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View related content: Citizenship
James Q. Wilson
Children differ, as any parent of two or
more knows. Some babies sleep through the night, others are always
awake; some are calm, others are fussy; some walk at an early age,
others after a long wait. Scientists have proved that genes are
responsible for these early differences. But people assume that as
children get older and spend more time under their parents’ influence,
the effect of genes declines. They are wrong.
For a century or more, we have understood that intelligence is
largely inherited, though even today some mistakenly rail against the
idea and say that nurture, not nature, is all. Now we know that much of
our personality, too, is inherited and that many social attitudes have
some degree of genetic basis, including our involvement in crime and
some psychiatric illnesses. Some things do result entirely from
environmental influences, such as whether you follow the Red Sox or the
Yankees (though I suspect that Yankee fans have a genetic defect). But
beyond routine tastes, almost everything has some genetic basis. And
that includes politics.
When scholars say that a trait is “inherited,” they don’t mean that
they can tell what role nature and nurture have played in any given
individual. Rather, they mean that in a population–say, a group of
adults or children–genes explain a lot of the differences among
Genes shape, to varying
There are two common ways of reaching this conclusion. One is to
compare adopted children’s traits with those of their biological
parents, on the one hand, and with those of their adoptive parents, on
the other. If a closer correlation exists with the biological parents’
traits, then we say that the trait is to that degree inherited.
The other method is to compare identical twins’ similarity, with
respect to some trait, with the similarity of fraternal twins, or even
of two ordinary siblings. Identical twins are genetic duplicates, while
fraternal twins share only about half their genes and are no more
genetically alike than ordinary siblings are. If identical twins are
more alike than fraternal twins, therefore, we conclude that the trait
under consideration is to some degree inherited.
Three political science professors–John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and
John Hibbing–have studied political attitudes among a large number of
twins in America and Australia. They measured the attitudes with
something called the Wilson-Patterson Scale (I am not the Wilson after
whom it was named), which asks whether a respondent agrees or disagrees
with 28 words or phrases, such as “death penalty,” “school prayer,”
“pacifism,” or “gay rights.” They then compared the similarity of the
responses among identical twins with the similarity among fraternal
twins. They found that, for all 28 taken together, the identical twins
did indeed agree with each other more often than the fraternal ones
did–and that genes accounted for about 40 percent of the difference
between the two groups. On the other hand, the answers these people
gave to the words “Democrat” or “Republican” had a very weak genetic
basis. In politics, genes help us understand fundamental
attitudes–that is, whether we are liberal or conservative–but do not
explain what party we choose to join.
Genes also influence how frequently we vote. Voting has always
puzzled scholars: How is it rational to wait in line on a cold November
afternoon when there is almost no chance that your ballot will make any
difference? Apparently, people who vote often feel a strong sense of
civic duty or like to express themselves. But who are these people?
James Fowler, Laura Baker, and Christopher Dawes studied political
participation in Los Angeles by comparing voting among identical and
fraternal twins. Their conclusion: among registered voters, genetic
factors explain about 60 percent of the difference between those who
vote and those who do not.
A few scholars, determined to hang on to the belief that environment
explains everything, argue that such similarities occur because the
parents of identical twins–as opposed to the parents of fraternal
twins–encourage them to be as alike as possible as they grow up. This
is doubtful. First, we know that many parents make bad guesses about
their children’s genetic connection–thinking that fraternal twins are
actually identical ones, or vice versa. When we take twins’ accurate
genetic relationships into account, we find that identical twins whom
parents wrongly thought to be fraternal are very similar, while
fraternal twins wrongly thought to be identical are no more alike than
Moreover, studying identical twins reared apart by different
families, even in different countries, effectively shows that their
similar traits cannot be the result of similar upbringing. The
University of Minnesota’s Thomas Bouchard has done research on many
identical twins reared apart (some in different countries) and has
found that though they never knew each other or their parents, they
proved remarkably alike, especially in personality–whether they were
extroverted, agreeable, neurotic, or conscientious, for example.
Some critics complain that the fact that identical twins live
together with their birth parents, at least for a time, ruins
Bouchard’s findings: during this early period, they say, parenting must
influence the children’s attitudes. But the average age at which the
identical twins in Bouchard’s study became separated from their parents
was five months. It is hard to imagine parents teaching five-month-old
babies much about politics or religion.
