signup now
The Weird World Of Biopolitics
  • February 21, 2012 : 20:02
  • comments

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.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
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