in question, most scientists doing twin-studies are aware of the issues you bring up (and others you didn’t) and take them into account in their analysis. They may do their analysis wrong, or they may not use the best approach, but they do try to account for them.

    2. Yes, but sample size has increased and, more tellingly, it’s hard to explain how identical twins reared apart could be statistically significantly MORE SIMILAR in a trait than fraternal twins reared together. Under the environmental hypothesis that would require that the environments of these separated twins be MORE similar than the environments of fraternal twins reared together.

      1. Most adoption agencies are religious, and most will choose the same type of family situation for the twins. There should be a second control group of random babies adopted out from the same agencies.

      2. it’s hard to explain how identical twins reared apart could be statistically significantly MORE SIMILAR in a trait than fraternal twins reared together.

        A conscious or unconscious desire to be differentiated from one’s sibling perhaps?

    3. … it’s not as if separated twins will end up in completely dissimilar environments with a totally different zietgeist.

      They came as close to it as could be arranged if Dr. Peter Neubauer got his filthy hands on them through the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

  3. I don’t understand how human beings could be divided into “ politically conservative” or “ politically liberal” for all those years in which the rabble followed the village elders, the warlords, the kings, and the priests. For most of human history, most people weren’t making democratic decisions about pretty much anything, let alone government. What then would be the selective pressure on the gene?

    1. Conservative/liberal distinctions don’t require democracy to exist. The difference in attitude has to do with openness to change (etc.) and this exists in all human communities.

      1. Yes, but the DNA study above relates to only conservative and liberal political views and that might be the cause of only 72% correlation with anterior cingulate and right amygdala size. So, in foreign nations, there could be same size but different viewpoint making the correlation non-linear. In short, if we sample through all possible political views (may be across nations), then the study might be more accurate with more factors.

      2. I was thinking it was where some members desire to redistribute assets to benefit other members (liberal) versus a desire to keep possessions within kinship lines (conservative). Either way, these attitudes do not require democracy to operate.

    2. Assume for the moment that Johnathan Haidt’s stuff is correct (it isn’t, metaethically, but …) then ethical evaluation has several components, for example, purity. Haidt claims that conservatives moralize purity; it seems plausible enough that that would have selection pressure regardless of how politically impotent one is. I.e., one’s “political view” is actually an emergent (or perhaps only resultant) effect of the components he identifies so that once political decision making is possible, the emergent effect is then subject to exaptation.

      (Shorter: political view as exaptation of moral views?)

      I still agree that this is pretty weak sauce, but I think this does make a steelman.

  4. I would like to see this article reviewed by R.C. Lewontin; one of the coauthors of “Not in Our Genes”. Unfortunately Stephen Jay Gould who wrote “The Mismeasurement of Man” is deceased.

  5. I have a hard time giving genetics a large part in this. After all, political preference vs height or eye color are certainly not the same. What political flavor you are at 21 could completely change by the age of 50 so where where the genes in that? Politics is much more determined by region for instance, and this country is certainly an example of that. Even rural vs. urban is a big influence here. You can look at one specific state, Missouri and see conservative republican throughout except when you get to Kansas City or St. Louis.

    In the beginning, right after Philadelphia and the Constitution two separate views begin and eventually lead to our two parties. The Federalist and the Anti-Federalist. What caused this sudden party creation? Was it your genetics or the fact of a Constitution itself. Where were all the Federalist, in the North East part of the country. Where were the Anti-Federalist, mostly in the South and Western regions. I do not see much genetics in that. I see personal interests or self interests.

    I have a sister that is almost the exact opposite of me, very religion and republican. She is from the same parents so what caused this?

    1. One’s height also changes during your lifetime. That doesn’t mean that genetics don’t influence height.

      Don’t equate “influences” with “causes” and fall for the old nature or nurture fallacy.

      1. I did not say that height was not caused by genetics. I would say just the opposite as I would say for eye color, baldness, etc. But is it not gravity that reduces your height as you age?

        What about all the other things I said about region, rural vs. urban. I am only saying that these things seem to be far more important than genes in determining your politics in the U.S. The vast majority of people in the military end up as conservative, republicans. It is tribal not genetics that does this.

        1. Height increases for many years despite the influence of gravity. Later in life it reverses, but always one’s body is an interaction of genes and environment.

          There are liberals and conservatives within the rural population. A liberal/conservative spectrum exists wherever you have people. All you’re doing is pointing to environmental features that genes are operating within, influencing the distribution.

          And you’re simply assuming that there’s no genetic influence on whether one is inclined to a military career or not.

