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Tilting at Windmills

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December 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

VOTING GENES....In a recent study of twins, three researchers found that voter turnout has very high heritability. This is unsurprising, since twin studies find that loads and loads of personality traits have some amount of heritability. However, since twin studies have some methodological weaknesses, the results aren't universally accepted even when lots of studies show the same thing.

However, over at The Monkey Cage today, John Sides notes that two of the researchers have now gone further and actually located the genes that they think are responsible for this result:

The authors find that the MAOA gene increases the likelihood of voting by 5 percentage points. The 5HTT gene increases the likelihood of voting by 10 points in interaction with an environmental factor, religious attendance. I note that only to preempt fears of genetic determinism, not to detract from this interesting finding.

I doubt very much that fears of genetic determinism will be much allayed by this caveat, but we'll see. Note also that, according to the authors, these are the first results to ever link specific genes to political behavior, so we should wait for followup studies before drawing any firm conclusions. Interesting stuff nonetheless.

Next up: A new study shows that the GWB43 gene increases propensity to vote for Republicans, while the HRC2 gene produces budding young Democrats. You read it here first.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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a gene that increases political participation?

i'm introducing a referendum to have carriers disenfranchised.

now if i can just round up the votes to get it passed....

Posted by: kid bitzer on December 10, 2007 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

I have serious doubts about studies like this.

If a given gene is more common in a particular ethnic group that has a lot of power in a society, you'll see people with that gene vote. And if the same gene is associated with a disenfranchised minority group, you'll see people with that gene vote less. But the gene isn't causing people to vote more, or vote less; it's just associated with people who vote more or vote less for other reasons.

Or to repeat a common phrase that remains true despite its abuse by defenders of tobacco companies, correlation is not causation.

Posted by: Joe Buck on December 10, 2007 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Australia has the right idea. Mandate voting.

Posted by: Boronx on December 10, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Mandate voting.

Will we also mandate that the voters inform themselves before they get to the polling place? Forcing the intentionally ignorant to vote cannot improve a democracy.

Posted by: freelunch on December 10, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

"Australia has the right idea. Mandate voting."

australia is all one giant clone?

Posted by: kid bitzer on December 10, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Australia has the right idea. Mandate voting.

I dunno. This is pretty hard to enforce, no? I mean most states mandate auto insurance and there's, what, 15% average non-compliance. Doesn't sound like a good idea to me.

Posted by: marcel on December 10, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

In the Australian system, you are only required to present yourself at the polling place and submit a ballot. What you do with with that ballot is your own business. You can leave it blank, write free form poetry etc. Penalty, when enforced, is a small fine, like a parking ticket. Around 90% turnout or better. Of course we place such a high value on personal freedom here (except when we don't) the Australian system strikes us as an abuse of liberty.

Posted by: tonktonk on December 10, 2007 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Mandated voting probably wouldn't be Constitutional, but it certainly could be enforced. Auto insurance can also be enforced, but there are policy reasons why it might not be a good idea.

In any case, 15% non compliance would be a great turnout in most elections.

Posted by: Boronx on December 10, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

I have it mind that voter stupidity is genetically encoded as well, associated with a high tolerance for corn products, turgid rhetoric, and living in flat places. And then there is the genetically encoded Sunday-come-to-Meeting aggregation behavior...

Posted by: anon on December 10, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

I don't know where you got your information, but the HRC2 gene has been positively linked to homosexuality in men. The GWB43 gene just seems to be completely useless.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on December 10, 2007 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

I for one welcome our genetically voting overlords.

Posted by: absent observer on December 10, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

"...interaction with an environmental factor, religious attendance..."

Sorry... the tendency to regularly attend religious services has itself been shown to be genetically determined... [and evidence for the linkage is pretty solid].

We are just animals... we obey the same rules.

Denial of this simple biological fact and/or the tendency to stampede off and exploit genetically induced differences in destructive ways are the root cause of our problems (including survival as a species).

With only 10-15% of the world population even 'semi-rational' [atheist] there's not much chance of fixing it. Bummer, that.

Posted by: Buford on December 10, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

I can just see it now - Karl Rove will be taking upper level biochemistry courses so that he can learn how to develop a vaccine which will work to insert a particular gene sequence into all adult DNA and thereby transform 100% of the electorate into republicants.