The gene-driven ideological split that Alford and his colleagues
found may, in fact, be an underestimate, because men and women tend to
marry people with whom they agree on big issues–assortative mating, as
social scientists call it. Assortative mating means that the children
of parents who agree on issues will be more likely to share whatever
genes influence those beliefs. Thus, even children who are not
identical twins will have a larger genetic basis for their views than
if their parents married someone with whom they disagreed. Since we
measure heritability by subtracting the similarity among fraternal
twins from the similarity among identical ones, this difference may
neglect genetic influences that already exist on fraternal twins. And
if it does, it means that we are underestimating genetic influences on
When we step back and look at American politics generally, genes may
help us understand why, for countless decades, about 40 percent of all
voters have supported conservative causes, about 40 percent have backed
liberal ones, and the 20 percent in the middle have decided the
elections. On a few occasions, the winning presidential candidate has
won about 60 percent of the vote. But these days we call a 55 percent
victory a “landslide.” It is hard to imagine a purely environmental
force that would rule out a presidential election in which one
candidate got 80 percent of the vote and his rival only 20 percent.
Something deeper must be going on.
All of this leaves open the question: Which genes help create which
political attitudes? Right now, we don’t know. To discover the links
will require lengthy studies of the DNA of people with different
political views. Scientists are having a hard time locating the
specific genes that cause diseases; it will probably be much harder to
find the complex array of genes that affects politics.
There are problems with the observed link between genes and
politics. One is that it is fairly crude so far. Liberals and
conservatives come in many varieties: one can be an economic liberal
and a social conservative, say, favoring a large state but opposing
abortion; or an economic conservative and a social liberal, favoring
the free market but supporting abortion and gay rights. If we add
attitudes about foreign policy to the mix, the combinations double.
Most tests used in genetic studies of political views do not allow us
to make these important distinctions. As a result, though we know that
genes affect ideology, that knowledge is clumsy. In time, I suspect, we
will learn more about these subtleties.
Further, it’s important to emphasize that biology is not destiny.
Genetic influences rarely operate independently of environmental
factors. Take the case of serotonin. People who have little of this
neurotransmitter are at risk for some psychological problems, but for
many of them, no such problems occur unless they experience some
personal crisis. Then the combined effect of genetic influences and
disruptive experiences will trigger a deep state of depression,
something that does not happen to people who either do not lack
serotonin or who do lack it but encounter no crisis. Recently, in the
first study to find the exact genes that affect political
participation, Fowler and Dawes found two genes that help explain
voting behavior. One of the genes, influencing serotonin levels, boosts
turnout by 10 percent–if the person also attends church frequently.
Nature and nurture interact.
The same is probably true of political ideology. When campus
protests and attacks on university administrators began in the late
1960s, it was not because a biological upheaval had increased the
number of radicals; it was because such people encountered events (the
war in Vietnam, the struggle over civil rights) and group pressures
that induced them to take strong actions. By the same token, lynchings
in the South did not become common because there were suddenly more
ultra-racists around. Rather, mob scenes, media frenzies, and the shock
of criminal events motivated people already skeptical of civil rights
to do terrible things.
Another challenge is politicized assessment of the genetic evidence.
Ever since 1950, when Theodor Adorno and his colleagues published The Authoritarian Personality,
scholars have studied right-wing authoritarianism but neglected its
counterpart on the left. In his study of identical twins reared apart,
Bouchard concludes that right-wing authoritarianism is, to a large
degree, inherited–but he says nothing about the Left. This omission is
puzzling, since as Bouchard was studying twins at the University of
Minnesota, he was regularly attacked by left-wing students outraged by
the idea that any traits might be inherited. A few students even
threatened to kill him. When I pointed this out to him, he suggested,
in good humor, that I was a troublemaker.
Yet if you ask who in this country has prevented people from
speaking on college campuses, it is overwhelmingly leftists. If you ask
who storms the streets and shatters the windows of Starbucks coffee
shops to protest the World Trade Organization, it is overwhelmingly
leftists. If you ask who produces campus codes that infringe on free
speech, it is overwhelmingly leftists. If you ask who invaded the
classroom of my late colleague Richard Herrnstein and tried to prevent
him from teaching, it was overwhelmingly leftists.
A better way to determine if authoritarianism is genetic would be to
ask people what the country’s biggest problems are. Liberals might say
the inequality of income or the danger of global warming; conservatives
might indicate the tolerance of abortion or the abundance of
pornography. You would then ask each group what they thought should be
done to solve these problems. An authoritarian liberal might say that
we should tax high incomes out of existence and close down factories
that emit greenhouse gases. A conservative authoritarian might suggest
that we put abortion doctors in jail and censor books and television
programs. This approach would give us a true measure of
authoritarianism, left and right, and we would know how many of each
kind existed and something about their backgrounds. Then, if they had
twins, we would be able to estimate the heritability of
authoritarianism. Doing all this is a hard job, which may explain why
no scholars have done it.
Genes shape, to varying degrees, almost every aspect of human
behavior. The struggle by some activists to deny or downplay that fact
is worrisome. The anti-gene claim is ultimately an ill-starred effort
to preserve the myth that, since the environment can explain
everything, political causes that attempt to alter the environment can
bring about whatever their leaders desire.
The truth is that though biology is not destiny, neither is it an easily changed path to utopia.
James Q. Wilson is the chairman of AEI’s Council of Academic Advisers
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