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June 21, 2005


Hi Half Sigma
Marginal Revolution pointed to this article and I read it but I'm not convinced. I think it is true that you politics is not based solely - or even primarily - by logic, but I doubt we have genes for each flavor of politics. You might think that there's only two flavors of politics, but I don't, and I think that how view issues on the left right spectrum can be rather arbitrary.

The researchers determined that genes were the fundamental cause of people's politics by comparing the similarity of politics to the similarity in the genes of twins (identical twins have more genes in common than fraternal twins). The problem with this is that identical twins raised in the same household would tend to think alike in part because they know they are alike and should think alike. Your identical twin's opinion on things would count for more than a fraternal twin's opinion, so you would consider it more, and you're more likely to agree with it.

On the other hand, there may be some truth to the notion that highly religious people are genetically predisposed towards believing in God. This might give a correlation between politics and genes, although not a strong one.

The tendency toward redistribution might be partly genetic, but I'm not sure. I think it is an ethic: something you are raise to respect or to not respect.

I think a better study, but a harder study, would be to look at siblings separated at birth. If wind up with very similar politics then it must be partly genetic.

"I really wish that more people would truly try to comprehend the importance of this point. Your political beliefs, which you cherish and defend, are not based on logic but on an accident of biology. Most people, instead of using their intelligence to logically determine the best policies (such as school vouchers for example), use their intelligence to try to justify the conclusion already reached based on illogical emotion genetically programmed into their brains."

This reminds me of a philosophy class I took on free will, where you read normally intelligent people argue passionately that we are just robots.
Either our self-awareness and will can overcome genetic predisposition to certain behavior, or you are flapping your arms for no reason - everything, even your posts, are determined already and there is no way to reach a reasonable conclusion, since reason is an illusion.

Scott, ignoring the metaphysical stuff, I was simply urging that people attempt to overcome their illogical emotional instincts and think logically.

Possible refutation of determinism: where does creativity come from?
While I would readily admit that people tend to be too emotional when it comes to politics, I find it hard to believe that genetics plays that big of a role in political preferences. Where are all the genetically predisposed anarchists? Or another angle: Will we one day say that it wasn't really Adolph Hitler's fault, that he was genetically predisposed to authoritarianism?

Michael Clem, my theory is that genetics plays a very big role in how one feels about inequality of outcomes. How this manifests into views about specific policy issues has a lot to do with environment.

Part of the problem with saying that there is a genetic disposition to a certain political theory -- or even towards feeling differently about outcomes -- is that the whole questin is based on certain assumptions that may or may not be true to begin with. Take religion -- if I talk about a "genetic" predisposition to religiosity, that makes sense to us, but not to a Navajo, who does not have a word for religion in his language. (To them, the whole division we draw between religion and non-religion is alien). Or the question "Are some people predisposed to be slaves" made sense in 1850, but now it seems almost silly.

As for feeling guilty (or not) about equality of outcome, I could argue that feeling that way is a survival trait, because in the kind of society that most people lived in for 90% of human history, being _too_ selfish was a sure way to be dead quite soon, since nobody would reciprocate food or aid to you and there are too many things that a person simply cannot do alone. This is also why hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian -- it isn't becasue they are nicer people, but because it works to keep everyone alive (if I hoard all the food and everyone else dies off that does me no good). On top of that, most stone-age societies consisted of clans of related people -- you are less likely to mess with your cousin.

At the same time, however, the whole issue about how one feels about things and reducing it to a genetic predisosition seems to ignore the rather large amount of complexity that goes into shaping human personalities and politics. Given that being liberal or not would make no sense to people as little as 300 years ago, and that genes evolve over much longer timescales, the whole thing seems an exercise in bad science from the get-go. I mean, it's like finding a correlation between a certain gene and liking the color green in Izod Lacoste shirts. What does that tell you, really? (I suggest a great book, "It Ain't Necessarily So" by Richard Lewontin, who talks alot about what genetics can tell us and what it can't, and how the science can be better used).

There are plenty of Christians out there like me who have their own personal beliefs but don't believe the government should legislate them. Also, I agree with you about the secular morality though... instead of satan they have smokers.

A few random thoughts:

There is a famous cartoon in which a group of scientists are staring at an equation covered black board. In the middle of the formula is written “then a miracle happens” to which one scientist responds : “could you be a bit more specific.”

Genetics has too often been the Deus ex machina for filling in various lacunae in our understanding. For years the disease pellagra was ascribed to genetics when it was caused by a deficiency of niacin in the corn dependent diet of poor southerners.

Bill Buckley once said that “liberals talk a great deal about hearing other points of view, and then are shocked to learn that there are other points of view.” For the reporters of the Times, it is perhaps reassuring to ascribe the resistance to their world-view to a genetic defect. The other dynamic at work is the professional tunnel vision of the expert. The natural impulse of very academic discipline is to assume that it holds the magic thread that leads us out of the labyrinth. Or as the old saying has it, when the only tool you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.

The fact is that I, for one, can chart my one political evolution as a reaction to historical events. I started off as a liberal (pro-civil rights, internationalist etc.), and moved rightward in response to events like the takeover at Columbia and the riots during the sixties. Chesterton described a character (in The Man Who Was Thursday, 1905 ) as “one of those young men who are driven into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists.”

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