Does Your DNA Influence Your Voting?

Does your DNA influence your voting? Some researchers say yes, as reported by  the Philadelphia Inquirer:

This most recent study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Politics, revealed a complicated connection among political preferences, a gene called DRD4, and even the number of friends that people said they had in high school.

The DRD4 gene influences the brain chemical dopamine, which is involved in movement, emotion, pleasure, and pain.

About 38 percent of us carry an alternative version of the gene which has been associated with a novelty-seeking trait. Five percent of us carry two copies of the novelty-seeking version.

"A novelty-seeking individual would be more likely to try a new kind of food or climb Mount Everest," said James Fowler, a professor of political science and medical genetics at the University of California San Diego. That's what made him think it might have some connection to politics.

Fowler, who is lead author on this latest study, said the findings have already been misinterpreted, thanks to the polarized political climate we live in. "The conservative blogosphere has really picked up the story as a finding of a gene for some disease - a gene for liberalism," he said.

After discovering that carriers of two copies had a larger circle of friends in high school, Fowler speculated that they tended to be more liberal because they were exposed to a greater range of views.

One problem of the DRD4 connection--really a single variant R7, as Fowler, the lead author, explains here--is that so many prominent conservatives in the U.S. have been former liberals. See Conservapedia's list, of course featuring Ronald Reagan himself. In the other direction are former right-wing stars including Kevin Phillips and David Brock. If genetic endowments are so powerful, why such strong shifts of view? Where do anti-war, anti-tax libertarians, or self-described pro-life liberals fit? And what about the risk-averse social democracies of Northern Europe, with ultra-liberal health and pension plans, by U.S. definitions, but also with deeply conservative values and social customs, as controversies over immigration are revealing?

Looking beyond the U.S., some of the most prominent far-right politicians have been notorious novelty seekers, including the Austrian Jörg Haider, a skiing and bungee jumping enthusiast who died after crashing his car into a concrete highway embankment. In fact many of Europe's ultraconservatives were risk-loving sportsmen: the Italian protofascist Gabriele d'Annunzio, Mussolini's favorite pilot Italo Balbo, and the World War One ace Hermann Göring. America's most famous 20th century novelty seeker, Charles Lindbergh, showed no discernible liberal traits. (His appetite for variety and risk, we now know, included maintaining multiple secret families in Europe beginning in the 1960s.)

Fowler believes that having more friends in youth exposes people to more liberal ideas. But in a school with strongly conservative fellow students, the liberals might be a small and isolated group--and vice versa in places like Berkeley, California and New York's Upper West side. Of the right-wing risk-seekers above, Charles Lindbergh (according to his biographer, Scott Berg) was "virtually friendless and self-absorbed" at the end of his childhood, while Haider was popular enough to join an exclusive fraternity of students from much wealthier families. (Adolescent cliquishness knows no national boundaries.) The quest for biological roots of political behavior is likely to remain tantalizing but elusive. For a good review of the concept so far, the original paper is here.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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