The ‘liberal gene’ reconsidered

What if I told you that a single one of your genes and your high school popularity could predict your political persuasion? Faster than you can say, “liberalism is a birth-defect,” people are reading what they want into a new study.

Fox News explains the research:

A new study has concluded that ideology is not just a social thing; it’s built into the DNA, borne along by a gene called DRD4. Tagged “the liberal gene,” DRD4 is the first specific bit of human DNA that predisposes people to certain political views, the study’s authors claim.

And the key to it all: Liberals are more open, said lead researcher James H. Fowler, a professor of both medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Fox News goes on to quote Fowler as saying: “The way openness is measured, it’s really about receptivity to different lifestyles, for example, or different norms or customs.” Then he describes their hypothesis: “Individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal.” (But only if they had a number of friends when growing up, he cautioned.)

So, according to Fowler, a delicate dance between genes and environment can determine one’s political affiliation over time. I think this conclusion gets things mostly right — but probably for the wrong reasons.

Weird science

We should be skeptical of this particular study — both the methodology behind it and the way it has been covered by the media. Like a Gestalt picture or Rorschach blot, partisan liberals and conservatives alike will see what they want in the study depending on, well, their predispositions. But whether one uses the study to razz his friends or pat himself on the back, listen: there’s a gadfly buzzing around Fowler’s research.

First, Fowler’s team seems to accept political caricatures that — while they may vaguely resemble America’s two parties — don’t resemble real individuals. People’s actual views can be category killers. Labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are almost meaningless unless you’re prepared to go into something deeper than group identification and political team sports. (Take it from a libertarian who butts heads daily with other libertarians on a lot of issues: the conservative/liberal dichotomy is pretty anemic.)

What should we make of Lou Dobbs, for example? Lou and I can’t both be “centrists.” And yet neither of us is a modern liberal or a conservative. It turns out that political commitments can be multi-dimensional and escape a simple left-right duality. That’s one reason David Nolan formulated his famous multi-dimensional chart. Yet even Nolan’s chart does a poor job of pegging people on certain relevant dimensions. I’d venture to guess Fowler’s assumptions don’t leave much room for category killers like Dobbs, Dave Barry, and Angela Merkel.

That leads us back to Fowler’s stated hypothesis:

[I]ndividuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal.

Okay, so that might reasonably cover the politics of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. But it leaves out a whole host of other concerns — from globalization to market freedom to government entitlements. Is Fowler seriously committed to the idea that a novelty-seeking propensity explains why so-called “progressives” support higher taxes? Minimum wages? Wealth redistribution? The curtailment of global trade?