Monday, October 17, 2011

Do genetic and environmental factors determine political orientation?

So often we see the truth of something, even talk or write about it, but don't fully realize the implications. And for me the implications of an idea which I have accepted for quite some time are finally, I think, sinking in. I'm talking about the idea that our - for want of a better word - ideological propensities (and perhaps values in general) are in large part determined by genetic and environmental factors.

Late last year and earlier this year there was a lot of publicity about a particular study (associated with the actor Colin Firth) concerning correlations between brain structure and political orientation. A paper detailing the results was published in April 2011 in Current Biology, and I had been meaning to have a close look at it, and perhaps to trace reactions and interpretations with a view to forming my own opinion on what it all might mean.

The study found that the gray matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex was generally greater amongst university students identifying as liberal or left wing, while the right amygdala was larger in those who identified as conservative or right wing.

Predictably, a lot of nonsense was written by journalists and bloggers on the significance and implications of this piece of research - much of it along the lines that conservatives are less evolved!

It goes without saying that our knowledge of how brain structure and brain activity relate to thought and behavior is very limited. Research into these areas is at a very early stage and this study is a small piece of a very large and largely incomplete jigsaw puzzle. What the study does do, however, is to provide evidence that our political propensities are correlated to brain structures, which in itself is a profoundly important result. What it does not do is to validate value judgements about specific political propensities.

As the authors of the study point out, their research extends previous findings which related certain kinds of brain activity to political attitudes. Reference is also made to a study of twins which indicates that genetics plays a significant role in determining political views, and to other studies which have focused on the interaction between genetics and the social environment. "For example," the authors write, "political orientation in early adulthood is influenced by an interaction between a variant of a dopamine receptor gene linked with novelty seeking and an environmental factor of friendship."

Though not mentioned by the authors, research on birth order has thrown significant light on these issues. As I noted in a post last year, first-borns have been found to score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation; later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. But, apparently, this pattern holds only within (rather than across) families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects.

All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that genetic and environmental factors play a big role in determining an individual's political orientation - and this is a hugely significant fact. When we engage in political (or similar kinds of) discussion and debate, we can no longer assume that we are dealing with people who - at least potentially - think like us. We all know from experience that such debate is usually (always?) futile, and at last, perhaps, we are beginning to understand why.

It is all very depressing for anyone who has been committed to the value of discussion and debate about values and politics. I want to face the implications of these findings head on. What consequences flow from them? Is ideological discussion a waste of time?

I'm still thinking about it.