          1. Again you tell me what I am saying even when I never said it. You should really try to break that habit. No genetic influence on whether one is inclined to a military career? Here is another argument against the genetics. The characteristics of a republican have changed a great deal in just a couple of years. You must admit that. Otherwise they would have repulsed at the arrival of Trump. My understanding of human genetics is that is moves very slow. Not something you can see in a lifetime. Yet the ideology or buy in of republicans now is much different than a few short years ago. They are no longer the party of family values, and I don’t think you would hear any saying so. The morality in general in this party has done about 180 degrees in change. They now love sexual predators and do everything possible to protect them. They have thrown ethics under the bus. This is the religious party or use to be of high morals. They are now bottom feeders in very short time period. They were fanatics about deficit spending but this too has gone south. Is this genetics? I is fantasy that politics has much to do with genetics.

            1. You’re conflating “Republican” with “conservative”. This is wrong because parties don’t have genes. They don’t belong in this conversation. Nobody thinks that being a Republican (or whatever) is directly encoded in genes. But attitudes are not the same as party membership.

              The fact that political parties change over time is totally irrelevant to whether genes influence a person’s attitude on a liberal/conservative spectrum. Parties are simply environmental features, among a huge number of other environmental features, that form the environment with which a person’s genes play out within his/her brain/body.

              1. You make almost no sense at all. Conservatives have nothing to do with party. However, nearly all the conservatives are also republicans. Just an accident. Lots of progressive liberals there as well? You have no evidence that genetics leads you to conservative or liberal and like the guys who wrote this article, they would be best to get their biology out of politics.

                Was it those old conservatives that past that tax bill increasing the debt 1.5 billion or was it the liberals? And if it was the conservatives (republicans) what DNA changes suddenly caused this behavior?

              2. Nearly all conservatives are Republicans today. 50 years ago this wasn’t true. The change happened because some people change parties and other people die off.

                You’re just pitching the old blank slate argument, asserting an absence of genetic influence on psychological attitudes for ideological reasons (I presume).

              3. Yes well, you have a different story of history than I and maybe that is the problem. The conservatives were republicans 50 years ago and 100 years ago. Who do you think hated FDR – republicans/conservatives. Call them conservative and forget the republicans but they were all in the same party. They all kept to the same ideology. The only big thing that happened was the civil rights act of 1964. Maybe that has you confused? The only thing that happened then was all the southerns quit the democratic party and joined the republican party. That was for one reason – race. It simply made the republican party more conservative than it already was.

                But I am still maintaining the conservatives of three years ago are totally different than the conservatives of today. Genetics had very little to do with this huge behavior change.

              4. Sigh.

                In 1950 Democrats in the South were solidly conservative. There was, back in my youth, still such an animal as a liberal Republican. Most of them were to be found in the northeastern states. This is no longer the case, because parties can change rapidly.

                People have varying attitudes towards social change. They vary in how fearful they are of folk who are not like them. These variations get mapped in political spheres into how people think about social policy. And there is every reason to think that genetics plays a role in human psychology.

                I’ll stop now because you seem incapable of recognizing basic features of human psychology. But I would recommend a quick review of Steven Pinker’s great book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

    2. Well, we have to go by the data, not by what we think based on malleability. After all, height changes with age, but it’s highly heritable. Presumably it’s measured in both cases at either the final height (although people shrink when older), or at a specific age. So if I did the experiment, I would, say, use the trait “ideology at age 40,” realizing that it could change. But what I specified is a trait.

      That said, I haven’t seen the studies. I’m taking them at face value, but they could have flaws.

    3. I agree, even though ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have subtly different connotations in our two countries. I was a hereditary Tory at 18, a (UK) Labour voter from 24 to 29, and a broadly liberal democrat (sometimes with a capital L and D) most times since. I really don’t see what genetics has to do with any of this.

  6. That “People change their ideologies as they grow older,” across a continuum of political views, and that such changes are reversible, and that the very same individual is simultaneously capable of holding conservative views on some issues while being liberal on others argues against any heritable component for this “character” other than the complexity of the human nervous system.

    1. Yes, it’s complicated and fluctuating, but what we are interested in are facts that can be gleaned from population statistics. Regardless of the human capacity for change, are there traits that are generally persistent.

  7. The idea that a political philosophy might be adaptive or maladaptive raises some interesting and perhaps paradoxical questions. First, can we approach the issue historically? I was once an admirer of the stance of what used to be called Liberal Republicans—I even contributed to Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the last Liberal Republican in the Senate: when Jeffords left the GOP in 2001, the species became extinct. A few living fossils persisted, like ex-Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, but even he switched to the Democrats at age 79 in 2007.

