Why biology belongs in the study of politics

November 27, 2013
(Gerald Herbert / AP)
(Gerald Herbert / AP)

This is a guest post from John R. Hibbing, the Foundation Regents Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-author with Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford of Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.

Larry Bartels recently asked what studies of genes and politics — “genopolitics”– add to our “understanding of politics” and suggested the answer is “not much.”  Bartels’s question is perfectly legitimate but his answer deserves more considered reflection.

I suppose those of us involved with genopolitics should be heartened by the tone of Bartels’ essay.  After all, if the three stages of scientific discovery are “that can’t be true,” “that’s not important,” and “we’ve known that all the time,” it would appear that the genopolitics movement has entered the second stage.

From my perspective, it is unfortunate that Bartels focuses entirely on genopolitics given that much of the new work on biology and politics does not explicitly involve genes.  Early (even pre-natal) development, salient environmental experiences, and genetics all interact to mold people’s biological predispositions, which then shape individuals’ responses to given environmental stimuli.  Biology, not genetics alone, is the key and it is now possible to measure politically relevant biological predispositions with physiological, endocrinological, cognitive, and neuroscience techniques.

But why would we want to?  Here we come to an important potential contribution of work on biology and politics. Whether the preferred phrase is implicit attitudes, internalized information, motivated social reasoning, antecedent considerations, or predispositions, much research shows that, though change is possible, people’s politics are quite consistent over the course of a lifetime.

In fact, the power of these stabilizing predispositions is remarkable.  Recent research from Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon as well as Dan Kahan and colleagues has shown that preexisting ideological biases lead people to rewrite history (for example, conservatives erroneously assert that Barack Obama once shook hands with former Iranian President and holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and to make mistakes on straightforward math problems (for example, liberals construe hypothetical data to indicate that gun control is effective when the percentages provided in fact support the opposite conclusion).

Political scientists have long recognized the force of these predispositions but after doing so they typically lament that coming to terms with them is “beyond the scope” of their studies (for instance, Zaller).  Though no one is under the illusion that it will be easy, the new work on biology and politics offers the best hope for operationalizing the long-term forces that give stability to individual political preferences.  These powerful and extremely relevant predispositions need no longer be beyond “our scope.”

Bartels believes political scientists should devote their attention to tasks such as explaining “why support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the past 20 years” and “why abortion has been a more salient partisan issue lately.”  These are interesting and valuable questions if the desire is to understand people’s self-reported support for a narrow range of issues in a single country at one point in time.  But another of the real contributions of the growing empirical evidence on the relevance of biology—and even genetics—to politics is the realization that politics runs very deep.  If it did not, there would be no logical way for genes to be relevant.  Disputes over the best way to organize groups—in other words, disputes over politics—are ancient and fundamental.  For example, 50 years ago the issue was interracial marriage; today it is gay marriage; and 50 years from now it will be something else; but the differences between those who embrace and those who eschew new lifestyles are a constant.  As Emerson notes, “the two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation…have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made.”

Traditional political scientists such as Bartels tend to study self-reported and ephemeral changes in attitudes toward issues of the day.  Those exploring the connection of biology and politics tend to study long-term forces that undergird vacillations and that sometimes operate outside of conscious awareness.  For many political scientists of Bartels’s generation, ideology is a top-down “set of policy positions recommended by…political pundits, intellectuals, and interest group representatives.”  For those exploring the connection of biology and politics, ideology is bottom-up, longstanding, deep, and biologically based.  It shapes decisions about the particular pundits and interest groups to which individuals are attracted.

For what it is worth, I firmly believe that political science would benefit from combining new knowledge of the biological, outside-of-conscious-awareness forces with existing knowledge of, for example, the effects of framing and interest group representations.  Both approaches seem to me to be valuable and necessary, so I admit to being somewhat disappointed when colleagues express the sentiment that only one set of questions (which just so happens to be their set) is worthy.  Moreover, is Bartels really comfortable making an a priori declaration that biological studies are a waste of time?  If applied consistently, such a Tom Coburn-like attitude would proscribe any new approach to discovery since value cannot be demonstrated without opportunity first being afforded.

Another important reason to study the role of biology in politics is tolerance.  Evidence demonstrates that people who believe sexual orientation is based in biology are more tolerant of homosexuality than those who believe sexual orientation is based in unencumbered personal choice. Tolerance of the mentally challenged also increased with the appearance of empirical evidence showing that mental health is largely genetic.  The same pattern is likely to follow for political orientations.  The more people recognize that their political opponents have the views they do in part because of their physiology, deep psychology, and even genetics—and not merely because they are uninformed or listening to the “wrong” pundits—the more tolerant they will be toward them.  And couldn’t political systems—and political scientists—benefit from a little more tolerance?

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