And all this done with no embryonic stem cells!

Posted by: optical weenie on December 10, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

John Sides: "The authors find that the MAOA gene increases the likelihood of voting by 5 percentage points. The 5HTT gene increases the likelihood of voting by 10 points in interaction with an environmental factor, religious attendance. I note that only to preempt fears of genetic determinism, not to detract from this interesting finding."

That's great. Perhaps now some scientists can now look for a corrolation between carriers of the gene that can cause cystic fibrosis, and a Southern white male's propensity to succumb to race-baiting and repeatedly vote against his own long-term economic interests.

I will respectfully disagree with Mr.Sides. Sometimes, there is such a thing as seeking too much detail, which in turn supports the time-honored supposition that certain things in life are still best left to chance.

This dubious scientific quest is clearly one of those "sometimes." Two questions come immediately to mind:

(1) Do we really need to identify the specific gene and / or chromosome that controls one's ability to think for oneself?

(2) If the answer to (1) is in the affirmative, how does a free and democratic society therefore mitigate the potential -- no, make that "likelihood" -- that one day in the future, malevolent intent might spur an effort to alter genetically for political and / or economic purposes, the very manner in which an individual human being thinks, judges and acts accordingly?

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 10, 2007 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, these conclusions are probably crap. But ignoring that for the time being:

Why on Earth do people seem to think that environmental determinism is less threatening to personhood than genetic determinism?

Determinism is determinism. If it's true, then we're just robots. It doesn't matter whether it's our genes or our environment or some combination of the two or some other thing that's running the show.

Oh...but determinism is false, of course. This is what our best current physics tells us, needless to say.

Though, of course, randomness is no better. In fact, it is, if anything, a bigger threat to personhood.

Funny how eager some folks are, though, to give up freedom on the shakiest evidence.

Posted by: Winston Smith on December 10, 2007 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Booga Booga!

Posted by: Mendel on December 10, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

They found the gene for voting? No 5HTT!

Posted by: BrianInAtlanta on December 10, 2007 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Donald from Hawaii: I'd like to know which specific gene that controls my ability to think for myself - so that I can turn it on!

As for the chromosome that controls the male species' ability to think - doesn't the Y chromosome have something to do with mucking of the metabolism of cognitive thought?

Posted by: optical weenie on December 10, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

No, HRC2 produces NEW Democrats -- formerly known as liberal Republicans.

Posted by: Forrest on December 10, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Winston, what's the difference between randomness and free will to an outside observer? Why can't we say that an electron has free will instead of being random?

Posted by: Boronx on December 10, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Genes cannot be divorced from their broader genetic context, the rest of the genome, or from the environment. They are statistically related and associated using probabilities. Genetic determinism only exists in the minds of those who don't understand the rather "ecological" nature of genes and their networks. Every trait has some genetic component, but none are entirely determined.

Without reading more I guess it is enough to say the study mentioned is not very rigorous. The idea that going to church is an environmental factor is just silly. The authors don't seem to understand what the E in their model really means.

Posted by: bellumregio on December 10, 2007 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Ooohh... That was a groaner.

Posted by: Scott Herbst on December 10, 2007 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

The 5HTT gene, also known as SLC6A4, is a serotonin transporter. It's evidently under strong recent selection in humans: new versions have risen to high frequency in Europeans and Asians over the past few thousand years. It shows up in both the Yang-Moyzis and Voight-Pritchard selection surveys.

The study in question looks at identical and non-identical twins. In a given pair of non-identical twins, one twin might carry a given version of these gene while his twin carries another. If there is a systematic difference in some behavior associated with the particular variant carried, you suspect that it has a role in causing that difference, if the statistical power of the study is high enough.

Posted by: gcochran on December 10, 2007 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

So, to phrase it another way, the depressed, antisocial, impulsive, and violent are less likely to vote than persons expressing transcriptionally-efficient serotonin promoter alleles. It's interesting work, but like most biopolitical scholarship it also tends to confirm what we already believe.

Posted by: WatchfulBabbler on December 10, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

I can just see it now - Karl Rove will be taking upper level biochemistry courses so that he can learn how to develop a vaccine which will work to insert a particular gene sequence into all adult DNA and thereby transform 100% of the electorate into republicants.

