When deciding whether to vote red or blue, genetics is probably the last thing on your mind. But genes play a role in dictating broad political preferences, according to a recent study co-authored by Rose McDermott, professor of political science, and Peter Hatemi, associate professor of political science, microbiology and biochemistry at Pennsylvania State University.
The study, published in the journal Trends in Genetics, reviews the recent body of research relating to genetic influences on political behavior – some performed by McDermott herself – to back its claims.
It is the first systematic, cohesive examination of the impact genes have on broad political dispositions, McDermott said.
“It’s not as simple as saying if you have gene ‘x,’ you are going to be a Republican,” McDermott said. Rather, “thousands of genes” interact with environmental triggers to dictate broad predispositions that inform political tendencies.
These political tendencies, which determine our opinions about complex and divisive social and political issues, may have their roots in our genetics-guided survival traits – like reproduction and finding food. Political leanings and human survival, the study concluded, are both affected by the same genetically dictated interpersonal traits.
Modern welfare issues can be viewed as an argument over how to best share limited resources, and immigration issues are similar to primal concerns regarding the threat of out-groups, according to the study. And the question of sexual freedom is related to finding a mate and producing offspring, McDermott and Hatemi claimed in the study. In short, genetic variance may be part of what makes people hold such divergent opinions regarding modern political issues.
This theory essentially negates the idea of the same policy being best for everyone, because it recognizes that individual genetics may alter how people both frame and ultimately make political decisions, McDermott said.
The study avoids naming genetics as the sole determinant of political outlook. Its conclusions take into account social and environmental influences on political views. For example, during childhood and adolescence, the political views of a child’s parents play a much larger role than genetics in dictating political views, according to the study. Genetic influences on political views remain muted and do not reach full expression until a child leaves home, “at around 18 to 22 years of age,” McDermott said.
Research in the genetics-politics field has generated much debate among social and biological scientists. The idea that genetics affects political views has been met with “an enormous amount of resistance,” McDermott said.
“An attitude of open-minded skepticism is probably in order,” wrote Charles Cameron, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, who was not involved in the study, in an email to The Herald. “I see ‘bio-politics’ as a growth area in the future of political science, though likely it will remain a niche area and a very controversial one at that.”
Traditionally, the biological and social sciences have been “locked into their paradigms,” McDermott noted. “Early on, a lot of people working in behavior genetics didn’t think about how genes could inform complex social attitudes like politics … and most social scientists didn’t believe that biological sciences mattered at all – they thought we had overcome our evolutionary tendencies,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to admit that they’re animals.”
The disconnect between the fields of biology and political science, though, has begun to close over the course of the past decade, said John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who was also not involved in the study.
McDermott is “leading the charge” in looking at genetic influences on political behavior in systematic ways, Hibbing said. “She’s illustrating to political scientists what advantages there are to using biology-informed techniques in our studies,” he said.
McDermott noted that she and Hatemi have a “huge research agenda.” McDermott plans to continue to study the role of genetics on social behavior, particularly how biological underpinnings relate to individual expressions of aggression.