    During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most Liberal place in Europe was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—where religious freedom was not only widespread, but finally guaranteed in law by the Warsaw Confederation act of 1573. Moreover, the power of the Monarch was far from absolute, being constrained by the Sejm, the parliament; in fact, the Commonwealth enjoyed the first written European constitution, which codified the principle of constitutional monarchy. Moreover, the Silent Sejm of 1717 strictly limited the size of the army, in a spirit of anti-militarism that would make HuffPo and NPR swoon, and reaffirmed the Liberum Veto, the practise that allowed a single member of parliament to veto any legislation. The liberal Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destroyed by the distinctly illiberal states of Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, after which it went extinct altogether.

    There were only fossil remnants for the next 123 years. But then Poland and Lithuania both reappeared. Who can say what was adaptive and what wasn’t, in the long run?

  8. Junger states: “Political arguments may rage within families, communities and even nations, yet they only rarely threaten the cohesion of the group.”

    This statement is vague and meaningless. What does he mean by “rarely?” What does he mean by “group?” I would argue that no matter how you define “rare,” societies do tear themselves apart. Has he not heard of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions that destroyed the existing ruling classes? The American Civil War almost ended the nation as it was known. Group cohesion, at least in the form of the nation-state, is tenuous and like a volcano can erupt at any time, sometimes unsuspected.

    1. That is a very good point that also blows this politics and genetic influence out of the water. I am not the expert on genetics at all but find it hard to see how it works on your political ideology. If it is genetics or genetics is major in this, how did we see the turn by the republican party in the past three years. genetics is really a lot faster than I ever thought.

        1. You can call them green people if calling them republicans is a problem, I do not care. They are the conservatives and apparently their genes are on fire.

    2. “yet they only rarely threaten the cohesion of the group.”

      We know that humans dispersed throughout much of the world over a relatively short (evolutionary) time period. Irresolvable differences between factions of small communities or families could certainly have contributed to this. The Pilgrims couldn’t get along with England, and *poof* we have a European population in the Americas.

      Did the first Asians to cross the Bering Land Bridge do it in search of game, or because some Denisovian pilgrims couldn’t get along where they lived?

      1. “Yes.”

        Note that the questions are interrelated: if there is a shortage of food but not a complete famine, being forced out because you and your subgroup keep taking beyond your share (or the reverse) is plausible.

  9. My two cents. Political opinion in terms of liberal and conservative are too vaguely defined to act as heritable characteristics. For one thing they are relative over time and place. For another, they are not clearly defined in terms of fundamental beliefs. Is supporting free speech liberal or conservative?

    On the other hand, Donald Trump Jr. does seem just as sleazy as his dad.

    1. The sleaze quotient of D.T. Jr. could be the product of genes or environment. I would look toward any bastard children to informally test this hypothesis. There are fairly good chances that there are some.

  10. “Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict.”

    I’m not persuaded that Junger has hit upon the distinguishing characteristics between liberals and conservatives. In the last century, certainly, the opposition between liberals and conservatives took the form of a debate between “capitalist” and “communist,” “individualist” and “socialist.” But the conflict is much older than that; it’s an essential polarity between the part and the whole, the one and the many.

    I would say that “Every human society” tries to find its balance between these two, and in every society the domination of either one will bring with it the call for its opposite. In that sense, I’m not sure we need, as Junger suggests, “to promote the persistence of liberals and conservatives.” The two have persisted and, it seems to me, will continue to persist regardless of what we do to promote them.

    1. “In the last century, certainly, the opposition between liberals and conservatives took the form of a debate between “capitalist” and “communist,” “individualist” and “socialist.””

      If you are referring to the United States, your statement is completely false. The debate between liberals and conservatives was as to what kind of capitalism you want, particularly in the area of regulation of business. You are smearing liberals in your attempt to associate them with communism. In fact, the communist movement in the United States has been totally insignificant. Socialism hasn’t done much better. Almost all liberals are capitalists.

      1. “If you are referring to the United States. . .”

        I was referring more broadly to the Cold War, with the United States representing capitalism. My overall point was not to smear liberals but to assert that the polarity between liberals and conservatives is both perennial and, as long as one doesn’t overly dominate the other, healthy.

  11. Haven’t there also been psychological studies showing differences in the personalities of liberals vs. conservatives? Conservatives being more fearful for example. I don’t know if these studies are legit, but if there is a psychological difference, I would assume that gets down to the genetic level.

    I wonder how powerful or influential memes are when it comes to liberals and conservatives. Perhaps they just reinforce the views of one’s own tribe.

