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How Your Political Views Are Shaped By Your Genes

If political psychologists are right, and certain beliefs are bred into us by natural selection, is there any hope for bridging the growing gulf between left and right?

“Through the darkness, We can find a pathway… That will take us halfway… to the stars…” 

That’s the opening line to a song written by the former Republican Senator for Utah Orrin Hatch, and dedicated to his good friend Ted Kennedy. In 2008, the Democrat elder statesman was diagnosed with cancer, so Hatch penned the song, called “Headed Home,” to express his wish to see him take his seat in the Senate once more, and as a tribute to their decades-long cross-party friendship. (Kennedy, who died in 2009, was always a fan of his Republican pal’s songwriting sideline and would often get his chief of staff to serenade Hatch with his own tunes in an effort to soften his stance on opposing legislation.) 

The song itself, sung in gravelly Cash-gargles-Sinatra tones by Broadway singer Tony Middleton, is actually not bad, both saccharine and kind of touching. In today’s climate of unbounded bitterness and bile being slung on all sides of public debate, it serves as a demonstration of how old-school political disagreement got done. 

Ah, 10 years ago — how hokey and dignified it all was. But below the video, scroll down the page past the initial few appreciative comments, and you get: “Orrin Hatch always comes down on the side of ‘political correctness’ while striving to deceive his constituents into believing he works for them.” And then, a few posts later, directed at Kennedy, “One of the worst human beings to walk the planet!” And then, inevitably, it’s endless scratching each other’s eyes out over healthcare.

The toxic nature of public discourse is an odd thing. It might feel as though democracy has developed anger-management issues, but the recourse to ranting often seems to follow the pattern of a drug dependency: One moment you hear society calling for calm so it can get sober and learn how to function properly again, but the next, you catch it injecting vitriol into any debate, no matter how apolitical. Unfortunately, there’s no rehab or 12-step program available for the entire Western public sphere.

Or is there? As anyone embarking on a recovery process knows, the first step is always to fully acknowledge that we have a problem. And in this case, that could mean confronting the fact that, as a species, we have a compulsion to engage in left-versus-right antagonism that goes far deeper than present concerns about the economy, say, or taxes or immigration or guns or Brexit. According to a niche but growing perspective within evolutionary psychology, our political orientations may be powerfully influenced by the social coping strategies our ancestors developed thousands of generations ago. Such an ancient divergence might also go some way to explain why left-wingers and right-wingers find it so hard to even begin to see the world from each other’s perspective.

“When democracies sometimes produce outcomes that seems weird or even irrational, this doesn’t mean that our political minds are empty,” says Michael Bang Petersen, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark, who is one of the leading researchers in applying an evolutionary lens to politics. He’s explaining how taking a view that spans millennia can correct a wrong turn conventional political scientists often make when they focus on current issues, which is to attribute illogical voting behavior to a state of ignorance on the part of voters. “Rather,” he argues, we all “have an extremely sophisticated political mind, designed to solve the problems that our ancestors have faced in small-scale social groups. But we no longer live in those small-scale groups. We live in large-scale societies, interacting with millions of anonymous strangers. In this novel context, our political instincts sometimes misfire.”

It’s a slippery idea to grasp and can take a leap of the imagination — especially if your own politics encompass the notion that evolution is all a made-up conspiracy — so as a starting point, let’s turn to an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm from 15 years ago, which is instructive in at least a couple of ways. It’s from the final episode of Season Four, where Larry David is given a free pass from his wife to commit adultery with Cady Huffman, a fellow cast member in a Broadway production he’s starring in. Huffman invites him into her dressing room, they start kissing and it looks like Larry’s on the brink of cashing in, until he spots a framed photo of George W. Bush on a table. “You’re a Republican?” he asks, aghast. Yes, she replies, “I’m a Republican…” He grimaces, she slumps back on the sofa and the moment is quashed by presidential veto.

The fact that this is funny — or at least carries enough truth to resonate — brings to the surface two interesting aspects of how left and right perceive each other. First, the unmeshable world views of conservatives and liberals often do translate to actual social repulsion; we all know it can be hard to maintain a friendship with someone you’re ideologically opposed to, never mind an erection, and it’s why dinner parties are always awful. Secondly, and more surprisingly, it tells us that sometimes loyalty to your political tribe might trump your desire for sex with an attractive mate. 

