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March 13, 2014 1:24 PM Biology and Politics

By Ed Kilgore

If, like me, you try to expose yourself at least once a day to a “deep read” relevant to contemporary news, I recommend Chris Mooney’s review in the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly of two books on the possible biological origins of ideological differences.

One book is a collection of insights from the sciences on political behavior written by political scientists John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford; the other is more of a heavily documented manifesto by an evolutionary biologist Avi Tuschman. Mooney assesses their impact on him in an interesting way:

Hibbing, Smith, and Alford, a team of researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Rice University who have published some of the most penetrating research on left-right differences in recent years, provide a lively and amusing tour of the landscape. But they mostly just walk up to and peer at the overriding question of why these apparently systematic left-right differences exist in the first place. Their explanation for the “origin of subspecies,” as they put it, is tentative at best. Tuschman, by contrast, has written a vast and often difficult book that attempts nothing less than a broad evolutionary explanation of the origins of left-right differences across countries and time—and does so by synthesizing such a huge body of anthropological and biological evidence that it’ll almost bury you. Whether the account deserves to be called merely thought-provoking or actually correct, though, will be up for other scholars to evaluate—scholars like Hibbing, Smith, and Alford.

Now like a lot of people, I’m open to the insights of science about all sorts of human behavior, including political behavior (or maybe that’s just because I am a liberal biologically predisposed to be open to unsettling scientific findings). But I’m also suspicious of the often-totalitarian assertions of evolutionary biologists, perhaps because they were so disastrously misapplied in the “scientific racism” of the early twentieth century, and are today trotted out regularly to defend the immutability of traditional gender roles. The Hibbing/Smith/Alford exegesis of what we “know” about the genetic basis of political ideology is not all that disturbing:

As Hibbing et al. explain, the evidence suggests that around 40 percent of the variation in political beliefs is ultimately rooted in DNA. The studies that form the basis for this conclusion use a simple but powerful paradigm: they examine the differences between pairs of monozygotic (“identical”) twins and pairs of dizygotic (“fraternal”) twins when it comes to political views. Again and again, the identical twins, who share 100 percent of their DNA, also share much more of their politics.
In other words, politics runs in families and is passed on to offspring. Hibbing and his coauthors suspect that what is ultimately being inherited is a set of core dispositions about how societies should resolve recurring problems: how to distribute resources (should we be individualistic or collectivist?); how to deal with outsiders and out-groups (are they threatening or enticing?); how to structure power relationships (should we be hierarchical or egalitarian?); and so on. These are, of course, problems that all human societies have had to grapple with; they are ancient. And inheriting a core disposition on how to resolve them would naturally predispose one to a variety of specific issue stances in a given political context.

If 40% of the variation in political beliefs is rooted in DNA, another 60% isn’t, which strikes me as a reasonably large area for individual autonomy, personal circumstances (e.g., economic class) or even reason and persuasion to play a role. But evolutionary biologist Tuschman probably would not agree:

“Political orientations are natural dispositions that have been molded by evolutionary forces,” [Tuschman] asserts. If he’s right, a dramatic new window opens on who we are and why we behave as we do.

Well, if one window opens, quite a few others close. I don’t see how a genetic determinism position on political dispositions can account for sudden generational changes within particular “herds,” or for rather large geographical differences that can only be papered over by broad assertions about “conservatism” and “liberalism.” But then I haven’t read Tischman; perhaps I will undertake this as a Lenten self-challenge (presumably reflecting my biological predisposition to religiosity).

Mooney is rather strangely sanguine about the potential offered by the “science of politics” to change politics itself:

In the end, what’s so stunning about all of this is the tremendous gap between what scholars are learning about politics and politics itself. We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other.
To see politics as Hibbing, Smith, Alford, and Tuschman see it, by contrast, is inevitably to want to stop fighting so much and strive for some form of acceptance of political difference. That’s why, even though not all of the answers are in place yet, we need their line of thinking to catch on. Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and probably a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a much better way to live with it.

This is another way of saying we all need to recognize that our arguments with each other are largely gibberish disguising forces we cannot change, in ourselves and in others. Chris Mooney seems to think that is a prescription for greater civility in politics. I think it would more likely lead to an even greater reliance on brute force as we seek to overwhelm other “herds” in our struggle for the future of the species.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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