The Weird World Of Biopolitics

By Neal Gabler


Larry Arnhart has news for you, and depending on your politics, you may not like what he has to say. Arnhart is a middle-aged, Texas-born, University of Chicago–educated political science professor at Northern Illinois University and, his beard notwithstanding, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative whom many creationist conservatives nonetheless loathe, even though his message is effectively a death knell for liberalism. That’s because Arnhart believes that conservatism isn’t just another political ideology. As he sees it, conservatism is the expression of self-interested survival and self-perpetuation, which are the two hallmarks of Darwinian evolution. As such, he says, it is the political view most consistent with human nature, which gives it a kind of inevitability. “It’s generally going to prevail,” Arnhart says.

Which leads to the question: If conservatives seem to dictate America’s political agenda even when they don’t occupy the White House or control both houses of Congress, and if the country lists to the right on most issues, even when the economic self-interest of many Americans seems to lie with the left, could it be because we are, as Arnhart claims, hardwired conservative in our genes and because liberalism is some sort of aberration? And more to the point: Whether or not evolution pushes us rightward, could it be that we really don’t control our political proclivities, that we are born either liberal or conservative, that we are just playing out our genetic predispositions and there’s not much we can do about it? Needless to say, if so, it would have a revolutionary impact on our politics and our nation.

Arnhart is more of a theoretician than a social scientist, but he is a member of a new and rapidly growing movement in political science that is attempting to investigate these very questions. It is called biopolitics, and even though its practitioners vehemently deny that any single gene determines our political propensities and just as vehemently insist that genes interact in complex and as yet mysterious ways with one another and with culture, they believe that human behavior, whether we like it or not, is a product of biology as well as of culture and individual will. Biopolitical scientists have already studied the extent to which our political attitudes and our political intensity, including the likelihood that we will vote, are inherited from our parents. (The extent is large.) They have looked at the way different physiological responses seem to signal different political attitudes, the way different hormone levels influence our political involvement, the way politics instinctively affects the mate we choose even when we don’t know his or her politics directly (the answer is “a lot”) and not only whether we are born liberal or conservative but whether we are born Democrat or Republican. (We aren’t.) Some biopolitical scientists are even scouring the human genome to see if they can find distinct markers for our ideological leanings. We have always thought of ourselves as free agents when it comes to politics. These scholars are saying, “Not so fast.”

Before this new crew entered the scene, the source of our political leanings was considered pretty simple. As a prominent group of political scientists at the University of Michigan stated in their 1960 landmark study, The American Voter, the vast majority of voters shared their parents’ politics, but this was definitely not a matter of genetic inheritance. It was a matter of upbringing. You had your politics pounded into you. As one biopolitical scientist put it about the state of the old political science, “It was all environment, environment, environment.”

As early as the 1970s, the other social sciences began doing all sorts of interesting things in all sorts of new biological areas—among them, looking at the genetic components of behavior; using brain scans to see how people reacted to various situations, images and words; looking at physiological responses to stimuli and trying to draw conclusions about why individuals reacted differently; and correlating hormone levels to actions. Among the things they concluded was that a lot of human behavior had a fairly large genetic component—everything from alcoholism to neurosis to sociability. It may seem old hat to us now, when genes are widely regarded to be the source of many behaviors and predilections, including being gay, but it wasn’t until a 1980 study that a Swedish team of psychologists, using data on twin pairs, determined that what they called “psychosocial instability” and “psychosocial extraversion,” basically neurosis and gregariousness, were significantly genetic in origin and that the genetic contribution to these types had actually increased in the post–World War II period. But this wasn’t true just of extreme personality traits; it seemed to be true of all personality traits. More surprising, analysts found “there is little evidence that shared features of the environment such as parental attitudes, education and SES [socioeconomic status] play a significant part in the determination of personality.” In effect, we’re born with our personalities.

And even that wasn’t the whole story. Social scientists discovered that what was true of personality was also true of social attitudes—that is, some of these attitudes were heritable. This was especially true, they said, of attitudes toward religion and the treatment of criminals, which appeared to have a genetic factor of around 50 percent. The conclusion was that what we believe, as well as who we are, is in some measure genetically endowed.

But if personality and social attitudes are at least partly a product of biology, what about politics? In 2003 John Alford of Rice University and John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, who had been classmates in graduate school and had been practicing conventional political science for two decades, decided to see if they could find an answer to the political question. Other social scientists had used studies comparing dizygotic (fraternal) twins, who share 50 percent of their DNA, with monozygotic (identical) twins, who have virtually identical DNA, to tease out hereditary factors; the differences in agreement between the first and second groups constitute the hereditary component. This had become such a popular technique that there were tens of thousands of twin pairs in various databases around the world. Alford and Hibbing got their hands on one large database in Virginia with the hope of fingering a genetic component for political ideology from surveys the twins had taken.

