30 December 2010

Political phrenology

Sigh.....here we go again. The mass public mind seems drawn to the concept of a "gene for" some complex trait like homosexuality, criminality, intelligence, etc. Having read a fair bit of evolutionary biology, I know well how far removed such simplistic thinking is from the way genetics actually works; yet the mainstream media seem all too inclined to cater to it -- perhaps in the same spirit that they often still have a horoscope tucked away somewhere. The current example is a claim that current brain research is finding a genetic basis for people's political views.

A few basic facts to bear in mind: Most genes influence more than one trait. Most traits are influenced by more than one gene. The development of a complex organism like a human, especially brain structure, is massively influenced by the environment, which interacts with the genome in highly complex ways as the organism develops. As a human learns and develops and changes his ways of thinking, the brain physically re-wires itself to reflect those changes (in fact, the brain re-wiring probably is those changes).

The idea that genes could determine political views in any simple or straightforward way (never mind "political views 'hard-wired' into your brain", in the words of the article's amazingly-stupid headline) is immediately belied by the fact that very many people change their political views over time; in fact, some people change their political views drastically and quickly as a result of a single experience or exposure to new ideas. For that matter, the very meaning of political right and left varies over time and from place to place. In the US, the left-vs-right divide is primarily a matter of secular vs intensely-religious world-views, and church attendance correlates with voting patterns better than any other factor does; in Britain, where this story originates, both left and right are mostly secular and the differences lie in other areas.

Looking at the specifics of the story:

It's quite possible that there are genetic propensities to be fearful and irrational, and that some people's genomes contain genes which code more strongly for that trait.

It's quite possible that people born with genes which predispose them to be fearful or irrational are, in fact, somewhat more likely to grow up to actually be more fearful and irrational than average, although I'd expect that any such predisposition would be mostly swamped by the influence of life experiences.

It's quite possible that people who are more fearful or irrational than average (whether the main reasons are environmental or genetic) have brain structure which visibly reflects this.

It's even possible that people who are more fearful or irrational than average (whether the main reasons are environmental or genetic) are somewhat more likely to become more politically conservative, although one could easily think of a dozen other factors which would likely have a larger influence on a person's political views.

So, yes, there could be some correlation between genes and political views, but it would be too fuzzy and indirect to tell us anything of value about actual people.

Look, it's only a few decades since some people were claiming that blacks or women were genetically hard-wired for traits that made them unsuited for full citizenship. Enough is enough.

About the whole idea that something as complex as a person's world-view could be genetically determined in a straightforward way, I liked this item -- but at least it was intended as a joke.


Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Greeting's Infodel!

This was quite a posting, that I had to read a couple time's to grasp ... and was in serious thought ...until ... I had to watch that bloody video again about the gay scientist's trying to find the christian gene ... then all Hell broke loose in laughter! :)

But all funnies aside .... it is so complex for me to understand what make's us tick, but an interesting as Hell subject indeed!

Even though I vote straight Democrat these dayz ... there was a time when I only voted straight Republican ... and most of my voting life at that. I have stated my reason's of such drastic voting change before as you know. But to this day Infodel ... I cant figure out if I am even a liberal or a conservative? ... really ... so I just gave up as far as trying to figure out where I stand or trying to fit into the crowd ... cause I truely dont stand on either side ... I vote one way, only because of priorities of the parties, and voting any other way would make my vote pointless and even more of a waste of time, and only utilize it mostly as tradition, because so many have fought so hard for us to have this right. As far as my conservative voting and mind and being in fear (?) ... I fear of course ... but never felt like I dwell on fear, or even really never get really in a panic state for that matter ... so I dont know ... I just dont feel overly scared of some thing's actually, so nothing too out of the ordinary. As far as my view's? ... well frankly ... any die hard Democrat or Republican wouldnt like my view's I reckon, the conservative's would hate me, cause where I stand on sexuality, morality, the church and abortion, etc ... the liberal's would hate me, cause I am a redneck gun toting SOB, I dont kiss the asses of all people, hate jihadist's and Islamo Facism, I eat meat, have killed alot of animal's hunting, and am very pro defense military ans a tad nationalist. Put it this way Bubba ... if I tried to please anyone, or catered to a specific pop culture group, I would just be pissing in the wind ... cause most people wouldnt like my view's, or my blunt honesty, or even probably think I'm just a two sided fruitcake, bipolar, or some shit I reckon. But the posting was excellent for thought brother, Thanx!

30 December, 2010 06:39  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

I don't totally discount gene theories but agree wih you that life experiences, including home environment in which a child is raised, play a significant role. But this study and its findings are a little over the top. I wonder if it was financed by a goverbment grant.

30 December, 2010 07:50  
Blogger Ahab said...

Unfortunately, the media likes simple, easily digested answers to complex answers, even if they result in essentialist views.

30 December, 2010 09:58  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

Blaming political behavior on an individuals genetic make-up is somewhat like ascribing unexplained happenings to an all-powerful god.

30 December, 2010 11:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: What you say brings up another problem with simplistic explanations of political leanings: too many people don't fit neatly into either category. When you look at people's opinions on an issue-by-issue basis (instead of just asking them how they label themselves), about 12% of the US population is across-the-board liberal and 8% is across-the-board conservative -- the rest have a mix of views which can't be so strictly classified.

TNLib: Genetics does determine a great deal about human behavior, but as I said, it works in a complicated way; pop ideas about "a gene for" this or that usually have about as much connection with real genetics as astrology does with astrophysics.

Ahab: That's certainly true. They are rather talking down to their readers. Many of us bloggers believe that readers can handle more complex and nuanced ideas.

JC: It does have the similar effect of promoting passivity. If political views were "hard-wired", then all efforts to change public opinion would be pointless.

31 December, 2010 01:51  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Thanx for the stat's input on that .... I never actually knew a thing about that ... as far as percentage's or any other. But was somewhat a suprise to me! Perhap's I can assume there are alot more folk's like me, even than I realize(?)

31 December, 2010 06:38  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

The controversy that boils up from time to time revolves around the difference between men's and woman's brains. We have no trouble acknowledging that there are other physical differences between males and females, but society likes to draw a politically-correct line in the sand with respect to gender brain differences.

However research has shown often that there are marked difference. Male and female chromosome sets differ, obviously.

One documentary I saw interviewed several women, the one who was most vehemently in denial of the difference was an attorney. Of course, the reasoning behind her objection was in the issue of discrimination.

More recently a British science program on PBS showed that some men have feminine brain characteristics and vice versa. It was a fascinating program and illustrated the differences between the way the genders multi-task, resolve spacial relationships and process emotional situations.

My buddy Will wanted his daughter to grow up in a gender-neutral atmosphere where his daughter would not be gender cast in her adulthood career. He bought her building sets and Tonka trucks - instead what she loved to do was put on a frilly dress and "twirl".

31 December, 2010 09:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RtS: It's certainly true that there are many genetically-innate differences between males and females -- but the differences between liberals and conservatives are hardly comparable.

31 December, 2010 10:48  

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