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Voting Democratic Tomorrow? You May Have the "Liberal Gene."

election day 2010Scientists have discovered what they believe to be a “liberal gene,” and yes, there’s likely a conservative gene, too.

Scientists at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University determined that “people who carry a variant of the DRD4 gene are more likely to be liberals as adults, depending on the number of friendships they had during high school,” Discovery News reports.  The latter part of that sentence is an odd caveat, leaving me to wonder about a chicken-egg sort of relationship between friendliness and liberalism, which, it turns out, I’m right to ponder.

The four authors of the study, published in The Journal of Politics, note that “the 7R variant of DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene, had previously been associated with novelty seeking.”  The hypothesis being that “novelty seeking would be related to openness, a psychological trait that has been associated with political liberalism.”  This chicken-egg relationship between friendships and liberalism is an example of the combined effects of nurture and nature in human development.  (People who are genetically pre-disposed to being liberal are friendly.  People who are friendly wind up being liberal.)  Interestingly, “ten friends can move a person with two copies of 7R allele almost halfway from being a conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal.”  The Week adds, “Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or cultural background, if a subject had the DRD4-7R gene and an active social life as a teenager, he or she was likely to be liberal.”

What’s even more fascinating is that study participants without this gene showed no relationship between number of friends and political leanings.  So it’s not that Republicans are anti-social loners, but that they are unmoved by groups of people.  (Ahem.  It doesn’t take a scientist…)

James Fowler, lead author of the study and both a geneticist and political scientist (who clearly has the overachiever gene) says, “Psychologists have asserted for many years that social conservatism is heritable,” but scientists have not yet isolated a “conservative gene.”  Fowler believes it’s “likely that political ideology has been passed down genetically for tens of millions of years, as being conservative was beneficial in some periods and being liberal helped in others,” according to The Week.  Fowler reasons, “If it made sense for us all to be liberal, natural selection would have made us all liberal.”  (And so it follows that if it made sense for us all to be straight, natural selection would have made us all straight.  Then again, it may be moot to reason with the right on gay issues.  Uber-conservatives don’t believe in science.)

Discovery News notes that “Prior studies on twins had found that about a third of variation in political attitudes could be attributed to genes and approximately half of the variation explained by environment.”  Our own Paula Bernstein inadvertently proved the truth of that statement when she recently met her twin sister, Elyse, whom she had no idea existed prior to their mid-life introduction.  In the book about their encounter, Identical Strangers, Paula and Elyse write:

“We both consider ourselves liberals and seem to hold the same opinions on hot-button topics such as abortion, school prayer, gay rights, and the death penalty.  Compared to our parents, who tend to be more middle of the road, Elyse and I fall somewhere left of center.  One would expect that our political views would be entirely shaped by our environment, but research suggests otherwise.”

The only thing that concerns me about this study, and partisanship in general, is that fully fleshed-out humans are not so black-and-white.  I identify as liberal, but I’m conservative in certain ways.  I believe in God, a spiritual entity many of my liberal friends are willing to eschew.  I hate to see teenage girls running around half-naked, yet at the same time, I have adult friends who are burlesque dancers.  These subtle contradictions and complexities are just what Jon Stewart was trying to highlight with his Rally to Restore Sanity this weekend.  Will sanity be restored at the polls tomorrow?  That remains to be seen.  I guess how you’ll end up feeling at the end of the day depends on your genes.

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