    1. I’m not here to defend Jordan Peterson, but he does make a valid statement, in my view, about the psychological types that lead to conservative and liberal views, with the trait of openness leading to a propensity to liberal views, and orderliness leading to conservative views. He then goes a step further, which also seems reasonable, in saying that both are necessary in that we need liberal people to be creative and inventive thus creating new ideas, enterprises and structures, but we also need conservatives to run them as liberals are less well adapted to do that. So rather like the article quoted we need both, alternating now and then to get the right balance.
      This has led me to rethink the way I vote, in that my vote may be best used not to vote in a set of policies, but to vote out a government that has run its course. If more of us were the kind of swing voters who think that way we might enjoy a more functional democracy!

  12. If what Junger is saying is correct maybe gene therapy can be developed to eliminate Trumpism.

  13. “identical twins who are raised apart are more likely to hold similar political views than fraternal twins who are raised together.”

    What about the confounding factor of sex? Clearly, men and women tend to differ in politics, with women being more socially conservative but more politically liberal. It is common for political views to differ by sex even within the same family.

    Identical twins are always the same sex whereas fraternal twins are fifty-fifty so that could account for the greater similarities of identical twins. Sex of the respondent, of course, can be controlled for. Was it?

  14. Is political thought distributed bimodally? If not then the whole premise of the article falls apart and we’re left with nothing more than mundane variation around a peak.

    1. I love this subject (big Pinker fan).

      I’ve often wondered if conservative personalities traits and liberal personalities traits came into being in a similar way to the tame foxes in the Belyayev experiment. If massive pressure was put on certain traits (due to whatever specific environment our ancestors happened to be in) then both types of personality traits could end up evolving concurrently among different, isolated groups of people.

    2. I don’t see that. It need not be bimodal, it need only be a distribution that can be measured by a scale. The question has to do with what causes the distribution, not what form the distribution takes.

      1. If the distribution is more of a bell curve then there’s really nothing to account for, no need for a theory since there’s really nothing to explain. Imprecise convergence on an optimum solution is the default state.

  15. what would it mean that we need to keep both liberals and conservatives around? Should lots of liberals vote for DT just to keep some conservatives in power? I don’t think so.

  16. I love this subject (big Pinker fan).

    I’ve often wondered if conservative personalities traits and liberal personalities traits came into being in a similar way to the tame foxes in the Belyayev experiment. If massive pressure was put on certain traits (due to whatever specific environment our ancestors happened to be in) then both types of personality traits could end up evolving concurrently among different, isolated groups of people.

  17. I would also be somewhat comfortable with the notion of some genetic component in the conservative/liberal spectrum. That it is a spectrum is just one difficulty, of course, in trying to define an experiment to test the heritability of a trait as malleable as ideology. It is a bit of a moving target, no?

    And just how do you define “similar political views?”

    I certainly cannot tell just from this op-ed anything of real substance, other than the reference to Avi Tuschman and the original work. I have not read “Our Political Nature,” and unless given some compelling reason, probably won’t have the time. Professor Coyne, have you? Has anyone else here?

    I’d like to know his experimental design, at least, and some justification for that 40% to 60% explained variance.

  18. I doubt that it’s useful to speak of selection for liberal and conservatives. The emotions that motivate our behavior have resulted in the existence of liberals and conservatives in modern human societies, but those societies didn’t exist at the time the emotions evolved. The author is putting the cart before the horse. Before we can discuss the “evolution” of political behavior in modern societies, we must first understand the relevant emotions and predispositions – how they influence behavior, why and in what environmental context they were selected for, and the physical nature of their existence in the brain.

    The author is certainly not alone in embracing the naturalistic fallacy. For example, the emotions responsible for the existence of morality create a powerful illusion that good and evil exist as objective things. As a result, creators of moral systems supposedly based on Darwinism have almost all imagined that morality is evolving in the direction of “progress” towards some “higher” goal. Such theories wer already abundant by the end of the 19th century. See, for example, “A Review of the Systems of Ethics: Founded on the Theory of Evolution,” by Charles Mallory Williams, published in 1893. The ebook is free at Google Books. Among other things, it includes an interesting discussion of what Darwin and Wallace had to say on the subject. Darwin himself seems to have been remarkably free of the fallacy. The only other thinker I’m aware of who approached his level of detachment is Edvard Westermarck.

    1. I think that you are quite right here. If there is some heritable trait that inclines people to one ideology on the spectrum rather than another, it must be on a much more primitive level than the conservative/liberal construct.

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