There’s a lot of truth to the old joke that liberals believe nothing is genetic except homosexuality and conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. On that spectrum, I remain broadly conservative (I think sexual orientation is almost certainly affected by some genes). I think a huge amount of what we fight over as cultural is much more linked to genes than we want to believe. And so I remain of the view that homo sapiens is not a separate and unique species of animal on planet earth, and has evolved and will continue to evolve in classic response to natural selection.
That’s why it has always struck me as pretty obvious that there will be genetic differences between various geographic sub-populations in particular regions where humans have evolved and interbred for millennia. This does not translate to our concepts of “race” which are often artificial and crude and unscientific; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some overlap or that the core underlying argument – that human populations can differ genetically across the planet, just as every single other species on earth differs – is somehow empirically suspect. And that’s the fundamental insight I took away from Nicholas Wade’s flawed recent book on race and genetics: forget the conjecture that takes up more than half the book; forget the arguments about “race” and genetics; and just re-imagine ourselves as very advanced apes with a long evolutionary history on planet earth, with lots of minor, regional variations, like so many other species. It’s a mind-expanding thought experiment.
In some discrete respects, we accept this as unexceptional. So, for example, no one is up in arms about the discovery of a recent and powerful genetic factoid that we covered yesterday: 87 percent of Tibetans have a mutation in a gene called EPAS1, which enables better breathing at very high altitudes. Only 9 percent of Han Chinese have this mutation, and yet the two populations have only been separated for less than three millennia. As proof of principle, that’s hard to beat: dramatic genetic variation just for the last 3,000 years of the roughly 200,000 we’ve been evolving and wandering across the globe in so many starkly different environments with profoundly different genetic implications.
Our extreme intelligence in the animal kingdom means that our evolution has also been one in which culture and genes have intermingled in bewildering ways; and to miss culture as a core factor in our differences is to be just as blind to reality. But to see us as merely cultural beings, or walking blank slate brains, or completely interchangeable across the globe and all sub-populations is to miss the true drama of human history and pre-history. It robs the human story of its depth and richness in pursuit of an ideal – utter equality – that would have struck almost every human generation before three hundred years ago as bizarre.
Which is a very long-winded way (but hey, it’s good to get that off my chest) to say that it was refreshing to see Tom Edsall this week penning a bracing argument that genes may also lie beneath our political dispositions. In other words, a huge amount of what you’re born with may determine or at least strongly influence your liberalism or conservatism:
In “Obedience to Traditional Authority: A heritable factor underlying authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness,” published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2013, three psychologists write that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.” According to the authors — Steven Ludeke of Colgate, Thomas J. Bouchard of the University of Minnesota, and Wendy Johnson of the University of Edinburgh — all three traits are reflections of “a single, underlying tendency,” previously described in one word by Bouchard in a 2006 paper as “traditionalism.”
This somewhat acts as a confirmation of Jonathan Haidt’s notions of the values that predominate in conservatives and liberals. And here’s the data from sets of fraternal and biological twins:
The religiousness differential is particularly stark, followed sharply by authoritarianism. And Edsall is right to note this may help explain why, in a polity riven by core cultural questions, the ability to compromise, or even understand the other side, is in short supply. When it comes to economic questions, the divide is much less stark. There is, in other words, nothing the matter with Kansas. Kansans’ social and cultural value system outweighs in intensity and durability any economic arguments – and it’s our genes in part that facilitates that. Edsall’s conclusion?
Perhaps the most important rationale for research into the heritability of temperamental and personality traits as they apply to political decision making is that such research can enhance our understanding of the larger framework within which public discourse and debate shape key outcomes.
Why are we afraid of genetic research? To reject or demonize it, especially when exceptional advances in related fields are occurring at an accelerating rate, is to resort to a know-nothing defense. A clear majority of those involved in the study of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology are acutely aware of the tarnished research that produced racist, sexist and xenophobic results in the past. But as the probability of a repetition of abuses like these diminishes, restrictions on intellectual freedom, even if they consist only of psychological barriers, will prove counterproductive. We need every tool available to increase our understanding of our systems of self-governance and of how we came to be the political animals that we are.
And we have nothing to be afraid of but the truth.