On Biopolitics…

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In last Wednesday’s Cup O’ Coffee post, I linked to a post by Larry Arnhart on the impact genetics might have on people’s political attitudes (henceforth referred to as biopolitics).  This debate is not new – over the past 30 years evidence for the heritability of social and political attitudes has accrued in the fields of political science, psychology, and behavioral genetics.

Critics are often quick to point out that, according to the logic of evolutionary biology, there is almost no way our genes can influence our responses to specific policy positions.  The critics ask: how could there be a genetic basis for people’s attitudes towards for instance, the government mandate that all everyone must purchase health insurance or pay a fine, when such an issue may only be relevant in certain countries at certain times?   In other words, relevant issues and ideologies themselves, are in an almost constant state of flux so how can there be a universal, genetic basis for political predispositions?

A recent paper by Smith, Oxley, Hibbing, Alford, and Hibbing, published in 2011 in the journal Political Psychology, responds to this charge by presenting a conceptual model for how genetics exert their influence on social and political attitudes.  In this post I will broadly outline their model in an attempt to help clarify the debate on the heritability of social and political attitudes.

Before we delve into the model, a brief excursion, onto the topic of causality is necessary.  A scientist’s ultimate goal, whether he or she is a researcher in the social sciences (e.g., anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology) or the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics), is to draw causal conclusions.  The claim that genetics predisposes people to hold certain social and political attitudes is a causal conclusion.  Causal links between variables however, can be classified as direct or indirect.

A direct causal effect of genetics means that simply by possessing a particular gene or genes an individual will adopt specific social and political attitudes.  In other words, A (genes) causes B (social and political attitudes).  Smith, et al., referred to this type of causal model as a “simplistic vision of the connection between genetics and political attitudes” (p. 371).  In contrast, an indirect causal effect of genetics means that the influence exerted by genetics on social and political attitudes occurs through intermediary variables (known as mediators).

Smith, et al., proposed that an individual’s genes result in individual differences in key neurotransmitter systems (e.g., dopamine reward system).  These individual differences in biological systems, in turn, affect cognitive and emotional processing tendencies which then affect an individual’s personality and value traits.  People’s personality type and values influence their preferences for certain bedrock issues of social organization and finally their attitudes on specific social and political issues.  With the exception of an individual’s genetics, the remaining variables are all subject to environmental influences.

Smith, et al.’s model is a welcome contribution to the literature of biopolitics.  It seeks to clarify definitions of terms in the debate.  This is a valuable exercise because, in my view, debates often begin with a confusion of how to define key terms.  The paper’s key contribution is to advance the suggestion that ideology be reconceptualized as something more than a collection of specific issue preferences.  Smith, et al., argue that ideology encompasses a wide range of an individual’s preferences.  These include preferences for religion (or lack of), educational styles, occupation, art and music, child rearing practices, leisure pursuits, humor, and bedrock issues of social organization (AKA: political ideology).

Thus, ideology is considered superordiante to political ideology, which in turn is defined as preferences on how to solve mass-scale social-organization dilemmas. The model hinges on the acceptance that “all mass-scale social units face common dilemmas” (p. 379).  Smith, et al., cite the work of Peterson (2009) as a starting point for a list of such dilemmas (see, Peterson, p. 368-369):

  • Sharing
  • Collective Action
  • Punishment of Free-Riders, Exploiters, and Deviants
  • Management of Intergroup Relations
  • Negotiation of Status Hierarchies

Common dilemmas such as these (and in some cases more and/or different dilemmas) have been suggested and detected by a number of theorists who investigate the motivational underpinnings of an individual’s political ideology (see, Smith, et al., for some examples). Additionally, by proposing a direct effect of environment of preferences for bedrock issues of social organization, in addition to the indirect effect of genetics, the model accounts for individual differences in environment (e.g., time period, culture, social class).  To briefly summarize, the causal effects on social and political attitudes proposed in Smith, et al’s., model are:

Direct Effects:

  1. Preferences on Bedrock Issues of Mass Social-Organization — Attitudes on Specific Social and Political Issues
  2. Environment –> Preferences on Bedrock Issues of Mass Social-Organization
  3. Personality and Value Traits –> Preferences on Bedrock Issues of Mass Social-Organization
  4. Environment –> Attitudes on Specific Social and Political Issues
  5. Environment –> Personality and Value Traits

In addition to these 5 there are another 5 direct effects…

  1. Environment –> Biological Systems
  2. Environment –> Cognition/Emotion Information Processing Biases
  3. Genetics–> Biological Systems
  4. Biological Systems –> Cognition/Emotion Information Processing Biases
  5. Cognition/Emotion Information Processing Biases –> Personality and Value Traits

 

Indirect Effects*:

  1. Genetics –> Preferences on Bedrock Issues of Mass Social-Organization (genetics impacts bio systems, which impact info processing biases, which impact personality and value traits)
  2. Genetics –> Attitudes on Specific Social and Political Issues (genetics impacts bio systems, which impact info processing biases, which impact personality and value traits, which impact preferences on bedrock issues of mass-social organization)
  3. Personality and Value Traits –> Attitudes on Specific Social and Political Issues (personality and value traits impact preferences on bedrock issues of mass-social organization)

 

While the review of this scholarly article may have been a long way to make this next point, it is beneficial because it demonstrates the complexity of the phenomenon under investigation.  The point however is this, very few proponents of the biopolitics propose that genetics entirely determines attitudes on specific social and political issues.  Their claim is much more nuanced.  They argue that an individual’s genes have an indirect effect on the attitudes they adopt towards specific social and political issues.  They readily acknowledge that the environment can often have more direct effects – albeit through interactions with a person’s genetic predispositions.

Proponents of biopolitics essentially adopt the maxim “nature via nurture” used by the biologist Matt Ridley.  We, as individuals, are the outcome of a complex interplay between our genes and our environment.    Very few genes actually possess the characteristic of complete genetic determinism – when possession of a gene guarantees the presence of a particular trait or condition.  As Smith, et al., note, “the environment is intimately involved in the expression of genes” (p. 375).   Given this position, it is woefully inaccurate to cast the arguments emerging from biopolitics as grounded in genetic determinism. Critics of the discipline who employ such an argument are knocking down a straw-man.  The phenomenon being debated is quite intriguing and deserves a higher level of discussion.

* There are a number of other indirect effects that are not listed.  For example, biological systems have an indirect on personality and value traits (through info processing biases), preferences on bedrock issues of mass social-organization (through info-processing biases and personality and value traits), and attitudes on specific social and political issues (through info-processing biases, personality and value traits, and preferences on bedrock issues of mass social-organization.  

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