The ‘liberal gene’ reconsidered

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
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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?

I doubt it. There may be some other genetic determinants coupled with some other environmental factors that explain ideology. But when we start to think about economic issues — at least half of what both liberals and conservatives care about most — Team Fowler’s study loses me (at least as reported). In fact, when it comes to resources, liberals tend to be, well, conservative. Most modern liberals resist dynamism, market innovation, open trade and distributed power (markets). They are generally unwilling to trust anyone but political elites. That’s hardly “openness.”

Stone Age ethics

I’m more likely to buy evolutionary psychologists’ more general theories than a single longitudinal study. If you want to talk about genes and politics, the following has a lot more explanatory power than any single dopamine gene.

Here’s Leda Cosmides and John Tooby:

In other words, our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American — they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These Stone Age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gatherer-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands; … In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city.

So let me there be no mistake. When it comes to our ethical and political dispositions, I take my evolutionary psychology seriously. Cosmides and Tooby are pointing to something profound about the relative “appropriateness” of the Stone Age mind functioning in the context of 21st-century America.

What sorts of emotional responses can be found in social groups? Allow me to quote myself:

The late philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out that when people compare themselves to one another, they are disposed to feel one of two emotions — guilt or envy. Guilt when someone has a lower station than you; envy when someone has a higher station than you. I would add a third to this mix: indignation. That’s when you compare someone of a higher station to someone of a lower station, and feel that something is wrong. I refer to this complex of emotional responses to unequal life-stations as the “Stone Age Trinity.”

The punch line for me is that peoples who wandered for thousands of years out on the African steppe probably evolved redistributive instincts — for sharing or so-called “reciprocal altruism.” Had they not cooperated in this way, they would probably have starved. But we don’t live in small, roving clans anymore. Communes don’t scale. And food can now be traded and refrigerated. So hoarding taboos have been mitigated by new circumstances. Still, the DNA remains.

Modern liberals thus project some of their Stone Age sentiments onto our large-scale society. While many modern conservatives probably share these sharing instincts, they may have them by different degrees, or formulate different meta-theories about how best to share, and with whom. Such moralistic instincts may be stronger in some people than in others, and cross a number of other dimensions — both genetic and environmental. All of which further muddies the categories of researchers and dispels the caricatures of partisans.


How can liberals, for example, refer to the GOP as the “party of greed”? Republicans give more to charity, on average, than Democrats (30 percent more). It may be that liberals are less interested in giving and more interested in forcing others to give — a disposition easily explained by reverse-engineering the Stone Age mind. But then again, it could be groupthink; it could be ignorance; it could be philosophical differences. But as economist Donald Boudreaux writes:

To the ‘Progressive’ brain, I’m smart and kind if I am enchanted by half-baked schemes to herd and prod and tax my fellow Americans, but dumb and mean if I question the wisdom of all such collectivist plots.

What sort of evolutionary forces forged such a brain? Likewise, what sort of forces forged the minds of traders? Crusaders?

There are other reasons to be skeptical of this type of study. And yet I think we can express skepticism without saying all such research is meaningless. Indeed, Fowler is probably right about some of our social and cultural predilections — even if his assumptions miss the mark in other areas. And give Fowler credit for a great quote: “If it made sense for us all to be liberal, natural selection would have made us all liberal.” Amen. And while there is no Great Standard in the Sky by which to measure all our political dispositions, at least we have this pluralistic project called America to keep us all in check — and evolving.

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. He blogs at Ideas Matter.