Saturday, June 30, 2012

Political Outlook: Genes & Moral Values

From THE WEEK, June 1, 2012:

"Here's a simple definition of ideology: "a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved." And here's the most basic of all ideological questions: Should we preserve the present order or change it?

"Political theorists long assumed that people chose ideologies to further their self-interest. The rich and powerful want to preserve and conserve; the workers want to change things. But that link has been largely broken in modern times, when the rich go both ways (industrialists mostly right, tech billionaires mostly left), and so do the poor (rural poor mostly right, urban poor mostly left). So for most of the late 20th century, political scientists embraced blank-slate theories in which people soaked up the ideology of their parents.

"But then came the studies of twins in the 1980s, which found that genes contribute to just about every aspect of our personalities. We're not just talking about IQ and basic traits such as shyness. We're talking about the degree to which you like jazz, your likelihood of getting a divorce, your religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits.

"Researchers have found several genes that differ between liberals and conservatives. Most of them relate to the functioning of neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain's response to threat and fear. Other studies have focused on genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is tied to sensation seeking and openness to experience. Even though the effects of any single gene are tiny, these findings are important because they illustrate one pathway from genes to politics: The genes (collectively) give some people brains that are more (or less) reactive to threats and that produce less (or more) pleasure when exposed to novelty, change, and new experiences. Many studies have shown that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, while novelty seeking and openness to experience are among the best-established correlates of liberalism......"