Monday, 4 February 2008

Politics is in the Blood ...

...or more accurately in the genes, at least according to the latest edition of New Scientist. The thesis in Jim Giles' article, 'Born that Way' is simple. Politics, according to recent research in genetics, is substantially determined by biology. As John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University, Texas, puts it, "these views are deep-seated and built into out brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be a liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes".

Coming up with biological determinist explanations for human behaviour is nothing new. But what is original are the increasingly intricate and complex "scientific" arguments deployed to make these claims. Suspending judgement for the moment, let's take a look at the research Giles reviews. Beginning with Alford, his determinist arguments seem backed up by plenty of evidence. He asked a sample of 30,000 twins a set of political questions and found identical twins were more likely to give the same answer than non-identical pairs. Therefore the answer to this pattern must lie in genetics, Alford claims.

Given the different timescales biological evolution and politics operate on how can there plausibly be a connection between the two? Frank Sulloway of the University of California at Berkeley says genes shape personality, and certain personality types correlate with political positions. John Jost's overview of 88 studies on political opinion, for example, establishes that if an individual is outgoing and something of a thrill-seeker, they're more likely to be a liberal. Giles also claims the five basic personality traits discerned by psychologists (conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) are highly inheritable from parent to child.

How this genetic programming works is what neuroscientists James Fowler and David Amodio are trying to uncover. Fowler looks at the behaviour of the 5HTT and MAOA genes. These control serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter influencing trust and interaction. For Fowler, the better these genes are at regulating serotonin the more sociable the individual, and the more likely they are to turn out for elections. Amodio's study tested a sample of 40 people. They were required to press a button as soon as a particular letter appeared on a screen. The catch was in one in five cycles a different letter would flash up. The ability to hold back and not press the button was measured and treated as the propensity to deal with conflicting information. He found a correlation between high scores and liberal attitudes.

Giles does make an attempt to address some criticisms. Evan Charney of Duke University, North Carolina suggests a liberal bias to these studies: liberals are open-minded and willing to try new things; conservatives are stuck in a groove and prefer the familiar and the safe. The other problem is if politics are hardwired into our brains, then what's the point in debate? Alford's response is debate is worthwhile because it helps move the goal posts of debate - for example debates over racial, sexual, and LGBT equality have helped redefine the political stakes to the point where equality is tacitly accepted by the mainstream. Giles is less sanguine - his advice to politicos is "come to terms with these differences and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion figuring out ways of accommodating both points of view".

What does it say about the arrogance of this new biological determinism when it completely ignores the vast body of sociological literature on political identities, voting behaviour, and political activity? Well, it makes for bad science and flimsy claims for starters. Take for example inheritable personality characteristics, how can genetics be held as probable cause without weighing for socialisation processes? Even on the "strong" grounds of 30,000 twins, could similar political attitudes not also be the result of the specific and in many ways unique socialisation processes identical twins experience? We do not know, because the studies in question simply ignore the possibility. And what about political evolution? Every Marxist knows socialists are made - most of us have experienced the winning of new activists to our politics in the course of struggle and through political argumentation. Indeed, we ourselves may have been won to socialism this way. But the narrow case put by the determinists cannot begin to explain how people change their opinions, how, for instance, activists like myself started off in the conservative camp and ended up where I am today. Then there's the political consequences of this research - Charney may complain about the liberal bias of the studies, but there is something more pernicious going on. What they have done is provide a naturalist basis for centre ground politics, which implies the present day neo-liberal consensus is the norm and that anyone opposed to it, be they on the left or the right, are pathologically different. How convenient this is for the powers that be - they can feel smug and secure in the knowledge their brand of managerial politics is the natural order of things and their critics are driven not by a sense of injustice, but by their genetic make up.

However, one should not simply dismiss this research out of hand because it doesn't fit our politics. I'm not a geneticist. But I am a sociologist and I am convinced social scientific models of socialisation, personality/identity formation, and politicisation offer coherent enough explanations in the absence of genetic determinism. If genes do influence our politics, then it is up to the geneticists and sociobiologists to make the case with reference to existing sociological explanations. If they do not, all they offer is an ideology cobbled together on the basis of a few statistical correlations.


Neil said...

This type of research aims to prove out the neo-liberal methods of western governments that are built on game therory. This theory has been completeely debunked, even the founding father of game theroy, the paranoid John Nash, has turned his back on the theory saying that it was basically a product of his own paranoia and people are actually not just selfish individuals. However it is easy to see people as selfish indivduals if they are merely products of their genetics, and not a product of a full human experience, this is where this type of reaserch will be used - to back up the world view of neo-liberalism.

Phil BC said...

As you know Neil, I have no time for that perspective either. There have been attempts to import its rational actor/rational choice theory offshoot into my specialist area of research (on social movements) and the results have been pretty incoherent ... I remember having an argument with a "leader" in the field of political science about this and he said it holds up very well as a model when political parties enter into negotiations of coalition governments and what have you. Did we really need evidence politicians acted as selfish individuals? ;)

Just a quick observation - it tickles me how this post has attracted one other comment than this ... while the same on SU has, at the time of writing, got 29!

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Sorry, I posted at Socialist Unity as I thought there would be more discussion there. It's a bit like when we had the Militant blog and I'd double post stuff on lwc and there and there'd always be more posts on Militant due to more people visiting that blog

Bluenose said...

What happened to the Militant blog? Has it closed down?

thinking about difference said...

hm, very reminiscent about the whole discussions about how gender or race is genetically determined. it is interesting that only this deterministic discourse becomes so visible in the public sphere, while the whole argument that you cannot separate genes from environment (and more importantly, from complexity and contingency) is lost.

Phil BC said...

Don't worry LC, I'm not miffed. In fact I'm pleased my musings have attracted a lot of comment. Kind of helps you realise you might not be peddling BS after all!

Thinking, I suppose some of it comes down to the media rules I discuss in my most recent posting. If I was a geneticist and I wanted the spotlight to shine on my work, making grandiose claims is the best way of doing it.

Bluenose, the Militant blog is still sleeping. If the comrades who launched it find the time it might make a come back.

Jim Lowe Devon SP said...

I think someone on the SU blog mentioned someone called Frank Sulloway, who has also published his 'research' on the genetics and evolutionary psychology behind political persuasion. He also wrote a book which 'scientifically disproved' historical materialism.

Intrigued, I looked at his work, and found it to be laughable pseudoscience, as the field of evolutionary psychology mainly is. I am currently working on an article looking at evolutionary psychology through the prism of analysing Sulloway's ideas, I wonder if I could submit it to AVPS, and if you like it you could publish it on here?

Phil BC said...

You're more than welcome to submit a guest post here, Jim (as is any other SP/CWI comrade btw). Just try and make sure it's no more than a 1,000 words and can be followed by a lay audience.