As election season heats up, so does the discussion of what drives that elusive creature, the voter. Political scientist professors Peter K. Hatemi of Penn State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University add their two cents in an article published in Trends in Genetics titled “The genetics of politics.”
The article’s publication was clearly timed to ensure widespread dissemination. A slew of mainstream media outlets cooperated (1,2,3,4), headlining their coverage with exactly the kinds of simplification the authors warn against, including “All politics is genetic”(Examiner.com), “Politics Decided by Genes” (The Australian) and “Genes May Determine How We Vote” (ABC News).
Looking back at previous media stories, Hatemi and McDermott write
Media claims that ‘Researchers find the Liberal Gene’ (Fox News) or that ‘Some Politics May be Etched in the Genes’ (New York Times) serve to both exacerbate and reflect the epistemological divide between the social and life sciences.
Indeed, the authors argue that there is no single “liberal gene,” but rather that thousands of genetic variables combine to influence political preferences. They also argue that genes play no critical role in individuals' political lives until they leave home and the “powerful social pressures” of their families of origin.
In fact, throughout much of the article they are careful to stress the mutual importance of social and genetic factors in determining political identity, arguing that politics are only “in part genetically informed, interacting with the environment in countless and reciprocal ways.”
But Hatemi and McDermott eventually do make an explicit case for the importance of genes to political identity. Their argument largely relies on previously conducted twin studies, the logic of which is that by looking at both identical and fraternal twins, one can determine variation between environmental and genetic causation. But many holes have been poked in this methodology (1, 2, and 3).
And despite their rhetoric that looking to single genes is a simplistic understanding of genetics largely employed by social scientists, they do in fact include a table in their article that lists individual genes as responsible for specific traits. For example, they list MAOA and 5-HTT as the genes that are correlated with voter turnout. This is based on a 2008 study by University of California, San Diego professors James H. Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes, which was later determined to be false. In the words of Duke University professors in a disparaging press release
The same two genes that Fowler and Dawes claimed would predict voter turnout are also said to predict, according to other recently published studies, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, anorexia nervosa, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression, epilepsy, extraversion, insomnia, migraines, narcolepsy, obesity, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, Parkinson's disease, postpartum depression, restless legs syndrome, premature ejaculation, schizophrenia, smoking, success by professional Wall Street traders, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide, Tourette syndrome, and several hundred other behaviors. They point to a number of studies that attempted to confirm these findings and could not.
And while Hatemi and McDermott mention many other gene-based tools that may become increasingly important in the years to come, such as genetic pathway analysis and next-generation sequencing (but interestingly, not epigenetics), their rehash of previous studies does not provide any particularly new or meaningful way of thinking about the interplay of genetics and political leanings
Thus, despite the extensive media coverage, the study already feels like old news.
In fact, we saw a remarkably similar round of claims and simplistic headlines four years ago, just in time for the 2008 election season. In February of that year, an article in New Scientist asked “Are political leanings all in the genes?” This, too, was a summary of research (also largely based on twin studies) suggesting that genetics influence our behavioral characteristics, which in turn influence our political preferences. Biopolitical Times contributor Jesse Reynolds covered the article at the time, pointing to the circular logic of asking politically charged questions in an effort to gauge genetic predisposition to political preferences, and expressing concern that, “accepting that genes determine political orientation could cause deepening political apathy.”
I’d like to second this concern – not to discredit genetic research, or to say that genetics and epigenetics play no role at all in our political preferences, but to caution against overly simple interpretations that seem to pop back up no matter how many times they're swatted down.
Hatemi and McDermott, for example, argue that contemporary political attitudes “encompass fundamentally the same issues of reproduction and survival that confronted group life in ancient humans because they involve the same interpersonal traits.” They note that “modern questions about immigration are similar to the primal need to deal with out-groups.” Do they really believe that xenophobic immigration policies today are best understood as a necessary by-product of our evolutionary past?
In one news article about their new study, Hatemi commented that “this research can help the public and policy makers recognize that people see the same thing differently, and at times no amount of yelling or 'proof' will sway them.” He seemed to find this a liberating prospect.
But I can think of far more liberating possibilities. Our country – and any functioning democracy – needs in-depth debate about pressing social issues, not a call to apathy based on a slightly updated version of genetic reductionism.