July 1, 2022

Politics is in your genes

Studies asserting that political preferences are genetically determined are dog-whistles for the media and consequently great publicity for journals. So on cue, at the beginning of the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week, Trends in Genetics issued a press release about a highly positive review of research into genetics and political behaviour.

Studies asserting that political preferences are genetically determined are dog-whistles for the media and consequently great publicity for journals. So right on cue, at the beginning of the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week, Trends in Genetics issued a press release about a highly positive review of research into genetics and political behaviour.

“The wall that divided politics and genetics is really starting to fall apart,” says author Peter Hatemi of Penn State (currently at the University of Sydney). “This is a big advance, because the two fields could inform each other to answer some very complex questions about individual differences in political views.”

Twin studies show that genes have some influence on why people differ on political issues like the death penalty, unemployment and abortion. Future research, including gene-expression and sequencing studies, may lead to deeper insights into genetic influences on political views and have a greater impact on public policy. “Making the public aware of how their mind works and affects their political behavior is critically important,” Hatemi says. “This has real implications for the reduction of discrimination, foreign policy, public health, attitude change and many other political issues.”

Admittedly, Dr Hatemi has to overcome a lot of scepticism from social scientists. Critics talk darkly about a revolution in the meaning of humanity itself.

Much of this hostility, he believes, is due to the social scientists. “It has proven difficult for life and social scientists to enter an honest discussion about the limitations inherent in genetic work and still employ the methods in a progressive and useful manner,” he writes with his co-author, Rose McDermott, of Brown University.

The genetic link to behaviour is not due to single genes, he admits, but to a complex interplay of many of them. “There is not a gene for liberalism or any political trait.” Progress is slow, but greater sophistication will lead to greater understanding, he asserts confidently. Many of the most intractable political problems are clearly related to the grand evolutionary themes of sex and survival so there must be a genetic component.

Genetics is already having a positive impact upon public policy, they contend. The controversial 1993 “gay gene” study by Dean Hamer “had an important role in shifting elite and legal discourse” on homosexuality and later, on same-sex marriage.

Essentially, what Hatemi and McDermott foresee is cheerier form of the once-despised field of eugenics. “Turning the eugenics movement on its head, the integration of genetics and public policy has been used to help protect individuals in meaningful ways, thereby reducing health risks, promoting healthy lifestyles, and increasing tolerance for differences.” 

Michael Cook
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