Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Liberalism the wind, conservatism the ballast

In the six years I have been writing this blog I have assiduously avoided politics. Certainly I have greatly widened the scope of topics since Science Musings retired from the Globe, but politics has been a no-no. Lord knows there are enough places on the web to wax political.

Still, I'm sure readers have intuited my political stance, and, if pressed, I will confess to being a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.


I was raised in a conservative part of the South. My parents were not particularly political; at least they didn't talk much about it. My family was Roman Catholic, a religion not known for progressivism. My education was conservative. By most measures I should lean to the right.

It's true I live in Massachusetts, a traditional bastion of liberalism. But I came here from conservative Tennessee and Indiana precisely because of my admiration for a progressivism that went all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau.

Could I have been born a leftie?
Liberal streaks run deep, a new genetic study suggests. James Fowler, a social networks researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues looked at whether 2574 American teenagers harbored copies of a variant of a dopamine receptor gene, known as DRD4-R7, that has been associated with novelty seeking. The team found that teens with the variant were significantly more likely than others to describe themselves as liberal -- but only if they also had many friends. Loners were just as conservative as teens without the novelty-seeking variant. The team looked for DRD4-R7 because liberals "tend to be more progressive and more receptive to new ideas," Fowler explains. They were surprised to find that friends were a mediating factor, Fowler says. But without friends, "you might spend your time seeking new foods or new experiences" rather than other points of view. "This is a solid and intriguing paper that could spark lots of future work," says sociologist James Moody of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But he cautions that it's also "clearly a first-step paper." Fowler agrees that more work is needed. Still, "it's easy to see there are political personalities," he says. And if genes can influence personalities, they might also influence politics. (Science, 5 November, 2010)
So, is DRD4-R7 lurking in my genome? Is my proudly-worn badge of liberalism really just a matter of neurotransmitters? Is it all about an inborn predilection for novelty?

It's pretty generally acknowledged that artists and scholars tend to be liberal, and they are primarily defined by novelty-seeking. That should be the researchers' next step: Do artists have a greater prevalence of the dopamine receptor gene variant than the general population?

We should take all of this stuff with a hefty grain of salt, but I don't doubt for a moment that much of what we consider to be personality has a genetic component. As sequencing becomes ever cheaper, and genomes are ever more widely sampled, expect more research like the study noted above. In the meantime, let's not talk politics here. You can address any political questions to my DRD4-R7.