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Is there a ‘liberal gene’?

A new study claims to have found a link between biology and political orientation.

The identification of a “liberal gene,” described as such in the study’s press release, suggests that our political orientation may be hardwired into our brains — an uncomfortable idea for those who believe in free will. But it’s not that simple, says the study’s head author, James Fowler, a professor in the School of Medicine and the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He said the study’s significance is not derived from finding a “liberal gene” per se, but rather from establishing a correlation between biology and political ideology.

Appearing in the latest edition of The Journal of Politics published by Cambridge University Press, research from the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University focused on about 2,000 subjects from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to show that people with a specific variant (R7) of the dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene were more likely to be politically liberal as adults if they also had an active social life in adolescence.

Need to Know’s Alexandra Nikolchev spoke with Fowler about why he thinks humans may be designed more like snowflakes than cogs in a machine. ­

Alexandra Nikolchev: What exactly were the findings in this study?

Dr. James Fowler

James Fowler: About 40 percent of the [general] population have at least one copy of the R7 gene variant of the dopamine receptor D4 gene and 10 percent have two copies, one from dad and one from mom. To best describe the results, we can look at people with two copies of the R7 gene and the number of friends they have. The association test we conducted suggests an interaction between biology and environment. Among people with two copies of the R7 gene, we compared those who have zero friends to those who have 10 friends, and found that the increase in friends would move you almost halfway from being conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal on our five-point scale that ranges from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” What’s important here though is that the total variance in ideology that we can explain is relatively small.

Nikolchev: What influenced you to look at the R7 variant of the DRD4 gene?

Fowler: We originally thought that we would find a direct relationship between the gene and liberalism because of two unrelated pieces of evidence. First, a number of studies have associated DRD4-R7 with a trait called novelty-seeking. People who are novelty seekers literally seek out new experiences. It’s different from risk-seeking. They want to try new experiences at the cost of having an experience that they already know will bring them pleasure. Second, research psychologists have shown that when we measure people’s five basic personality traits, people who score higher on the “openness” scale tend to be more liberal whereas people who score higher on the “conscientiousness” scale tend to be more conservative, and the other three basic personality traits have no relationship with political ideology. Some of the questions used to measure openness are also used to measure novelty seeking, so we thought people with the gene related to novelty seekers might be more open and therefore more liberal.

Nikolchev: Why friendship specifically?

Fowler: [When we found that] a direct relationship between the gene and political ideology did not exist, it occurred to us that openness to new experiences might apply to nonpolitical or nonsocial experiences. So people with less of a social life might seek out new experiences like climbing a mountain or trying new food that would have no impact on their political beliefs.  But people with more friends who are novelty seekers might be exposed to many different points of view, and this might increase their openness, which would tend to make them more liberal.

Nikolchev: The study doesn’t prove there is a “liberal gene” per se; you say the strength of the association with the DRD4 R7 gene to political ideology is quite small. Why is the study significant?

Fowler: For this study, we only had access to a very few genes so the next step is to conduct a huge genome-wide study. This will hopefully help us to identify many genes involved in the complex process that regulates how our biology influences political behavior. We want to be clear that we are very excited about this work because we hope it gets people to pay more attention to biology when they’re thinking about political behavior, but we recognize that this is just the beginning. There’s a real chance that the association we report in the current study is a false positive result, a mistake, but the only way we will know for sure is if others follow up and try to replicate these results. We are going to need a lot more studies on a large variety of genes if we want to get even a beginning picture of the biological systems that might be involved in the formation of political ideology.

Nikolchev: Some people who use in vitro fertilization choose a fetus based on eye color. Will people start asking their doctors if their child has the liberal gene?

Fowler: I think some people will start choosing children based on their genotype regardless of what research I do. So I want to do as much research as possible before many people have power to make those kinds of decisions.  One result that is likely to emerge from this research is that genes are probably pleitropic (from one gene come many complex behaviors) and social behaviors are probably polygenic (from many genes come one complex behavior). Given how complicated these social and biological pathways are, the last thing I would do is recommend that anybody choose a child based on any one gene. It’s madness. The reason is you don’t know all the different traits being affected by one particular gene.

Nikolchev: The media has reported that we are an increasingly polarized nation. Is there a genetic reason for this?

Fowler: Our genes are not changing so we know that’s not the reason! But our study shows that it’s not all about direct effects. Genes can make us more or less sensitive to different environments. We may have genetic predispositions that make it easy for us to become polarized in a short period of time and if we learned more about our biology we might be able to better understand the kinds of institutions that could promote a reduction in polarization and more productive discussion when we disagree. But that’s probably a long way off. I would be happy if we made some progress on that in the next hundred years.

Nikolchev: This kind of study may really disturb people: The idea that their individual political beliefs may be out of their control. Does this study have any significance on the notion of free thought? Are our politics predetermined?

Fowler: I would not say that this study shows our politics are predetermined any more than a study of environmental effects shows our behavior is predetermined. Whenever science tries to explain a behavior, the discussion becomes whether or not we have free will. I personally think what we’re learning about is what environments influence people to make certain kinds of decisions, but there’s also a lot of room for people to make their own free choices. Genes might make you more susceptible to certain kinds of environmental stimuli, but to some degree you still have control over those environments. So suppose you very much wanted to be conservative and you learned about our study, and other researchers were able to replicate the results. If you learned you had the R7 variant of the DRD4 gene, you might be able to choose to be more conservative by socializing with fewer people in high school. This information could empower you to become a different kind of person, the person you want to be. Knowledge is power.

I also think that the environment-only message that we‘ve gotten for the last 50 years is much more depressing. In the past, scholars argued that you are merely a product of your social environment. This means you are an interchangeable cog in a machine.  If we take you out of your environment and put you in someone else’s, you will adopt exactly the same political beliefs that they have. In contrast, the view of human nature by people who think biology plays a role, too, is that we are not blank slates. We bring our own unique predispositions to the table. We are much more like snowflakes than interchangeable cogs in a machine. And I find this unique identity we get from differences in our biology to be a much more inspiring picture of human nature.

If genes really are influencing whether we’re liberal or conservative, it suggests that we may have been engaged in these kinds of struggles for a very long period of time over the course of human evolutionary history. If so, then it is interesting that natural selection did not make us all liberal or all conservative. I personally believe that we may yet find that there is an evolutionary reason for this diversity of opinion, and this makes me more patient when I’m arguing with people on Election Day.

Editor’s note: This article has been re-edited to reflect multiple clarifications from the study’s author.

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