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TAG | behavior genetics



The politics of science

Bryan Caplan observes of Behaviorial Geneticists versus Policy Implications:

In most disciplines, experts oversell their ability to give useful policy advice. In behavioral genetics, however, experts strangely undersell their ability to give useful policy advice….

…The upshot: Behavioral genetics makes its politically-correct critics angry because the scientists are putting the politically correct in an awkward position: Deny the science, abandon some of their favorite policies, or sound like dogmatic ideologues. It’s no wonder that they’re angry – and no wonder that they deny the science. They’re not just making the best of a bad situation; they’re also getting a little revenge on the researchers responsible for their unpleasant predicament.

As they say, “read the whole thing!” Currently the most emailed piece in The New York Times is Rising Above I.Q. Scientists know very well the sort of research and findings intellectuals and the public find acceptable. One set of conclusions will usher a chorus of denounciations, while others will prompt laudatory praise.


There are a series of papers out right now which show the positive relationship between political conservatism and reflexive disgust responses. Instead of summarizing the research myself I will point you to Observations of a Nerd, who does a really good job. The only caution I would add is that the post has a rather disgusting illustration of a toilet, so it seems possible that the author is skewing the readership toward liberals who are more likely to be able to overcome their revulsion!

In any case, as with most psychological models this is a complex one with many shades of gray. For example, it seems likely that human aversion to the odor of rotting meat and bodily waste is reflexive and innate in a very deep sense. There doesn’t need to be a very suble adaptive explanation for this since the risks of consuming bad meat are rather high (I have read that the majority of the mild illneses experience in our lives are probably due to food poisoning!). On the other hand aversions to specific foods, such as taboos against consumption of certain types of meat, are learned behaviors which tend to crystalize during one’s pre-teen years. Though an aversion to dog or pig meat is not hardwired, proximately the way people respond to these is not learned, but rather a co-option of innate disgust responses which are primed by cultural norms toward specific stimuli.

There is human variation in this. We all know that some people are picky eaters while others are adventurous. This generalizes to many aspects of life in terms of openness to the novel and new. Not surprisingly one of the most significant correlates of political liberalism within the population is openness to the novel and new. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has constructed a model to explain the emergence of political worldviews out of lower level moral dispositions, and naturally these moral dispositions themselves probably emerge from even lower psychological biases.

What is the moral, so to speak, of these research projects? One implication is that much political talk (though not all) about the axioms which drive our orientations are simply plausible stories which our conscious pre-frontal cortex generates as a “reasonable” facade on top of deeper emotionally driven commitments. The model that politics derives from explicit principles, as opposed to intuitive dispositions, naturally results in attempts of reasoned “dialogue.” But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.

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Will Wilkinson has a post up, The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?, which riffed off some opinions in regards to the swing back toward “primal” values which I perceive to be the norm in modern liberal societies. Some of the comments on Will’s post objected to my contention that political orientation is heritable. First, I do not believe that liberalism or conservatism, as we understand it today in the United States, was selected for in the past. Rather, there are personality traits which seem to predispose one to being inclined toward liberal or conservative politics. For example, there is a strong correlation between “Openness to experience” and political liberalism. Depending on the personality traits in question one can expect heritabilities in the range of 0.2 to 0.8, with a rough working rule of thumb of 0.5. By heritability I simply refer to the amount of variation in the population that can be attributed to variation in genes.

So when I suggest that someone has different likelihoods of being liberal, I do not mean in any absolute sense where liberalism and conservatism are fixed. Rather, I mean in terms of disposition so that a liberal is one who is more open to change and disruption of established norms and values. In the 3rd century Europeans who converted to Christianity away from the pagan customs of their kith and kith would probably have a different personality profile than those who remained pagan. Today I suspect that Europeans who leave the Christian religion have a similar personality profile to those 3rd century Christians, as what is “new” and “novel” has changed. Conservative and liberal dispositions exist against a contemporary population reference.

Also, there was some objection to the idea of liberal and conservative insofar as are historically embedded terms. That is, the Left and Right only making sense after the French Revolution. I think at the end of the day this is semantics, and I am willing to substitute a new word for “liberal” and “conservative” dispositions if that will satisfy political philosophy nerds. Classicists are wont to note that identifying the Populares with the Left and the Optimates with the Right is bound to confuse more than clarify, as ancient polities did not have the same concerns and tensions as modern ones. Fair enough, but I think one can see a dispositional difference insofar as the Optimates were ostensibly defending proximate injustice with the ultimate aim of preserving the customs & traditions of the Republic which had within them embedded latent functions.

Finally on my point that history does not always move in one direction, it seems to me that collapse of the idea of absolute monarchy in the 18th century was simply a reversion to the more consensual politics dominant in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Barbarian northern Europe had for example a strong tradition of elective monarchy, and the power of local magnates in the face of almost ceremonial monarchs is well known. The English Civil War, or the chaos around the Fronde can be seen as conflicts which pitted the conservative decentralists against the forward thinking absolutists (by 1700 these two conflicts had set the stage for a radically different status quos which shaped the character of political discourse in France and England during the Enlightenment). Of course the terminology can confuse, and a thick knowledge of local historical conditions are necessary to understand in which direction history was moving.

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Judith Rich Harris & nurture & nature

Since Bradlaugh & Heather have mentioned Judith Rich Harris, I would recommend both of her books, The Nurture Assumption & No Two Alike to any reader who wishes be introduced to behavior genetics.   You can also check out my interview of Harris from a few years back. For the more politically inclined, a summary of a discussion in The Corner about Ms. Harris’ ideas.

The core of Judith Rich Harris’ reason for offering her thesis is simple; for decades behavioral geneticists have found that on a wide range of traits human population level variation is predicted by the following components:

50% genetic variation
10% shared environment variation
40% other environment variation


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