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The Weird World Of Biopolitics
  • February 21, 2012 : 20:02
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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.

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read more: News, politics, magazine, issue march 2012


  • Anonymous
    That's a mold-beraker. Great thinking!
  • Anonymous
    Both liberal and crnaeovstives want clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. The difference comes in their basic philosophies. Liberals believe the government should get involved and fix the environment through a series of laws. The want to tax polluters. They want to cut back on our use of energy. They want the government to put controls on how many miles our cars must get per gallon of gas. They want to join Kyoto and place stops on our industrial growth.Conservatives believe that we can still grow and let the free market find the solutions for our environmental problems. We will have more gasoline efficient cars when the public buys them. We will have biofuels, oilgae, etc. when the free market makes it economically viable. People will start producing mini refineries in their back yard to produce bio-diesel and all sorts of things in our future that we cannot imagine today. Many of our legislative actions will be counterproductive to the creativity of human ingenuity.Therefore conservative don't even want to believe that global warming exists. If they admit it exists then they would have to do something about it and that would be contrary to their basic philosophy of allowing free market capitalism to run its own course.
  • Anonymous
    Perhaps I shouldn't have pshuilbed something I wrote over a year ago without at least giving it a second glance. Whoops! It is, no doubt, far too simplistic in its attempt to define a political dichotomy, but I thought I was being obvious enough that I was painting with broad strokes here.While I should hold firm to my conclusion—no law can change the hearts of men—I'll note that I agree with all three of those points. Ironically enough, your basic argument is a non-sequitur.Certainly the law can reveal and increase sin, but the relevant effect here is to prove the need for a savior. The law itself is not doing the changing; it is merely revealing the urgent need for an outside agent that can perform such a change.And while the law also constrains evil—I wouldn't use the word restrain here, and we'll see why in a minute—it still doesn't follow that this is changing the evildoers heart. If a person would not head in the direction that the law forbids without the law, then the law would not be necessary. The mere fact that the law continues to exist and constrain evil only shows that evil continues regardless of the law.Your third point does no better of a job of proving that law can change a man's heart. Law is a guide, yes! I'll agree. This is why I used the word constrain earlier. The law is passive; it does not act. In order for a heart to change, an agent must be able to act upon it. A heavy-handed bureaucracy is not even close to a suitable outside agent.While one of the chief roles of government certainly is to be an arbiter of justice, this in no way requires government to dictate a moral code to its people and attempt to mold them thusly in order to fulfill its obligation.I don't consider myself a staunch libertarian, and certainly not a Libertarian. I'd say I'm a libertarian conservative. Even so, I think you've got libertarianism wrong here, Dave, and I think we stand to learn a lot from libertarians. Libertarianism is strong enough to wield the sword and arbitrate justice both because, at its core, libertarianism is about protecting the rights of the sovereign individual. A libertarian would tell you that to act against another person through force—be it violence, coercion, or theft—violates their rights as a sovereign individual, and there are mechanisms in contract law and through the legal system that should be used to deal with this.We could admit to playing semantics here by saying that, really, any law which says one thing is good and another is bad is defining a sort of moral ethic. The difference between libertarianism and what we have now, though, is a difference in kind rather than degree. A purely libertarian set of laws would include nothing that says, in effect, You are forbidden to do this because it's bad for you. You see, that's not the government's job. That's the Church's job, and the responsibility of your friends and family that know and love you. Government does not love you, and it does not care for your well-being. It is irresponsible to conclude otherwise. To have your community vote to pass laws that demand you behave for your own well-being, rather than actually invest the time with you personally in an attempt to affect the proper change, reveals a stunning lack of love and a reckless use of government force against you.One last note, in response to the pro-life comment: libertarianism isn't anarchy. A such, laws still exist, but they are meant for the protection of the individual person from external forces. You cannot perform an abortion because it is a terminal violent act against another person without their consent. One cannot murder a person outside the womb for the very same reason.My whole purpose for this blog post was to make the statement that a minimum of laws are fully necessary, but the design of each law should be viewed in the light that it is meant to construct a civilized system in which we can freely live with an assurance of the justice which those laws provide. (We know that justice denied is tyranny– regardless of the effect.) I don't need politicians trying to help me be a better man and weighting me down with all manner of rules and regulations in an effort to achieve such an ever-shifting goal.Reply