Are politics genetic?

By: Cristen Conger

A voting gene?

Does Republicanism run in the Bush bloodline? Possibly.
Does Republicanism run in the Bush bloodline? Possibly.
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

From an evolutionary perspective, genopolitics doesn't make much sense at first blush considering there were no political rallies or elections during the Stone Age. Cavemen did, however, have to learn cooperation to foster group survival, which is where behavioral geneticists suspect these alleged voting genes sprang from [source: Scientific American]. Assuming that's a valid theory, precisely how DNA determines people's inclinations to vote red or blue is fairly straightforward.

The theory of genopolitics contends that since genes have been known to tailor people's emotional responses and social temperaments, biological nature is a significant sculptor (roughly 50 percent or so) of people's political ideologies [source: Carey]. Put another way, politics is inherently emotionally and psychologically evocative, and people are genetically hardwired to respond to it in certain ways. While upbringing and environment also mold perspectives, recent studies are finding that genetic mechanisms controlling impulsive reactions fundamentally sway people's support or opposition to platforms such as gay marriage, school prayer and gun rights. Genopolitics also helps explain documented psychological correlations between preferences for structure and conservatism and laxity and liberalism [source: Wenner].


In 2008, genopolitics received a major boost in exposure when University of California, San Diego political scientist James Fowler published a study spotlighting two genes, MAOA and 5HTT, possibly linked to political behavior [source: Cohen]. Both genes help regulate the production of serotonin in areas of the brain associated with processing fear, trust and social interaction, all three of which are determinants of voting behavior [source: Fowler and Dawes]. That said, identifying a couple of contributing genes doesn't mean they're the only pair pushing people to the polls. In 2011, the National Science Foundation also published a report lauding the new field of genopolitics while cautioning against leaping to misguided conclusions that liberalism or conservatism can be boiled down to particular strands of DNA [source: Leeper]. Genopolitics study authors reiterate as well that the nature side of politics likely is the handiwork of hundreds of genes [source: Cohen].

The overwhelming power of nurture also shouldn't be cast aside in wake of genopolitics' cutting-edge buzz, either. Critics of the idea of political genes abound, and even supporters of the comparatively nascent field agree that, throughout the lifespan, environment remains king when it comes to how people vote [source: Scientific American]. Long after adults leave home and can freely distance themselves from their family's influence, major events and societal shakeups can further reshape their political outlooks. Consider, for instance, how after the Aurora, Colo., shooting massacre in 2012, the Second Amendment guaranteeing Americans the right to bear arms seemed to receive a jolt in popularity as gun sales leapt around the country [source: Feldmann]. Following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, 30 percent of survivors reported more conservative political stances, while 15 percent swung more liberal [source: Wenner]. In other words, genes and nature might lay the hardwired foundation of personal politics, but to the extent that researchers empirically understand, environment and nurture are the bricks and mortar of how those politics evolve over time. And in many ways, both nature and nurture alike, people can thank their parents for that.