Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Can Biopolitics explain everything?

Probably not everything. But some think that a lot of political ideology is determined by genetics. Before linking to the article, I want to give you a heads up that it's on Playboy.com. So you might want to hold off clicking it if you're at work. Anyway, here is the NSFW article. The whole thing is fascinating. I wanted to focus on a few parts and give my personal experience as it relates to it:

Getting down to particulars, Alford and Hibbing found that people tended to be either “absolutist” (suspicious of groups that challenged the prevailing social order, seeking unity for their own particular group, desirous of strong leadership, unbendingly moral, willing to tolerate inequality and pessimistic about human nature) or “contextualist” (tolerant toward those challenging groups; less focused on rules; suspicious of hierarchies, certainties and strong leadership; and optimistic about human nature). As Alford and Hibbing put it, “All of these vexing perennial dichotomies are related cultural expressions of a deep-seated genetic divide,” and “the prospects for eliminating this divide are not promising.” In effect, part of the nation’s political polarization then and now was and is a result not of rationally argued philosophical differences but of genetics.

If you read the first page you will recognize that the absolutist group is conservatives. I often talk about how modern conservatives are very tribal and form their identities around religious and cultural norms, which in turn becomes their political identity. Thus when you criticize their political beliefs they take it personally. I think this confirms my assessment. And for most of my life, I fit into this group, though not fully or completely.

But as I got older and went off to college I shifted towards the contextualist group, which are the liberals. And currently I'm more fully in this group than I ever was in the absolutist one. I would like to believe that is because I thought carefully about life and political philosophy in general. I did take a lot of classes on those issues and thought about them at length. But did I come to the liberal conclusions because I rejected my fundamental genetic makeup? Or was my genetic makeup set up to accept those conclusions to begin with? Even with the research being done it's hard to say. Here is something else I found interesting:

Other studies, conducted by James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego with a graduate student named Christopher Dawes, indicated that the likelihood of voting was partly inherited and traced it to an individual gene that helps the brain synthesize molecules needed to reabsorb serotonin, which is released by stress. The idea is that people who can handle stress better are more likely to withstand the stresses of political participation.

I don't view many things as stressful, at least not political things. For instance, I had a job interview today and the interviewer asked if I supported medical marijuana. Without hesitation I said yes and gave reasons. The more stressful aspect of the interview was interacting with strangers. But do I tend to view things like voting as not stressful because my brain is good at handling it? I think so because the things I do find stressful can later be rationalized as not that big of a deal, things I shouldn't have been stressed about. So I think there is a lot of genetics going on when we talk about stress. Though I'd have to hear from people who don't participate in politics to know if there is a link between participation and stress.

MRI studies of the brain have even shown that liberals and conservatives evaluate information using different neural pathways. Looking at brain chemistry, Fowler and Dawes have found that a gene affecting the amount of dopamine in our brains may give a person not only a nudge toward political participation but also a nudge toward liberalism. One scholar, Rose McDermott, is even working on the relationship of testosterone to political conflict.

I don't have anything to add to this. I just think it's really freaking cool. I might have to get an MRI.

The article closes with a few different points of view on the central question of the article, whether we are wired to be conservative. They all make good points. I'm not sure how much further this type of research can go in explaining politics. But I think it's very fascinating and worthy of more attention.

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