If you voted in last year’s election, what made you choose the candidate for whom you voted? Was it the platform, the party, or perhaps your genes? Since Mendel and his peas, the idea that genes affect physical traits has greatly influenced science. However, their role may be greater than we thought. Aristotle first posed the question of nature vs nurture, which is now the debate surrounding the relative importance of one’s genes (nature) against one’s upbringing (nurture) in determining physical and behavioral characteristics. For instance, is one’s intelligence an innate quality or one based on years of education? If genes are involved in political ideology, does that mean political freedom is limited? Do we have a choice in voting? The answer to the age-old question is more complex, yet nowadays, more people recognize the idea that both nature and nurture are involved in trait determination.
Family values, education, and the media were originally thought to determine an individual’s political behavior. The scientific community has gradually come to embrace political views as a legitimate factor in the nature vs. nurture debate. In fact, the study of genetic influence in political decisions has a name: genopolitics.1 For instance, an early study of the topic found that identical twins show more similarities than non-identical twins in voting behavior.2
Furthermore, although many still believe environmental influences play the sole role in determining political attitudes, a recent articles suggests that genes influence political preferences.3 This harks back to the notion that both nature and nurture are important in the development of an individual’s behavior. Whether your vote is liberal or conservative is not determined by a single gene, but rather by a combination of genes and regulatory pathways with environmental factors from one’s political principles.2
However, genetics does not play a roles in all political traits. In particular, because political parties are transient and vary between countries and across time, only nurture plays a role in party identification. A liberal in American politics is not the same as a liberal in European politics. On the other hand, most genopolitic researchers agree that genetics does influence the ideology (e.g., conservatism or liberalism) of group organization, as a relatively timeless matter.4 For example, your heritage might make you favor a powerful government over a weak government but would not directly influence you vote for a Democratic nominee over a Republican nominee.
How exactly genetics could influence your vote is difficult to understand. Hatemi and McDermott conceptualize that our Prehistoric ancestors faced issues with out-groups (immigration), security (foreign policy), and welfare (resource management), among others. Through evolutionary processes occurring over thousands of years, these issues became polarizing traits that are heritable.2 This by no means signifies that one ideology is more “fit” than another simply because it has dominated in the past.
These natural factors determine conservative vs. liberal preferences. However, environment may play a larger role in directing most individual political choices. More research is necessary to show that the influence of genes on political ideology cannot be explained by purely environmental influences.6
- Stafford, T. BBC Future. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121204-is-politics-really-in-our-genes (Accessed Dec. 4 2012).
- Biuso, E. Genopolitics. New York Times, New York, Dec. 14, 2008, p. MM57.
- Haterni, P. K. Trends in Genetics. 2012, 28(10), 525-33.
- Alford, J. R. Ann. Rev. Pol. Sci. 2008, 15(2), 183-203.
- Body politic: THe genetics of politics, The Economist, London, Oct. 6, 2012.
- Haterni, P. K. JOP. 2011, 73(1), 271-85.