Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford.
If a conservative is a person who clings to what is, who resists change and who distrusts innovation, then, to pick an example at random, a New York Times op-ed writer is a conservative. The last thing anybody who works at that paper wants is a change in the culture. Except for eliminating his enemies, he wants everything to stay just as it is.
What’s a liberal? Somebody who delights in the new? Who’s willing to take risks? Who thrills venturing into the unknown? Who is happy to leave other people alone as long as they leave him alone? Then, brother, Yours Truly is as liberal as they come. The last thing I want is a continuance of Modernity.
Maybe I had no choice except to be so liberal. Maybe each of us born with our politics and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why, babies born and raised in China, Kenya, or Fiji, were they transported here as eighteen-year-olds, would surely line up reflexively at the polls behind the jackass or elephant.
Sound strange? Well the key thesis behind Hibbing’s book is that we can “measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and [that] these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context” (emphasis original). Neuro- or bio-politics, as it were, is a new field, and one for which I have some sympathy. Our biology surely accounts for some of our behavior.
Yet I can’t figure the academy out. Haven’t we heard we’re all born equal, that none of us are different except for the pernicious or beneficent environment in which we were raised?
Take a lump of genes wrapped in skin and from birth let it live with two adults (let’s not be judgmental and call them “parents”) who listen to NPR, shop for organic food, and who attend marches for X Rights (where X is variable), and that lump will grow up to be one of the bien pensant. Or let him slog it out with a blue-collar mom and dad who watch Fox News, eat donuts, go to church, and attend Fourth of July parades. Then the lump will turn into Patrick Buchanan. Or Yours Truly. Environment and education—nurture, that is—rules.
But the academy also tells us there is no such thing as free will, that our genes our “selfish”, that our choices are made for us by that which is us biologically but not us mentally, that our behavior is hard-wired, that the reason we don’t like arugula is because of this gene, and the reason we are generous is because of that gene.
Hibbing and pals are somewhere in the middle—definitely not in the first camp. The view that “social context alone determines human behavior…has been a source of misunderstanding and even catastrophe throughout history.” Biology plays an under-appreciated role.
For example, they say it is because of biology that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women—no! Wait. No, no. That can’t be right. I correct myself. Absolutely not. Math ability can’t be genetic. Do you think these guys are some kind of sexists? No, sir. What Hibbing and others say is that the way we act politically is partly genetic.
They have the statistics to prove it. Weak, almost non-existent-correlation, small-sample, based-on-questionnaires, limited-applicability statistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger collection of maybes, perhaps, probablys, could bes, supposings, possibles.
Here’s the problem. To prove any biological component of ideology you first have to separate the sheep from the goats. Only way to do that is to ask questions, which must be shaded such that divisions can be found, further supposing these divisions are forever fixed. These divisions will be fuzzy and accompanied by great uncertainty. Next is to investigate some ideologically driven behavior, like (they claim) smell preference or what jokes people think funny. That, too, will be measured with error. Last is to correlate the two measures (almost always using a straight line) and report on statistical “significance.” Unless the measurement error is accounted for, which is never is, the conclusions will be far, far too certain, which (as far as I could tell) they always were for the studies reported in this book.
Nobody outside the academy disagrees that biology is influential in our makeup. Some people are naturally delightful, like Yours Truly, and some are naturally bitter pills, like Harry Reid. Some of us are inveterately honest (me) and others choke on the truth (Reid). Others have massive intellects (you know who) while some can only parrot easily won slogans (thanks, Nevada). And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.
Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep. The few studies Hibbing cites show twins are often found to be on opposite sides of the same questions, but perhaps not quite to the same rate as non-identical siblings. Environment plays its part: our intellects are ever at work. A man who was a liberal (as that word is commonly thought of) for much of his life can change to be a conservative, and vice versa.
The biological signal of political views is weak at best. I was convinced by none of the studies described in the book, all of which used the kinds of classical statistics (p-values, mostly) which guarantee over-certainty. Though there is enough evidence (from the book and elsewhere) to say biology is often determinative. Why didn’t the authors look to, say, intelligence, which has a robust biological signal? Too political: the findings go in the wrong direction.
Anyway, the authors are keen on their program: they claim their research will bring happiness to one and all by drawing a parallel argument about the course of the politics of homosexuality.
If recognizing that sexual orientation is anchored partially in biology leads to greater tolerance of different lifestyle choices, recognizing that political ideology is also tied to biology will lead to greater tolerance of different political viewpoints.
My knuckles locked up on writing “lifestyle choices” (thank God for the lubricating powers of whiskey), and there is hardly definitive proof how much if any homosexuality is caused by biology (but let that pass), but this is balderdash. I’ll tell you what will be “recognized.” When somebody disagrees with a progressive on a political point, he’ll recognize that his opponent is genetically defective. God help us when genetics testing becomes (more) commonplace than it is (especially in abortion decisions).
A last funny thing. The studies of political differences due to biology strangely always come down on the side of liberals. I keep a list of these studies (here and here) and they invariably paint a dark picture of traditionalists. Oh, and yes: there are increasing calls for selective breeding.