Biology and Politics

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about a study that found a link between certain genes and interest in politics. Two new studies have come out since that go even further, and find a link between brain region size and genes, and political preference. I discuss them below.

Brain Region Size and Ideology

A new study by scientists at University College London has found a link between the size of certain areas of the brain and political viewpoints. In sum:

"Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.

On the otherhand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life."

Although I find these findings interesting and worth exploring further, I am slightly skeptical that there is a link between fear and anxiety, and being conservative. In my opinion, fear is embedded in both the liberal and conservative viewpoints, the only difference is what scares liberals and conservatives. Conservatives tend to fear foreign enemies, terrorists, and the government overreaching its power in the economy. Liberals tend to fear strong governments that interfe with people's privacy (such as too much survelliance). They also fear big business and corruption. Hence, it is unclear whether fear and anxiety would lead anyone to be conservative.

While I do not think there is a link between anxiety and being conservative, I would not be surprised if there was a link between fear and anxiety and having extreme political positions. This is only based on ancedotal evidence, but it seems to me that those with the most extreme ideologies, both left and right, tend to be the most paranoid about government and politics (in US politics, Glenn Beck and Michael Moore come to mind). It would be interesting to see a study that examines this potential link.

Genes and Political Ideology

In another study, published in the October 2010 edition of JOP, Settle, Dawes, Christakis, and Fowler suggest that people may be genetically predisposed to being liberal or conservative. In sum:

"Scientists at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University determined that people who carry a variant of the DRD4 gene are more likely to be liberals as adults, depending on the number of friendships they had during high school….

The four authors, including UCSD's James Fowler, wanted to explore if politics were heritable by identifying a specific gene variant associated with political leaning. They hypothesized that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences would tend to be more liberal.

The 7R variant of DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene, had previously been associated with novelty seeking. The researchers theorized novelty seeking would be related to openness, a psychological trait that has been associated with political liberalism.

However, social environment was critical. The more friends gene carriers have in high school, the more likely they are to be liberals as adults."

The potential for a link between genes and ideoloy has several implications for real world outcomes. How common is this gene (and how common is it for people to have this gene and be outgoing)? How much can the existence of outgoing people with this gene in the voting age population have on electoral and legislative outcomes? Furthermore, are social movements only possible if there are a large number of outgoing people with this gene? And finally, what does this mean for how we view the leaders of social movements? Did the consciously choose to change society, or are their actions simply the result of their genes and their social environment?

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

One Reply to “Biology and Politics”

  1. I see very little paranoia on the far left, actually. The paranoid style of thinking is very much a right-wing phenomena, whereas the far left tends to promote systemic thinking. A far right critique of government is that a particular group of people (depending on the critic, it may be Bilderbergers, Freemasons, Jews, Socialists, etc) has sinister motives and are infiltrating otherwise worthy institutions. The Left (Noam Chomsky for instance) considers social institutions as mechanisms or social organisms that have inherent characteritics due to their social purpose, and that social and economic pressures will promote certain behavior in all actors within the institution no matter how morally upright they are. Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent mentions how intellectuals who do not fit within certain established bounds just never get to influential positions because there are many filters eliminating troublesome individuals before they even get to the end game.
    Michael Moore’s work is more systemic analysis than paranoid style, even though he is only a moderate leftist under any objective criteria (i.e. not the American political spectrum, which is hopelessly skewed rightwards) so he doesn’t really count as an adequate example.
    Take the Truthers, for instance. Most of them are actually right-wingers, their reputation for being leftists mostly comes from the fact they emerged during the Bush years (they got tarred as leftists by the establishment Right). Alex Jones himself (a major figure) is far right, and a decent chunk of the movement is composed of libertarians, LaRouchians and neo-nazis.

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