"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do Genetics Determine Political Choice?

A close friend and I have differed significantly on politics for years; and although I have always thought that trust, respect, humor, energy and vitality, intellectual agility, and forthrightness were the elements at the heart of our friendship, he felt that political philosophy, the element that most defines character, must be at the core of any serious relationship.

We have gotten over our differences and are back to the friendship begun at age 12, but I have always had to admit that he had a point.  Political philosophy is very different from politics and is a corollary of moral philosophy.  One either believes in the perfectibility of man or an ineluctable, predictable destiny based on uniform, universal and hardwired human nature

There is no doubt, as Tolstoy elaborated in his Epilogue’s to War and Peace , that every act is predicated on millions of antecedents, and that Napoleon’s victories were not because of his unique brilliance, but because of the confluence of many random and predictable events, past and present. Tolstoy however never denied the dramatic historical place of Napoleon. One cannot deny the potent presence of Robespierre, Genghis Khan, or Henry VIII.  In short, the two conceptions of historical reality can co-exist.

Nietzsche said it best.  Willful expression of the individual enables him to rise above the herd in a meaningless world.  In other words, life may be nothing more than a random clacking of billiard balls and that any one individual action per se is meaningless; but the super-human effort to deny inevitability is heroic.

Greek tragedy is all about individual action set within a predestined scenario.  The tragedy is that man will always fall.  The exaltation is that he will always deny the forces arrayed against him.

Individualism, said my friend, is the problem - a corrosive force that degrades community and social integrity.  The group will always be more important than the individual.  Collective action, cooperative enterprise, and democratic agreement on norms, principles, and ethical behavior is what defines the best in man – not aggressive, self-interested, and dismissive individual enterprise.

These contrary beliefs do not simply define politics, but the way one behaves. One's  understanding of man’s relationship to God, secular institutions, society, and the geo-ecological environment are profoundly different. Our reactions to and sympathy/empathy for others is determined by a moral philosophy which either blesses and anoints others as brothers and sisters; or sees them as evolutionary competitors struggling for survival, dominance, and genetic longevity.

How did we become so different? We are both from the same socio-cultural milieu.  We both went to elite preparatory schools and universities; and although our immediate socio-cultural heritage was indeed different, there should be no reason why our political philosophy should have so dramatically diverged.

Some researchers have suggested that political philosophy has a genetic basis.  Although society, culture, education, and upbringing certainly have a role, it is bits of DNA which align in certain ways to produce conservatives or liberals:
Over the last two decades, political scientists, and psychologists have used genetics and neuroscience to claim that people’s political beliefs are predetermined at birth. Genetic inheritance, they argue, helps to explain why some people are liberal and others conservative; some people turn out to vote; and why some people favor and others oppose abortion and gay rights. The field itself has a name—genopolitics—and it is taking political science by storm. In the last four years alone, over 40 journal articles on the subject have appeared in academic journals (John B.Judis, The New Republic, 10.29.14)
The principal proponents of ‘genopolitics’ go on to explain the difference:
Alford, Funk, and Hibbing label the ultimate difference in orientation “absolutist” vs. “contextualist.” The “absolutist” is characterized, among other things, by a “relatively strong suspicion of out-groups … a yearning for in-group unity, and strong leadership.”
Judis, the author of The Atlantic article questions assumptions, methodology, and conclusions. His most telling indictment, however, is directed at the leap of faith that proponents of genopoltics make when they conclude that the beliefs “held, for example, by conservatives in the modern United States is remarkably similar to that held by conservatives in other cultures and at earlier times in American history.”  In other words, conservatives have been ‘absolutists’ forever, uneasy with change, subtlety, and diversity and fearful of moving out of their own closed environments.

Definition is everything; and this arbitrary classification appears deeply biased.  The researchers clearly favor a 'contextualist' approach and conclude that not only is American political culture polarized, but it has always been and will always be so because of genetic predetermination.

No one doubts the serious political divisions of America today. Whole swaths of the country cannot possibly be the result of genetic predisposition.  Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are among the most socially, religiously, and economically conservative in America.  They share a common and collective belief in fundamental religion, an early-American trust in individual enterprise and distrust of government, and inflexible belief in ‘family values’.  A quick perusal of Southern history - slavery, Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction resurgence of the Old South at least suggests why the South is largely conservative.


The wealthy are conservative because they worked for their riches and want to pass them on to their heirs.  Marginalized, poor inner city minority populations are likely to be progressive because ever since Reconstruction, government has provided for and taken care of them.

Yet something is missing in a narrow socio-economic determinants of political belief. The more interesting question is why do individuals from the same socio-economic and cultural milieu often differ substantially on political philosophy. Wealth, background, and upbringing seem to have no politically predictive value.  There were as many liberals among the Shaker Heights, Grosse Pointe, North Shore, Park Avenue crowd as conservatives. Why was this?

Culture, rather than more narrow socio-economic factors, seemed to be in play. For some it was religion.  A belief in Christian compassion and generosity influenced their views on poverty, social equality, and public investment.  Others retained the  more fundamentalist view of religion learned in childhood.  The Christian God is forgiving, but one must work for His favor.

Historians of wealth could not ignore the lessons of history – that it was no more than a familiar repetition of war, perimeters, power, plots, and rises and falls from favor. How could one possibly make any investment in social causes when poverty, misery, and a luckless consignment to the margins was the rule not the exception?  Adults of large inherited wealth had been taught noblesse oblige since they were children, and this morally liberal philosophy determined their more temporal political choices.

In other words, fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals go far beyond region, class, and income.  Political philosophy, not politics, guides political choice. Those who believe that the presence of an ineluctable human nature drives the cyclical machine of human events are likely to be conservative.  Like Nietzsche, they understand that only the expression of individual will and ambition validate an otherwise meaningless, predetermined life. Those who because of faith, family tradition, or simple predisposition have a more idealistic perspective tend to come to a belief in consensus and cooperation.

The genopolitics proponents, however, are right in one regard – nurture alone is not responsible for the selfless or selfish individual.  Somewhere in the double helix there is some combination of DNA bits and strands which predispose some of us to love and caring, while others of us are naturally willful, fearless, and ambitious.

So the question is not whether we are conservative or liberal, but do we see the world in terms of historical determinism itself determined by a hardwired human nature; or in terms of a special and unique human endowment - compassion - which has yet to be fully realized.

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