This is a follow-up to a 2007 paper by two of the same authors, Fowler and Dawes, reporting two genes that predicted voter turnout in twin studies, although these genes are also moderated by environment, they say; turnout depends on the association between genes and exposures to religious social activity. They conclude that these findings are important to "how we both model and measures political interactions."
And a follow-up to a 2009 paper reporting the gene for partisanship and joining of political groups (the DRD4 gene again). Among other papers.
Now, these are only a few of the authors responsible for the recent large crop of papers reporting genes for voting behavior and political ideology and other behaviors in the realm of political science, but they are particularly visible, and publishing the latest paper just before the November elections -- gee, wonder why -- certainly helps. The headline in the Fox News story about this work is "Researchers find the liberal gene", and they then go on to say that "liberals can't help themselves, it's in their genes".
OK, let's stick with this for a minute. Much as we wanted to, we couldn't ignore what's below the headlines, the meat of the piece:
"Ideology is about 40 percent heritable. It's almost half genes and half environment," Fowler told FoxNews.com. What's more, he said, any trait that can be inherited has potentially been with the human race for a long time, meaning political ideology has been a part of us for tens of millions of years.
"If it's really the case that genetic variation is influencing ideology, this isn't something we've been living with for the last ten years," he told FoxNews.com. "These are processes that have been going on for the past million years."
Fowler suggests that it made more sense to be liberal in certain environments at specific points in human history, and in others a conservative ideology was merited. "And this is what made it possible for our species to survive," he said.
"If it made sense for us all to be liberal, natural selection would have made us all liberal."There's so much wrong here, and if the quotes are accurate, it's Fowler who's wrong, not the journalist. Fowler may 'know' that DRD4 is a dopamine receptor gene, the receptor for a neurotransmitter, and he may think that political ideology is a result of gene by environment interaction, but the Fox story suggests that he believes he's found a gene 'for' liberalism (in spite of the sentence in the paper itself that rightly cautions that "perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that ‘‘a gene was found’’ for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology"). Emics and etics -- what he says is not what he does.
And, "...political ideology has been a part of us for tens of millions of years"? "These are processes that have been going on for the past million years"? Let's see, Homo sapiens dates from when? 100-200 thousand years ago? Were our Homo erectus ancestors liberals or Tories? Being liberal sometimes and conservatives others is what allowed our species to survive? Who knows what that could even mean. And of course Fox News picks up on the idea that natural selection didn't make us all liberal, now did it? No it didn't, because it didn't make sense.
So, if political ideology is genetic, there must be a gene for conservatism too? In which case, why do we see the kinds of swings in voting patterns in the US that we have seen in the last several decades, and are likely to see this week? It can't be that it's primarily those who are genetically programmed to be liberal who vote in some elections, and those who are conservative who vote in others. People actually do change their minds. Oh, there must be a gene for that, too.
But much more important than these silly quotes, or even than the details of the paper, this paper is an indication of the use and abuse to which genetic data are currently being put. In a day or two we'll write about the data set that this study was actually based on but for now let's think about what it means to even ask whether there are genes for voting behavior. (And, by extension, if how you vote is due to gene by environment interaction, and in this case, the 'environment' is the number of friends a teenager has in high school, couldn't it be that there's a gene for the number of friends we have? Well, it won't be a surprise to hear that the answer is yes if you believe studies done with the same National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health -- paid for with your tax dollars -- used in the latest Fowler paper.)
It isn't irrelevant to ask who wants to know, who's asking about genes for behavior. Or why they find these kinds of questions so interesting. Or whether this kind of science should just be smiled at tolerantly even if it's bogus. Or what we should think to do, at this stage and before it's too late, if it happens to be correct.
There are many issues here, and they involve the spectrum of things from personal politics (ours, the investigators, and yours), the nature of legitimate science, of criteria for scientific inference, of vested interests, of politics, of ideology and tribalism and much more.
One thing is clear. Like it or not, this search for genes for traits related to how we behave, or for how well we think and even for what we think, is a wave, perhaps a tidal wave, of a kind of Darwinian determinism sweeping across the political spectrum, led by the United States but (as so often happens) with followers in Europe and Asia (mainly these days, China). It is not idle, ivory tower science. Whether it is yet another passing fancy, or something more serious, time will tell. But for many reasons, this like other aspects of genetic determinism these days is not going to be changed because of the facts: it is a commitment, and taxpayers are going to be paying for it for a long time to come, for better or worse.