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Liberal or Conservative? The Role of Genetics in Politics

Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted? That is the title of the study written by John Alford of Rice University, Carolyn Funk of Virginia Commonwealth University and John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska. Professor Hibbing and his colleagues interviewed pairs of twins in the United States to determine the extent to which their political leanings are genetically influenced. He says,“One of the things about twins is that you have two very different types. Monozygotic, frequently called identical twins, share one hundred percent of the genetic code with their co-twin. And fraternal twins share just fifty percent of the genetic code, which is similar, identical actually, to any other sibling. So this is a great research opportunity because you can look at the extent to which they share physical traits of epidemiological conditions, personality and, in this case, social and political attitudes.”

After taking into account the role of environment, which includes parental influence and other social interaction, the researchers found that identical twins are much more similar politically than fraternal twins. Additional research done in Australia and other countries indicated that these similarities are not specific to any particular region or period in history, according to Professor Hibbing, who says, “This suggests that perhaps as much as half of our political orientations and attitudes would be constituted by genetic influences.”

But many geneticists and some political scientists argue that it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to weed out inherited influences from the complex array of factors that shape human behavior. Some worry that political studies that try to figure out what percentage of a complex behavior is genetic, rather than environmental, may ultimately lead to unreliable findings, because the question is inherently unanswerable.

Columbia University political scientist David Epstein questions the study’s results, saying they only show that our tendencies to react in certain ways to certain things are inherited, but do not show that our opinions are inherited. He says, “I put very little, if any, credence in that fifty percent number. I don’t think we know anything like that about the notions of heritability and political opinion.”

Lindon Eaves, Director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics takes issue with the claim that half of peoples’ political orientations is inherited, saying that is probably too high for this type of data. The findings, he notes, are not new and should be considered merely a first step that requires far more extensive research.

Having used the same data himself several years ago to publish a paper that included twins and their siblings, parents, spouses and children of twins. Professor Eaves’ study helped clarify how much parental influence was genetic, and how much was social. He says, “My recollection is that, if anything, of all the different aspects of social attitudes, political affiliation is the one where the influence of the parents is most obviously not genetic, but rather environmental.”

Some political scientists say the article published by the American Political Science Review on heredity and political attitudes is the first to include a wide array of political variables. But most other experts, including Milton Lodge of the University of New York at Stony Brook, stress that there are no specific genes for specific political leanings, such as a gene for conservatism or one for liberalism. Rather, Professor Lodge says, political orientation typically is influenced by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors that are virtually impossible to separate. He adds, “Not even on height and weight. Right? Diet affects height, so you know that height has a genetic component. But you also know that with good nutrition you’re going to grow taller. So I think it would be impossible -- and this article supports that to single out and say this is genetic and that’s environmental.”

Some analysts point out that this type of research is not based on surveys relating to policy issues, but on immediate responses to a given situation. Although there is no firm evidence to support it, they argue that these responses are likely to be genetically based.

But Political Scientist Hibbing does not claim that the study is infallible. Science, he says, is always open to question, and should be challenged. He adds, “We could be wrong about this, but we do have evidence for it. The twin design is not perfect. It should be challenged; people should raise questions about it. But I think at first blush, sometimes people have difficulty thinking that perhaps some of their political orientation could be genetic. So I guess I would only ask people to fight this issue on the basis of the evidence as opposed to just saying it doesn’t feel like it could be true, so let’s ignore it.”

Most analysts agree that this study will probably be of little use as a political tool because it would require genetic manipulation. Some say it is not even beneficial to the scientific community, and that this type of genetic research should concentrate instead on finding solutions to common social and behavioral problems, such as substance abuse.

Others say a more useful method of influencing others is “Subliminal Priming”, which involves projecting words, pictures or messages so fast that people do not consciously realize that they have been exposed to them. This method influences the way people perceive and store information, stimulating in them an immediate response. Apart from that, scientists agree that changing a Democrat into a Republican, or a liberal into a conservative through genetic manipulation remains, at this time the stuff of science fiction.

This report was originally aired on VOA News Now's "Focus" program. For other Focus reports, click here