Recruitment Drives

“One way to view what’s happening in the modern context is through ‘coalitional’ psychology — some people call it ‘in-group/out-group’ psychology; some people call it ‘tribal’ psychology,” says Robert Kurzban, author of the book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It. “There’s some part of your head that wants to appear to be (and in fact be) a part of these groups.” Although he cautions that this isn’t the whole story and that social scientists are only starting to piece together the puzzle of how evolved behaviors feed into modern politics, in Kurzban’s view, the strong pull we feel toward an in-group, and the urges we have to exhibit our tribal credentials, have become “hypertrophic — they’re getting really big in the modern political context.”

As to why that might be, “one potential culprit is social media,” which, as many others have noted, seems to amplify our tribal instincts. But, “If I had to point to one piece of this,” Kurzban says, it would be what he calls the “moral element.” He cites research that suggests moral outrages can be a powerful way to trigger ancient forms of group behavior. In casting particular people as despicable transgressors who habitually break what are presented as sacred moral codes, in-groups create cohesion, entrenching and aligning their members’ views and inspiring ostentatious displays of loyalty. And in mass politics, this dynamic could be playing out on both the left and the right.

“In the modern American political context,” he suggests, “you could see, over and over, this amplification of actual — or project, or constructed — moral violations that are then animating the base. My view is that this is a venomous form of human psychology. Once you get people’s moral intuitions recruited and our so-called coalitional intuitions recruited, then people are capable of doing some of the worst things people ever do.”

When looking at politics from an evolutionary standpoint, a key concept to get cozy with is “self-interest.” It’s a little confusing, because a strong focus on material self-interest is a character trait conventionally associated with right-wing views. But in political thinking framed by evolution, self-interest equates to the basic biological drive to pass genes on to subsequent generations — and on this definition, some form of self-interest must be built into the liberal mindset, too. Otherwise, so the thinking goes, left-wing ideologies wouldn’t have survived to be propagated so widely in present-day populations.

By and large, “people want policies that help them,” says Kurzban. The lower taxes promoted by the right are an obvious draw for the wealthy, or people who might aspire to be wealthy. Whereas on the left, too, there are issues where the presence of self-interest is fairly transparent: “If you’re unemployed, or if you think you might be unemployed, you like unemployment insurance.” Which all makes perfect selfish sense. What’s harder to slot into this picture are the hot-button issues where an element of personal gain isn’t quite so obvious — why preserving the right to bear arms, for instance, is such a strong political mobilizer on the right specifically, or why the fight against global warming characteristically animates those on the left. 

It’s likely issues like these become so partisan, says Kurzban, because of that need we have to flag our in-group loyalties and then to keep waving them in other people’s faces. In cases like these, the politicization of the debate is “probably an accident of history, and then people just glom onto it by virtue of being good members of their parties; they line up on these issues.”

Sexual Orientation

Within this general view of how our ancestral instincts shape the politics of today, one in particular seems to lie at the point where self-interest, natural selection, group loyalty and moral outrage all converge. Adding a further bit of resonance to Larry David’s ideological ice bucket, one of the most primal dividing lines for political orientation could be how we approach sex.

David Navarrete, an associate professor in psychology at Michigan State University, where he directs the Morality and Intergroup Relations Lab, outlines the way these connections are often made: “People’s life histories will actually affect their political views,” the argument runs, “and these life histories are based on what’s good for them biologically. For example, if you’re young and you’re single, you’re more likely to support political viewpoints and parties that are less restrictive on sexuality.” You would be more likely to support a welfare state that supports single mothers, for example, or take a pro-choice stance in the abortion debate.

Here your politics would be broadly lining up with what some evolutionary psychologists have termed a “fast life-history strategy,” or an innate sense that the best way to perpetuate your genetic line is to get out there and find as many mates as possible. In voting away restrictions on, say, LGBT rights, various forms of social equality, and hedonistic enablers like drugs and alcohol, so the theory goes, you’re maximizing your own mating opportunities, along with everybody else’s.

A slower life-history strategy, meanwhile, is based on the intuition that the best way to propel your genes into posterity is by doubling down on a limited number of offspring, by being monogamous and devoting as many resources as you can gather (education, money, social advancement) to help them survive and thrive. From this point of view, a society filled with an abundance of potential mates running around being all hot, reckless and available might threaten the nest and its provision — and so the preferred climate is one in which sexual promiscuity is frowned upon, or even actively penalized. Many conservative-leaning people, then, are seen to correspond to this basic behavioral template in being “more children-oriented, more restrictive of sexual behavior; they might be less open to something like government spending for single mothers because it doesn’t jibe with a slower life-history strategy,” says Navarrete.

