How many genes does it take to vote…?

“2 genes predict voter turnout”

If it was as simple as that we can forego all the campaigning. That was the headline that came with a 2008 study — a watershed moment — in which in which two authors claimed that they sufficiently demonstrated that when it comes to political ideology, genes count for more than environment. The whole spectrum of political ideology and affiliation, they could distill into liberal or conservative. And, better yet, they could distill down to just two genes.

That watershed moment was probably the first in a long line of research within a growing subfield of political science known as genopolitics. Simply put, the study of genetics can be used to help us understand political behaviour and how people vote.

This follows a trend — domains and schools of thought, once the purview and authority of the human and social sciences, are now being encroached upon, infiltrated and assimilated by the harder sciences. The neurosciences has contributed more recently to the understanding of human thought than philosophers would like to admit. Throwing up conceptual issues and dilemmas that threaten to leave the philosophers behind.

The suggestion that humans exhibit inherent variability in their willingness to participate in politics is one that unlocks a whole manner of Orwellian thinking. In 2008 James Fowler and Christopher Dawes put forth that people in their study showed a gene interaction that increased the likelihood of voting. The two genes they pinpointed were monoamine oxidase (MAOA) and the serotonin transport protein 5HTT. The finding that those that had the “high” variant of the gene voted at a higher rate than those with the “low” variant.

But is it as simple as that?

The genome is a large place. The simple fact is that hundreds of genes, both in combination and permutations, have their influence on any number of social cues. This is why most studies bypass looking at the whole picture. Choosing, instead, to focus on “candidate” genes, in what is called a candidate gene association study, where gene variant is proposed to predict a given behaviour. The inherent simplicity of conducting a study in this way has, undoubtedly, shown some remarkable results. With researchers linking genes to all manner of social behaviours — from predicting voting behavior, partisanship and party identification, liberal political ideology, credit card debt, to antisocial personality, and even leadership.

The genes coded for MAOA and 5-HTT are two genes among an estimated 25,000–30,000 genes (an estimation of only protein coding genes). The two simple “high” and “low” variant polymorphisms of the two genes that the researchers looked at are simply a handful in anywhere from 3–15 million possible polymorphisms throughout the human genome. Add to this, hundreds of single nucleotide polymorphisms and structural variations, the likelihood of a specific predictive behavioural outcome becomes less and less.

In a world where every vote counts the genetics of political behaviour are becoming an increasingly interesting area of science to look at. One that straddles both sides of the fence, incorporating both social and genetic sciences. But without a more robust way of measuring genotype against phenotype (the vast array of complex behavioral traits that rely on an outdated genetic paradigm), it seems a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Image — source

CHARNEY, E., & ENGLISH, W. (2012). Candidate Genes and Political Behavior American Political Science Review, 106 (01), 1-34 DOI: 10.1017/S0003055411000554

ALFORD, J., FUNK, C., & HIBBING, J. (2005). Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted? American Political Science Review, 99 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0003055405051579

Fowler, J., & Dawes, C. (2008). Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout The Journal of Politics, 70 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0022381608080638


What had I twaught…

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