What Alford and Hibbing discovered was that all the old poli-sci formulations about how political attitudes were primarily shaped early in life or by proximate occurrences such as life experiences, conversations or the media were wrong and that inheritance played at least as large and probably even larger—actually twice as large—a role as environment. They found that the estimate for the heritability of conservatism was 43 percent, while shared environment constituted 22 percent and unshared environment (the individual twins’ unique experiences) was 35 percent. The heritability component was even higher, 53 percent, when one factored out parental political agreement. In short, upbringing didn’t matter for politics any more than it did for personality—not how autocratic a parent was, how close children felt to their parents, how often the family discussed politics or how important politics was to the family. Issues didn’t matter either. What mattered most was genetics.

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.

A new study, employing a database of 20,000 twins from various countries, populations and periods, has confirmed and elaborated on those findings. It announced what it called “definitive evidence that genetic heritability has some role in the formation of political ideology,” and it concluded that the influence of these genetic factors on ideology remained uniform over places and periods, while the influence of environmental factors varied. So not only was genetics a factor in our political attitudes, it was a constant factor.

This, however, was just the beginning. 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. A later study by the same researchers indicated that political intensity was also partly genetic, in this case traceable to a gene that enhances the flow to the brain of dopamine, which has been found to affect group attachments such as the attachment one might have to a political party.

Yet another study, by John Hibbing, used a $50 skin-conductance gauge, which measures moisture levels, to test people’s reactions to various stimuli and see if there were any political correlations. Hibbing hooked his subjects up to the machine and flashed them a total of 33 images, including three disturbing ones: a large spider on a frightened person’s face, an individual with a bloody face, and an open wound crawling with maggots. He and his associates also startled the subjects with a loud noise. They discovered that there was a correlation between the nature of the subjects’ reactions to the images and sounds and their political attitudes. The subjects who reacted most demonstratively were more likely to be “conservative,” and those who reacted less dramatically were more likely to be “liberal,” though the study didn’t use those terms. The researchers surmised that people who are more sensitive to frightening stimuli are also likely to be more sensitive to threats, as conservatives generally are, and those who are less sensitive to the stimuli are likely to be less sensitive to threats, as liberals generally are.

Still another study shows that people whose skin conductance bounces up and down rather than staying steady are more likely to become involved in politics. Another shows that people who are more easily stressed than others, as measured by their levels of the hormone cortisol, are less likely to participate in politics, including voting. Yet another physiological study comparing people who are stimulated by certain “hedonic” (pleasant) images to those who are stimulated by “aversive” (disgusting) images found it makes sense that “people more attentive and responsive to hedonic stimuli would support tax dollars being spent on the arts and national parks just as it makes sense that people more attentive and responsive to aversive stimuli would advocate policies promoting moral purity and harsh treatment for norm violators.” In short, liberals are attracted to hedonic images, conservatives to aversive ones.

In one of the more bizarre recent studies, one set of subjects perspired and another set smelled the sweat and indicated whether they found the particular odor appealing. It turned out conservatives were far more likely to find the odor of other conservatives appealing than they were the odor of liberals. But the same was not true of liberals. Rather, liberals were far more likely to be attracted to the voice of other liberals, while conservatives evinced no difference in aural appeal. The researchers surmised that there must be some biological attraction between conservatives and other conservatives and liberals and other liberals—olfactory in the first case, aural in the second. Moreover, conservatives are more likely than liberals to detect the odor of the steroid androstenone, which is associated with preserving social order. Bottom line: Conservatives may have a better sense of smell than liberals, though according to one new study, odor seems to be an important indicator of politics generally.

Other studies show that political orientations correlate with all sorts of things, among them “baseline neural structures,” “neural activation in response to unexpected stimuli,” “sensitivity to threat,” “the tendency to perceive threat in faces” and “sensitivity to disgust.” 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.

Then there is the matter of what political scientists call “assortative mating,” which is their term for the nonrandom factors that attract mates to one another. Citing previous studies that found “mate pairs that are politically similar will produce a much different next generation than mate pairs that are politically dissimilar”—a fact that they trace partly to genetics—a study of twins and their spouses concluded that mates “tend to be positively but only weakly concordant on most personality and physical traits, but, James Carville and Mary Matalin aside, spousal concordance in the realm of social and political attitudes is extremely high.” Put simply, men and women seem to be more attracted to one another’s politics than to their looks or personalities. (Only religion scored higher.) Political opposites don’t attract. Liberals marry liberals, conservatives marry conservatives—a circumstance that tends to perpetuate these political orientations in the next generation.

Which brings us to the notion that conservatives dominate American politics—indeed all politics—because we are hardwired conservative in our genes. According to the argument, evolutionary genetics is basically about selfishness—about making sure we survive and reproduce ourselves—which, as Northern Illinois’s Arnhart says, is pretty close to the modern conservative philosophy of individualism, self-sufficiency and enlightened self-interest. Furthermore, as Oxford animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins has written, that desire for survival is confined to the survival of our kin and those closest to us, which may explain the conservative hostility to immigrants. It does not extend to the entire species, which if it had may have led to some form of liberalism as expressed in various programs to help others outside our kinship circles. Dawkins cites a “selfish gene,” meaning that all genes really want only to reproduce themselves. Altruism is thus limited to two situations: those in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our kin in order to keep our genes going and those in which we are willing to risk sacrificing ourselves for someone who may return the favor in order to keep ourselves going. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson suggests it could go further. It’s possible that because “people governed by selfish genes must prevail over those with altruistic genes,” he writes in On Human Nature, “there should also be a tendency over many generations for selfish genes to increase in prevalence and for a population to become ever less capable of responding altruistically.” In evolutionary terms, this doesn’t leave much room for liberalism.

So why then aren’t we all conservative? Well, culture has something to do with that. Even if culture is no longer the single defining characteristic of politics, there have been all sorts of cultural pressures that are designed to curb the worst excesses of selfishness and protect those who would otherwise be on the losing side of evolution: the poor, the weak, the ill, the outsiders. Culture shames us into being better than we have to be. And there is another mechanism, this one Darwinian, that evolutionary geneticists refer to as “hawks and doves.” According to this theory, if everyone in a society were a hawk, they would wind up killing one another off—not a particularly effective adaptive strategy. By the same token, if a society were composed entirely of doves, it would take the introduction of only a single hawk to kill off the doves, which makes being a dove not a particularly effective adaptive strategy either. The upshot is that diversity—a combination of hawks and doves—is most likely to sustain individual hawks and individual doves, and theorists have calculated the ratio between the birds that would maximize their overall survivability.

But people, while they may be hawkish or dovish, are not hawks and doves, and political survivability is not the same thing as physical survivability. It is possible that since even genetic adaptive strategies vary by situation, we may have had to temper our hawkishness as an adaptive strategy in a physical sense while making fewer concessions in a political sense, not only when it comes to war but when it comes to social welfare. In this view, hawks ride roughshod over liberals, who may exist only because those hawkish conservatives often overplay their hand and threaten their own survivability. In that case, dovish liberals then become the alternative, which is why theorist John Maynard Smith said that survival strategies will always oscillate between hawks and doves. But Smith aside, if Wilson and Arnhart are right, it may be only a matter of time before conservatism, which is the natural state, reasserts itself, even more so as the cultural prohibitions against selfishness seem to be declining and selfishness is considered a social good. In other words, liberalism is some sort of vestigial response to those times when conservatism screws up, but as Arnhart and others see it, conservatism is the default ideology. In the end, it wins.

The theory sounds plausible, especially since American conservatism does seem to be the baseline ideology even as our politics oscillate, but there is plenty of disagreement about the evolutionary basis of conservative dominance, and most biopolitical scientists have their doubts. Fowler believes hardwired conservatism is a misunderstanding of evolution. It is possible, he admits, that there is an advantage to being a conservative and that not enough time has passed for conservatism to evolve into an unassailable position, biologically speaking, but it is also possible that enough time has elapsed and that diversity indicates we need both conservatives and liberals to survive. “We should have a mix of liberals and conservatives in order to be able to meet environmental challenges,” he says. Hibbing agrees, though he also admits the possibility that liberals may be an “evolutionary dead end” or a “luxury” in a modern society that may not have the same need for diversity as our ancestors did to combat immediate threats.

Pete Hatemi, a pathbreaking political scientist at Penn State University who is examining the human genome for ideological markers, thinks that Arnhart is wrong. But he thinks that Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is also wrong when he argues that cooperation is just as powerful a force as selfishness in Darwinian evolution and that this should give some hope to liberals. As Hatemi sees it, “Having an attitude, just having one, that’s where evolutionary psychology comes in, not which direction it is. If [liberalism or conservatism] were adaptive, then everyone would be liberal or everyone would be conservative,” which is obviously not the way things are. Yes, he says, people may have conservatism or liberalism in their genes, but evolution doesn’t necessarily favor one over the other. The only proof of the evolutionary superiority of conservatism or liberalism would be a society that was ideologically uniform and had been that way for generations. He doesn’t think the United States is that society. Arnhart thinks it may be close.

Whoever is right, studies show conclusively that the answer is now at least partly in biology and no longer exclusively in society, which doesn’t mean that everyone is finally convinced. Old-line political scientists still think the methodology of biopolitics is crude. Confirmed leftists are still skeptical because they think ideology is economically governed, and confirmed right-wingers are equally skeptical because they don’t want to give up the idea of free will and because they’re afraid of how they’ll be characterized in biological terms. (One study indicates that liberals have higher IQs than conservatives.) Political consultants haven’t shown much interest either, because they are paid to convince people to vote for candidates and biopolitics suggests their efforts may be futile. Indeed, as Hibbing puts it, the fact that the political divide may be unbridgeable could actually lead to more tolerance in precisely the way genetic theories about sexual preference have led to greater tolerance for gays. You can’t blame someone for being born with a different belief system than the one you were born with.

One thing is certain. Hardwired conservative or not, we have seen our political future, and it is not in voter surveys, improved political messaging, increased contributions or better political ideas. We have seen the future, and it is in the genes.


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