Does heritability of political orientation matter?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 17, 2011 11:40 AM


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At The Intersection Chris Mooney points to new research which reiterates that 1) political ideology exhibits some heritability, 2) and, there are associations between political ideology and specific genes. I'll set #2 aside for now, because this is a classic "more research needed" area at this point. But as I mentioned in the comments the heritability of political ideology is well known and robust. From what I can gather most people assume it's mediated through personality traits. In the comments Chris asks:

That sounds sensible. What i find amazing is that if the heritability of politics is so robust–and I agree, it would happen via personality–why is this so widely ignored?

There are I think several issues at work. First, many people are not comfortable within imagining that beliefs which they attribute to their conscious rational choice are not only subject to social inculcation, but that may also have an element of genetic disposition. Second, most people have a poor grasp of what heritability implies. Take a look at some of Chris' commenters. The response is generally in the "not even wrong" class. Finally,

what's the actionable component to this?

In other words, what are people going to do with this sort of information? I think there is a possible way in which heritability information might be used: you could consciously try to reshape the environmental context in which it is expressed so that the norm of reaction is recentered. This is related to the concept of the "Overton window". Gay rights in the United States is the best illustration of that. Today a moderate conservative position is to favor civil unions. Yet in the year 2000 the very socially liberal state of Vermont was riven by conflict over the very possibility of civil unions. The "center" has moved, and so has the "right" and "left." The disposition toward conservatism and liberalism does not manifest in absolute tendencies, but attitudes and actions comprehensible only against a reference which allows for one's own bias to come to the fore. This is why heritabilities of being conservative and liberal can remain the same over time and across cultures, even though conservative and liberal can mean very different things in different contexts. Some natural genetic variance in the traits which allow for political ideological difference may also suggest to us there is little possibility of a "end of politics," where there is total unanimity on all topics. When consensus is achieved, there will presumably always be some who wish to push the boundaries of innovation further, and those who resist just as fiercely. Just as there will always be a minority who may pine for the days of yore, while everyone else looks at them as if they're loony.

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