Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Genetics and political orientation: some further thoughts

Let us assume that - as the research (which I discussed briefly in a previous post) seems to indicate - our political and other values are heavily influenced by genetic and genetic/environmental factors and even reflected in brain structures. What consequences flow from this?

First of all, it will make one skeptical about one's own political beliefs and values. As with someone 'born into' a particular religion, skepticism is definitely called for. But, just as my being born into a particular religion does not mean that the doctrines of that particular religion are necessarily false, so my having a genetic predisposition to believe or value certain things does not mean that these things are not true or valuable.

Even if our political beliefs were completely determined, this would not necessarily reflect on their truth, rightness, viability, plausibility - on their value and worth in other words. But are value and worth matters which can be objectively assessed?

I would suggest that the policy prescriptions of the right or the left or any other political perspective or orientation can be assessed in various ways. Whether particular methods or policies work in practice can be tested (and history can be seen as a record of such experiments). Science can be brought to bear on factual matters, from biology to economics. But basic values - such as whether to value equality over prosperity and individual freedom, etc. - seem not to be amenable to objective assessment.

Another lesson one might draw from the research is that people are different - every brain is unique, of course, but there are also differences which reflect general patterns of thought; and consequently changing someone's mind about a deep ideological issue will not be achieved simply by setting out a logical argument. Of course conversions occur, and people change their own minds (though often, as one of the commenters on the linked post said, as a result of much reading and reflection).

But presumably conversions occur when the new ideology is compatible with underlying brain structures, in other words when elements of that ideology are already present in a latent form. Given the research results, unconscious constraints and unconscious proclivities and tendencies clearly shape the possibilities for individual belief and orientation.

Knowing this, one would not try to convert everybody to one's own way of thinking, but rather accept that many would not be able (without major mental re-engineering) to value the things one values and so think the way one thinks about social issues. One would concentrate on those whose basic values were compatible with whatever social philosophy one was seeking to promote.

Unfortunately, much argument and debate is entered into with the assumption that we all have a more or less identical faculty which we call 'reason' - a kind of logic machine in our heads which determines our views. But - leaving aside areas like mathematics and formal logic - this is not the case. Our thinking is bound up with feeling and with (often unconscious) values. The research results undermine the view that debate and adversarial discussion are truth-seeking activities. There could be a more limited role for discussion, however, in helping those who have certain predispositions to develop a conscious and coherent social philosophy which accords with those predispositions.

It would be nice if we could have a workable dual or multi-choice social, political and economic system, so that we could all just gravitate towards the option we prefer; but unfortunately capitalism needs to be a universal system if it is to work properly. A dual capitalist/socialist (or free market/collectivist) system will fail because the wealth-producing (capitalist) part will always face increasing demands to subsidize the collectivist component.

In fact this is arguably what is happening today. Most Western countries, though nominally capitalist, have large public sectors which are major employers and providers of welfare. A dual (private/public) system operates in many areas of society: there are private schools and public schools, private hospitals and public hospitals, private health insurance and public health insurance, self-funded retirees and retirees on state pensions, and so on.

And - surprise, surprise - public debt is jeopardizing the future of many Western economies and threatening global prosperity.


  1. Francis Collins, in his The Language of God, cites some research that claimed to quantify the heritability of various complex personality traits. The research was based on twin studies. One of the traits was "Traditionalism," for which the heritability rate was 54%.

    It would be an interesting exercise to try quantifying the portion of content in a representative political debate that was genuine argument vice the portion that was partisan advocacy. Another interesting exercise would be to see how many agreed on which was which.

  2. This little sermon-essay appealed to some latent elements in my brain:

    I've just finished reading her volume two, "Bourgeois Dignity".

  3. CONSVLTVS, I don't know whether you could in fact quantify the various portions of content. My understanding is that it is the general direction or orientation which is (possibly) predetermined, whereas the argument itself is not.

    Haven't read Collins but was disappointed by the writings of John Polkinghorne (whom Collins refers to favorably).

  4. Interesting character, McCloskey. Describes herself as a "postmodern free-market quantitative Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian".