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The Heritability of Political Opinions

2014-07-09

An op-ed piece in today’s online New York Times reviews recent research that establishes the heritability of certain basic political attitudes, namely authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness.  The article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/09/opinion/thomas-edsall-how-much-do-our-genes-influence-our-political-beliefs.html

A table accompanying the article shows the relationship between these traits and the sharing of certain genes in identical and fraternal twins.  Since identical twins share all of their DNA, while fraternal twins share only half, there should be a difference in the incidence of these traits if they are inherited.  Of course, differential methylation of some genes is to be expected during development, which will change the apparent phenotype even when the genotypes are identical.

The table shows, for authoritarianism, a correlation of 0.51 between identical twins and only 0.1 between fraternal twins.  For conservatism, the figures are 0.53 and 0.36.  For religiousness, the correlations are 0.50 and 0.02.  For traditionalism, the numbers are 0.44 and 0.18.  These numbers show that there is a significant genetic component to authoritarianism, religiousness, and somewhat less so for traditionalism.  For conservatism, there is less of a genetic correlation.  The dramatic differences in authoritarianism and religiousness suggest that these traits are controlled by genes to a significant extent.

It is important to remember differential methylation of genes when interpreting these numbers.  There is a possibility that a person’s degree of authoritarianism and religiousness are controlled by genes that are subject to differential methylation during childhood related to intense experiences.  An example of this phenomenon is the permanent changes in gene expression observed when infants are subjected to severe deprivation.

The findings of these studies suggest that there are inherent genetic differences in the personalities of people who are more or less authoritarian or religious.  Such differences may be difficult to overcome by changing one’s education or life experiences.  Genes clearly do not explain all of the differences as the correlations are not that high even in identical twins; numbers like 0.8 or above would be expected in a “pure” genetic trait.

Thus, people who have had religious experiences or epiphanies resulting in intense religious practice and mindset may be genetically inclined to have such epiphanies.  At the same time, people who have never had a religious epiphany may simply be genetically incapable of having one.

This suggests that it may be impossible to politically reconcile people who differ greatly in these traits.  One group will prefer one type of politician, the other group a different type, and nothing can induce them to compromise.  Even the act of compromise may be genetically influenced, to the point where some people are able to compromise and others are simply incapable.

These findings make it all the  more important for us to have a pluralistic government with room for all types of people, and at the same time, we must have a decisive government which is able to make a fair compromise between the types, whether they can accept the compromise or not.  The point is that a compromise must be imposed, whether are not the individuals involved are able to accept it.  Some middle ground must be found which is fair to all concerned and which does not burden a powerless group to the benefit of a group with political power.

The point is that a group with political power does not have all the rights; the civil and human rights of the powerless and the minority cannot be infringed upon in a pluralistic government because there is no one right answer to any governmental question.  This is the function of the Bill of Rights and most of the subsequent amendments to the Constitution.

The failure of the presidential administration to recognize this problem during World War One may have led to a serious distortion in American society since then.  President Wilson had strong moral opinions and did not believe that dissent from these opinions was legitimate.  He therefore created government institutions which enforced censorship and moral values, patriotism, and war against Germany, even to the extent of prohibition of alcohol.  Wilson also created an internal security agency which was eventually consolidated into the FBI.  Under the direction of Hoover for many years, this agency spied on every American without any let or hindrance.  It created files on every known dissenter and group, files which contained as much myth and falsehood as truth.  These files, particularly the sensitive ones on political leaders, were maintained in absolute secrecy and used by Hoover to consolidate and protect his power, that is, for political blackmail.

The legacy of the FBI can be seen in the NSA and now the Homeland Security apparatus, especially the no-fly list.  This list was created and maintained in secret with no provision for change in case of error; the administration only acknowledged errors when forced by the courts.   The legacy of Prohibition can be seen in the persistence of organized crime (which arose in response to the demand for illicit alcohol) and the prohibitions on the use of marijuana.  Some have argued that the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively outlawed marijuana, was a jobs program for government workers idled by the repeal of Prohibition.  All of these situations can be seen as consequences of President Wilson’s moral rigidity and lack of tolerance for dissent or compromise, that is, his authoritarianism.

Unchecked authoritarianism cannot be tolerated in a pluralistic society, no matter how much it is seen to be needed by those in power in response to real or imagined threats.

 

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