The idea that there is a genetic code that decides our political hue is far-fetched and dangerous – politics should be about persuasion.
Future expectant parents may not only be speculating about the possible colour of their offspring's eyes or hair, but also their political hue, if recent research is to be believed.
Last week, the New Scientist ran a cover feature on how “political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to change”. Even the likelihood that we will vote can be affected by our genes, it appears. One political scientist quoted in the piece suggested that your political hue is as hereditary as your eye colour: “Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes.”
After a particularly arduous thread on Cif, where opposing factions dig into their trenches and refuse to budge, I'm almost tempted to agree. And I'm sure many of us have had those moments at parties when, after being held hostage by a fanatical debater who will accept no dissent, we eventually crack, then surrender, and humour him or her to secure our release.
But what about all those reasonable, sensible people who are willing to be swayed – is that also genetic?
Looking at myself, there seems to be at least a grain of truth in the theory. Both my parents are dedicated socialists. While I like to think of myself as non-aligned ideologically and see all political systems as imperfect (although some are more imperfect than others), my views tend to fall on the left-liberal side of the spectrum.
But how much of this is nature and how much nurture? In addition, how does this theory explain the areas where I have radically different views to my parents?
I'm actually not convinced that we're born with hardwired political stripes and I would actually be interested to see how innate Cifers think their own political leanings are.
One problem I have with this “determinist” theory is that it seems to sideline rationality in the political equation and rob us somewhat of our freewill. It also seems to suggest that our political leanings cannot change radically or evolve gradually in a completely different direction.
I am a person who likes to think that my political convictions were largely arrived at through the hard graft of weighing up various alternatives and choosing between them. Of course, I do realise that some people prefer to go with their instincts, or their “gut” if they happen to be the current “leader of the free world”. But I prefer to keep my politics out of the sewer.
Moreover, I find the evidence presented so sparse and circumstantial as to prove inconclusive, and, even if our genes do affect our politics, the relationship is so complex that we will likely never understand it.
Since politics is a very recent development in our evolutionary history, there is no actual genetic code for “red”, “blue”, “green” or “pinko”. According to this theory, the correlation between our genes and our politics is not a direct one but passes via the medium of personality, which supposedly plays a large part in determining our politics.
So people with an “open” personality are more likely to be liberal, while “conscientious” folk are more likely to be conservative. In addition, despite the conservative accusations that liberals are “cowardly”, research on the link between fear and politics found that conservatives are four times more likely to be afraid of such things as death than liberals.
While it's flattering to think of oneself as more open, surely there are open-minded conservatives out there. And why should a liberal tend to be less conscientious? I mean we liberals can find the time during our busy, limp-wristed, tree-hugging, woolly-minded, bleeding-heart schedules to put in an honest day's work.
And even if there is a clear link between personality types and politics, how exactly do we measure something as mercurial, elusive and subjective as “openness” and “conscientiousness”?
In one test, 40 subjects were asked to push a button every time a certain letter flashed up on a computer screen. In 20% of cases, a different letter appeared. Those who resisted pushing the button when this occurred were deemed to be more able to deal with conflicting information, a hallmark of openness. And, as chance, or our genes, would have it, the resisters tended to be the most liberal politically.
The first problem with such an experiment is that the sample is too small to be generalised. I'm also dubious that such a simple test can even begin to penetrate the mystery and complexity of a notion as expansive as “openness”.
More importantly, even if we do possess a certain genetic disposition for particular personality types, there is no guarantee that this will be “activated”. There are so many other factors at play – the influences of family, friends, society, experience, education, etc – as to make the net effect negligible.
It is tempting to believe that there is some essential, inviolable “me” lurking deep inside, and this search to uncover him or her in our genes is like a secular quest to find our souls. But this probably isn't the case. For instance, if I'd been raised by different parents, had different friends, studied other subjects, read different books and lived in different environments, I would be a very different person – perhaps even, horror of horrors, a conservative.
At the moment, this is all harmless academic fun, but what if political genetics one day becomes politicised? What if political groups start using genetics to identify the “enemy”? How frightening would that be in totalitarian or authoritarian states?
There are countries round the world where, for various historical and geopolitical reasons, do not enjoy the benefits of democracy. Perhaps some geneticists of the James Watson ilk might start “developing” this theory further to suggest that certain races or groups are just not genetically equipped to deal with or appreciate democracy – a variation on the ridiculous notion that foreigners hate us because they hate our freedoms.
Politics is about persuasion and it would be admitting defeat to start believing that our biology makes it difficult or unlikely to change people's political colours.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 8 February 2008.