Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper PhD


Born That Way: Do Our Genes Determine Our Politics?

A search is underway for a genetic basis of political ideology and behavior.

Posted Apr 23, 2012

This is the first of three posts reflecting on the rise of genetic, evolutionary, and biological approaches to the study of politics. Today’s post provides an introduction and some background for understanding how researchers interested in political opinions, identities, and behaviors shifted to these nontraditional ways of thinking about politics.

Since the 1970s, political scientists – heavily influenced by sociological research in the early to mid-20th century – have been fairly convinced that childhood socialization explained citizens’ ideological dispositions. Liberal parents raised their children to be liberals; conservatives raised their children to be conservative. Add to that effects of education and socio-economic status, most political behavior could be explained by a few key environmental variables. While individuals fluctuated in their transition to adulthood (high school and college), most people seemed to be leaving college ideologically similar to when they entered. And, over-time people gradually became more conservative on a handful of issues. Socialization made sense because it offered a simple answer to the “nature versus nurture” question and, philosophically meant that citizens could be educated and influenced to have pro-democratic (that’s small-d democratic) values and behaviors. Since the publication of a hotly debated article in our discipline’s flagship academic journal, political scientists are increasingly turning to genetic explanations for ideology, opinions, and political behaviors.

Genetic and biological approaches to the study of politics raise fundamental scientific and deeply challenging philosophical questions about the human condition. Except for the last decade, genetics was almost never seen as a credible explanation for anything political; as a result, explanations of political opinion formation and behavior suggested that everything that we observe in politics is a product of observable and modifiable characteristics of ourselves and/or our contexts. Genetics as an explanation for these outcomes implies that politics is – to some extent – outside the control of individuals and society: individuals are born political (ideology and all) and thus have immutable dispositions, inflexible to the changing course of political happenings. The study of behavioral implications of genetics always carries a certain air of determinism. And, the focus on genetics means the environment – that is, the meat of politics – has a diminished role. Scholars of formal institutions (e.g., Congress), political campaigning, and the media are necessarily skeptical.

It may seem a very strange idea for those inclined to genetic explanations to suggest that politics per se matters little for understanding peoples’ basic political predispositions – ideology, partisanship, and identifications with social groups. Yet, this idea emerged at a particularly sensitive time in the history of academic political science and is largely the product of an earlier shift toward psychological perspectives on politics. Ongoing questions about the relevance (which have surfaced e.g., here, here, and here) of political science have pushed scholarship in a number of polarized directions. Among the most prominent, the fairly widespread adoption of the premise that politics can be understood as yet another venue in which psychology affects human cognition and behavior seems to have facilitated a further leap toward suggesting that politics is nothing special (in comparison to other psychological and social domains).

In more nuanced language, the psychological turn in political science research has meant that it is largely impossible to understand political behavior without explanations thereof situated in more generalized theories of social behavior. Political science research over the last few decades on political stereotypes, persuasion and opinion change, and countless other domains has increasing adopted the paradigm of psychology. The Big Five personality traits, the implicit attitudes test, emotion as a basis for political behavior, neuroscience, etc. are increasingly important paradigms that have entered political science through the subfield of political psychology.

I remain a little puzzled as to why political psychologists in particular have been the ones most ready to accept genetic answers to political research questions, especially when (non-genetic) psychology has served for so long as helpful area from which to build theories to understand politics. Psychology does not inherently lend itself to finding meaning through biological research or theory. Researchers drawn to psychology for its exploration of the human mind are not necessarily the same group drawn to biology or neuroscience for its study of the human brain and biochemistry.

Yet it really should be unsurprising because political psychologists are the segment of the political science discipline most inclined to borrow theories and methods from other disciplines and aim for more generalized theories of the human condition that do not privilege politics as a domain that uniquely shapes and is shaped by our psychology. Rose McDermott (Brown) and Pete Hatemi (Penn State) have perhaps most passionately advocated for an increasingly genetic and physiological approach to political science in both a recent book, Man is By Nature a Political Animal and in a publicly available article recently published in Political Psychology. They and a small but growing number of social scientists believe that “hereditary” (i.e., genetic) and evolutionary (i.e., evolutionary psychological) perspectives are the future of political science research.

The answer to the question of whether we are born with our political attitudes is not resolved. It likely won’t be for some time. But the fact that political scientists are even asking the question reflects a major paradigm shift in the social sciences toward theory and methods that more resemble the physical sciences. Over the next two posts, I will be reviewing some of the most prominent and promising research that has emerged from the genetic turn in political science and the skepticism of that research and its findings. Through this series of posts, I hope to say something meaningful about what genetics, physiology, and evolutionary psychology can offer as an understanding of our political selves, while also suggesting the limitations thereof.

About the Author

Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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