A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an op-ed citing a recent study on the political beliefs of identical and fraternal twins. Oddly, twin studies are generally eschewed by lots of folks on the left-hand side of the ideological spectrum when they are used to try to figure out how much genes contribute to differences in IQ. But let's set that aside and focus the remarkable results reported here.
The op-ed, "How Much Do Our Genes Influence Our Political Beliefs?" by Columbia University journalism professor Thomas Edsall is actually quite interesting. Edsall is reporting the results of several twin studies that find that there is a heritable component to such personality attributes as conservatism, religiousness, authoritarianism, and traditionalism. Edsall reports that one study…
…comparing identical and fraternal twins [found] that "the correlation between religious importance and conservatism" is "driven primarily, but usually not exclusively, by genetic factors." The substantial "genetic component in these relationships suggests that there may be a common underlying predisposition that leads individuals to adopt conservative bedrock social principles and political ideologies while simultaneously feeling the need for religious experiences."
From this perspective, the Democratic Party — supportive of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the primacy of self-expressive individualism over obligation to family — is irreconcilably alien to a segment of the electorate. And the same is true from the opposite viewpoint: a Republican Party committed to right-to-life policies, to a belief that marriage must be between a man and a woman, and to family obligation over self-actualization, is profoundly unacceptable to many on the left.
Edsall quotes Harvard University evolutionary psychologies Steven Pinker:
Pinker contends that "an acknowledgment of the possibility of genetic differences is a game-changer for countless specific issues. If people differ genetically in conscientiousness, intelligence, and other psychological traits, then not all differences among people in social and economic outcomes are automatically consequences of a rigged system."
And Edsall quite correctly concludes:
Why are we afraid of genetic research? To reject or demonize it, especially when exceptional advances in related fields are occurring at an accelerating rate, is to resort to a know-nothing defense. A clear majority of those involved in the study of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology are acutely aware of the tarnished research that produced racist, sexist and xenophobic results in the past. But as the probability of a repetition of abuses like these diminishes, restrictions on intellectual freedom, even if they consist only of psychological barriers, will prove counterproductive. We need every tool available to increase our understanding of our systems of self-governance and of how we came to be the political animals that we are.
Still, it bears noting that whatever constitutes traditionalism, conservatism and so forth, the attitudes of the American electorate have shifted dramatically toward greater tolerance with regard to how racial minorities, women, drug use, and now, even same-sex marriage are viewed over the past half century. Genes didn't change, yet political beliefs did.
The whole op-ed is worth reading.
For more discussion in this vein, see my critical review, "Different Races Exist. So What?" of Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.
Hat tip Genetic Literacy Project.