The 2000 presidential election may have hung on some hanging chads, but new evidence suggests that a handful of genes may be influencing election outcomes more than we think.
Genetic studies find that nature may be playing as significant a role as nurture when it comes to political traits. Certainly, learning and environmental factors play a role too in the development of political opinions, but new gene studies indicate that people may have natural tendencies when it comes to political ideology and partisanship, voting behavior and engaging in political violence.
In a review article published Monday in the journal Trends in Genetics, lead author Peter Hatemi, a professor in the political science, microbiology and biochemistry departments at Pennsylvania State University, said that making people aware of how their political behavior is shaped has implications for foreign policy, public health, attitude change, reducing discrimination and much else.
"We're seeing an awakening in the social sciences, and the wall that divided politics and genetics is really starting to fall apart," Hatemi said in a news release "This is a big advance, because the two fields could inform each other to answer some very complex questions about individual differences in political views."
It has long been assumed that environment and social influences had the biggest impact on a person's political preferences, but new research finds that genetics may play a larger role in political behavior than previously believed. For example, although adolescent experiences can influence political ideology, studies that looked at twins suggest how genetics comes into play. Comparisons between identical and fraternal twins found that once teenagers left home, only identical twins maintained similar viewpoints, while fraternal twins were more likely to hold divergent views.
This suggests that genetics – not just environment – may shape political ideology and partisanship.
Because the human genome is very complex, political traits are likely influenced by thousands of genetic markers. In other words, there is no specific gene tied to a specific political opinion.
It may be that certain genetic propensities may influence our emotions, which, in turn, influence political beliefs. For example, a tendency for high pathogen avoidance and phobias may manifest itself as xenophobia and ethnocentrism.
In particular, researchers have found specific genes that seem significant. Genes that have to do with dopamine and serotonin -- two chemicals in the brain known to influence emotion -- appear to have an effect on socialization, voter turnout and political participation. For example, researchers have already identified a gene on a dopamine receptor that causes people to have a large number of friends. Interestingly, these people tend to be more liberal.
However, experts caution that while genes certainly influence political behavior, it is not to say that there is a definite correlation.
"What you have to think of is more like genes encoding for height," said Nancy Cox, professor and section chief of genetic medicine at the University of Chicago. She emphasized that although there is some causality related to genes, many environmental factors also play a role, and "there is a very large number of genes whose variants help determine what a final adult height might be.
"Similarly, something as complex as political views may be influenced by genetics, but what you see is a cumulative effect of those very small genetic effects."
Identifying how genes are expressed in politics may influence public policy. For example, discussions about health care reform or social welfare may be related to fundamental beliefs about resource allocation.
"Making the public aware of how their mind works and affects their political behavior is critically important," Hatemi said. "This has real implications for the reduction of discrimination, foreign policy, public health, attitude change and many other political issues."