Well, as gcochran just said, 5HTT is a serotonin transporter, and furthermore, MAOA is a monoamine oxidase, which means it breaks down serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (and melatonin, but I'm not sure what that has to do with the rest). Combinations of those neurotransmitter pathways are the target of every single antidepressant drug, and many other psychiatric medications as well. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors were the first antidepressants on the market.

So unless I'm misreading this, widespread use of antidepressants could decrease voter turnout, perhaps because of the suppressed emotional response to individual candidates and issues. They've certainly made me less likely to vote, but it's more of a "we're all fucked anyway" sort of feeling, and I think that may be the anticonvulsants at work. Suffice to say that at some point recently my apathy overtook my paranoia - probably when I fully realized that we were having a Serious National Debate about whether waterboarding is torture. I have a pretty uneasy relationship with reality, but we're so far into the surreal now that I just find it all funny (in a sick way, of course). Either I'm hallucinating all of this, or a lot of other people need medication much worse than I do.

On the other hand, psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin flood the brain with monoamine neurotransmitters, so maybe if the entire country takes a hit of acid first thing in the morning on voting day, we'll see some positive changes in government. Somehow this seems counterintuitive to me, but I'll let you know how well it works in eleven months. I suspect this is what Matt Taibbi does already, so I'm probably on the right track.

Posted by: Nat on December 10, 2007 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

Boronx,

To say that S performs some action A freely is more like saying that S is in control of his performance of A, or that he is the ultimate source of A. If A happens randomly, it's not even really S's action, but rather something that just happens to S.

Even if it was impossible to tell the difference between free action and randomness from the outside (whatever 'outside' means here), there would, presumably, still be an internal difference.

These issues are extraordinarily complicated, though. No way to really do them justice on a blog...

Posted by: Winston Smith on December 10, 2007 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

optical weenie: "I'd like to know which specific gene that controls my ability to think for myself - so that I can turn it on!"

Touché!

optical weenie: "As for the chromosome that controls the male species' ability to think - doesn't the Y chromosome have something to do with mucking of the metabolism of cognitive thought?"

I'm not too sure about that, but it's certainly as good an explanation as any for my migraines.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 10, 2007 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Decades of Republican inbreeding has obviously shrunk their gene pool.

Republicans should stop asking people about their church and party affiliations before agreeing to have sex -- you know, take a walk on the wild side once in a while, sow some wild oats. It'll give Bob Dole & Co. something productive to do with their 7 hour Viagra boners.

If Virginia goes Democratic next year with the election of Sen. Mark Warner will that be on account of Blue Genes?

If you have designs on the White House do you have Designer Genes?

Was the gene that caused people to vote for Eugene McCarthy called the Gene Gene?

Posted by: pj in jesusland on December 10, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Your naming needs some work, either HRC1 or HRC44 seems more reasonable to me.

Posted by: Nat on December 10, 2007 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

Nat has the right idea. Could also explain why we have an ex-cokehead in the white house now.

Posted by: optical weenie on December 10, 2007 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

Forcing the intentionally ignorant to vote cannot improve a democracy

After whats taken place over the last seven years it surely, I think, cant get any worse.

Posted by: Ya Know on December 10, 2007 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's in Psalms:

Blessed are the paranoid schizophrenic, for they shall inherit the ballot box.

Posted by: asdf on December 10, 2007 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

As an aside, other scientists say they have found a gene that accounts for 2% of religious feeling.

Posted by: anandine on December 10, 2007 at 8:23 PM | PERMALINK

So if you're just naturally curious about National Intelligence Estimates do you have the Gene-NIE?

And if you dream about National Intelligence Estimates is that called the, "I dream of Gene-NIE?"

OK, I'll stop now.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on December 10, 2007 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

specific genes to political behavior

Become fearful of geneticists. Or learn what genes are specific to geneticistic behavior.

Posted by: Brojo on December 10, 2007 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

"Suffice to say that at some point recently my apathy overtook my paranoia - probably when I fully realized that we were having a Serious National Debate about whether waterboarding is torture. I have a pretty uneasy relationship with reality, but we're so far into the surreal now that I just find it all funny (in a sick way, of course)."

Nat - Thank you!!! Your comment still has me laughing... Really excellent and hopefully not too painfully true.

Posted by: nepeta on December 10, 2007 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK
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