Monday, August 31, 2015

Ideological Divides IV – Biology


This is the fourth instalment of the Ideological Divides series; click here to read the first instalment, here to read the second, and here to read the third.

Our biology as a shaping influence of political beliefs and behaviours might seem incongruous, and it is not something that has been contemplated for long. In the past, social forces, childhood environment/s and parental influence were considered primary reasons of whether we became liberal (progressive, left) or conservative. Nor it seems are our beliefs merely the result of rational responses to the world at large as a new body of evidence suggests there is more at play. While researchers have successfully found biological links to personality, mental disorders, alcoholism and even diabetes to name a few, political science as a field seemed too detached.

The connection began in 1986 with a study suggesting that genes affected our attitudes toward topics such as immigration, abortion and war. Using classical behavioural-genetics techniques, Nicholas Martin a geneticist at Queensland’s Institute of Medical Research used twins to show that genes made a significant difference in shaping social attitudes. Fast forward to early 2000’s and Martins work was re-analysed again using twins, this time in the U.S. by Hibbing and Alford of Rice University in Texas. In 2005, their findings were published and again demonstrating significant correlations to the 1986 studies. Others in the U.S. became interested with more studies at the University of California and Pennsylvania State University using twins from many other western nations confirming the findings.

The studies were never deemed definitive and critics are plenty, including Jeremy Freese of North-western University in Illinois, commenting that the studies show, “implausibly large” impacts from individual genes, adding that the research was published in political science journals rather than scientific journals therefore any likely deficiencies of the findings might have escaped proper scientific scrutiny.

The bottom line is that it may be too early or premature to outline conclusive arguments on the genetics of politics in the absence of further research however; personality does have a connection and a biological basis. Openness to change is the first of five (5) core traits that a person possesses in the Five Factor model of personality, the others being, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Many political psychologists agree that openness to change is more prevalent amongst members of the left or progressives who are more accepting of social change, they can tolerate more ambiguity and uncertainty than conservatives whom are more conscientious and attracted to order. Little wonder that members of the left are more likely to embrace changing the marriage act (same-sex marriage), favour immigration while conservatives focus on border protection, national security and a strong military.

I feel certain that future research will find evidence of a biological basis in politics and ideology but we may be decades away from a conclusive account detailing all factors in addition to, and including biology that determines our political thinking. In the interim, it pays to appreciate the complexity of the human being, to be civil and accepting of others views when engaging in any political debate about the issues because if anything, research is suggesting that our differences have an innate origin which ensures that we all experience the world and life differently.