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.