Traditionally, political orientation has been thought to be largely a product of one’s social network and upbringing. Recently, however, scientists have tried to tie together political orientation with evolutionary theory. One man looked at the research and drew conclusions about what makes our political identity. This is what he found.
For a layman, predicting political orientation is simple: Grow up in a Republican-dense neighborhood and you’ll end up Republican; surround yourself with Democrats and you’ll vote Democrat on Election Day. It’s all social influence. Plain and simple.
For someone like Avi Tuschman, the task is more difficult. He is an evolutionary anthropologist who has pulled together findings from hundreds of studies in a new book, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. The main premise of the book is this: Our political behaviour can be traced back to three different clusters of personality traits, consisting of various attitudes toward tribalism, inequality, and different perceptions of human nature. Each of these, in turn, can be traced back to different evolutionary forces, such as the competition for mates. To develop his ideas, Tuschman has collected research from genetics, neurology, primatology, and anthropology.
Research on how our genes influence political behaviour, or genopolitics, took a leap in the early nineties when Thomas Bouchard compared political orientations of twins who had been raised apart. Identical twins raised apart showed significant similarities in political orientation, whereas fraternal twins raised apart did not show such similarity. This gave Bouchard a clue: Perhaps political orientation isn’t just about nurture, but also about nature.
Today, many scientists believe that biology determines part of our political orientation. Tuschman says that the left-right spectrum is universal in politics—it forms a bell-shaped curve—and that the Big Five personality test can predict quite well where people fall on this spectrum. Extraverts generally lean toward the liberal side and conscientious people generally lean toward the conservative. These personality traits, in turn, have even deeper evolutionary origins.
Tuschman mentions a curious episode involving British actor Colin Firth: In 2010, Firth asked scientists what was “biologically wrong” with people who didn’t agree with him. This sparked a study at University College London with 90 students, who rated their political orientation on a 5-point scale, from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’, before stepping into a MRI scanner. The researchers found that the more conservative students tended to have larger amygdalae (a part of the brain involved in emotional processing), whereas the more liberal students tended to have larger anterior cingulate cortices (a part of the brain involved in rational cognitive processing).
This finding matches that of another study from 2008, where randomly chosen participants were attached to physiological measuring equipment and then shown 3 threatening images, interspersed among a sequence of 33 images. A second test measured participants’ involuntary response to a startling noise. Again, a link between biology and political orientation was found: People who reacted more strongly to the stimuli more often expressed support for defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. People who reacted less strongly to the stimuli more often expressed support for foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control.
Tuschman also has some interesting thoughts on gender roles. He claims that one reason people on the political right often favour male dominance and female subservience is that this would allow greater opportunities to mate with the in-group, and lower the chance that women would be able to reproduce with members of out-groups. Those leaning toward the left, on the other hand, are supposedly less concerned about reproducing with the in-group, and thus generally support more equality between the sexes. In extremely conservative societies sexual harassment of women is often permitted; Tuschman says that while some may excuse this as “just” male chauvinism, the function of these conservative ideas is to control reproduction.
It is important to note that there isn’t a single “gene for X,” such that if you have a certain gene you’re guaranteed to have a certain political orientation. Rather, a complex set of genes helps shape your personality, which in turn makes you more likely to lean either left or right.
John Podhoretz once wrote that while one’s race and gender don’t change, one’s political affiliation can change at will. In light of the findings of recent research, it seems that this may be less true than previously thought. While it is unclear whether these findings will result in any practical implications if nothing else, the knowledge that political orientation may not simply be a choice of free will may serve to temper the political debate.