It sounds either ridiculous or ripped from the pages of a futuristic sci-fi dystopia – but apparently it’s true. Scientists from UC-San Diego and Harvard are claiming that they have isolated a so-called “liberal gene.”
The technical explanation is that those who have a specific variant of a dopamine receptor called DRD4 are likely to grow up to be adult liberals IF they also have a great deal of friends during their adolescent years. ScienceDaily provides more detail:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter affecting brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain. Previous research has identified a connection between a variant of this gene and novelty-seeking behavior, and this behavior has previously been associated with personality traits related to political liberalism.
Lead researcher James H. Fowler of UC San Diego and his colleagues hypothesized that people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends’ points of view. As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that “it is the crucial interaction of two factors — the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence — that is associated with being more liberal.” The research team also showed that this held true independent of ethnicity, culture, sex or age.
It might be easy to play this story for laughs, but studies like this trouble me a bit. There’s a difference between studying the link between genes, environment, and behavior, and using science as validation for a political philosophy. Anytime studies come out linking conservatism to some negative psychological behavior I have the same reaction – science can only tell you so much before human variability kicks in and overrides cold theory.
But that’s not to fault this particular study. There are vast secrets hidden within our DNA, and the more science can explore them, the more we can benefit. But the thought of isolating a “liberal” gene and the potential for some sort of accompanying “conservative” gene can only lead one’s mind down dark paths into someone someday deciding to turn these genes on or off – or removing them from the gene pool entirely.
It seems like a far-out scenario, but geneticists are already claiming parents may one day be able to choose their child’s gender and other characteristics – why not assure them of an approved political philosophy? This study suggests that environmental factors also have to come into play – but it does give one pause to think “what if?”
I happen to be a believer that we are more than the sum of our parts, that our humanity makes us more than a sack of enzymes, proteins and chemical processes. Likewise, our genes predispose us to certain things, but we ought not be slaves to our DNA – especially when it comes to how we view the world.