Mapping this underlying sexual dimension on to left and right political allegiances, he notes, is often used to explain why white women who are married are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, which is a controversial but recurring electoral pattern — “you’re more insular,” he posits, “more protective of your family.”

And when it comes to taking sides, the arena of sexual behavior is the trigger par excellence for arousing our tribal instincts. As the space in which moral outrages often rage hardest, our chosen sexual lifestyles can serve as a powerful primer for that group sense of belonging that we all seem to crave — and causes and caucuses on both the left and the right stand to benefit from this. So there may be uncomfortably close links between the political views we hold dear and the kind of sex we like to have. It’s an interesting perspective, and again, it’s usually seen by those working in this area (Navarrete included) as just one possible part of the story — but it’s definitely a whole new way to think about “Congress.”

The Body Politic

Another, perhaps more disturbing, way to get right down to the DNA of other people’s perplexing positions is to do so literally, via an appreciation of genetics. “[The] role of genetics in political views has been shown numerous times, across different countries,” says Petersen. “We often like to think of our political views as something that is rationally derived, and hence, the role of genes might seem surprising or unwelcome to many people. Yet, the evidence is pretty solid.”

He points to findings from twin studies that suggests that some 40 to 60 percent of the variation in political ideology reflects genetic differences. “This means that if you share an ideological outlook with your parents, this mostly reflects the genes that they have passed on to you, rather than socialization,” says Petersen.

One of the most famous of these studies took place when the University of Minnesota’s Center for Twin and Family Research combined a sample of almost 700 pairs of twins who had lived together as children with the work of Thomas Bouchard, who since 1979 had been running detailed studies on twins who had been raised in different households. Using the twins who shared an upbringing — together with all the social, political and economic influences you’d expect that to entail — as a benchmark, the researchers were able to compare the similarities and differences between Bouchard’s twins across a range of political values. 

What they found was that while fraternal twins (who share only 50 percent of their genes with each other) raised in different environments varied substantially in their ideological outlooks, the same was not true of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes) who had been separated at birth. The political orientations of these identical twins were strongly correlated with each other, despite their differing family backgrounds — and strikingly, to just about the same extent as the ideological views of twins who had been brought up together.

More recently, similar findings have been gleaned from the U.K.’s largest twins registry where 57 percent of the variation in people’s voting intentions toward the right-wing Conservative Party was found to be caused by genetic effects, while choices relating to the left-wing Labor Party had a heritability of 48 percent. (Intriguingly, views on the dead-centrist Liberal Democrats Party didn’t seem to be driven by DNA at all, but were “affected entirely by environment.”)

From all of this follows a logically sound but fairly startling conclusion, which seems to complement the evolutionary perspective on political allegiance rather well. Much, perhaps even most, of what goes into making either right-wing or left-wing values more appealing has indeed been already decided for you at birth.

If this all sounds worryingly like a starter gun for some sinister eugenics program — to find a cure for conservatism or to breed out liberal voters — both Petersen and Navarrete caution that, that isn’t how it works because genetic effects operate at the blurry level of inherited personality traits. It isn’t the case, says Navarrete, “that we have a Republican or a Democrat gene, or a Tory gene, or whatever.” But there are identifiable genes for attributes of your personality and how much trust you tend to place in others, and these, says Petersen, count as “some of the factors underlying ideology,” which “then have downstream effects on your politics.”

Natural Election

As Kurzban points out, knowing that genes play a role in defining our politics only gets you so far. “You can’t infer very much from heritability,” he says, and besides,  when it comes down to it, “tons of traits are heritable.” In any case, the knowledge that our viewpoint is partly hard-coded by genetics might take us further away than ever from seeing the world from both sides — you might find it difficult to change someone’s mind with reasoned argument, but you’ll never change their DNA.  

If our biology makes mutual understanding a vanishing possibility, though, there’s perhaps a route to mutual respect, and that’s in recognizing the fact that, at various junctures throughout our evolution, both sides of the political divide have played a positive role in forwarding the interests of the “in-group” we’re all part of — humanity.

One psychological model of politics that has proved influential in recent years is “Moral Foundations Theory,” as advanced by the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. This says that beyond straightforward self-interest, we’re all born equipped with a set of five basic moral sensitivities, inherited from our ancient past, which guide our political judgements in later life. It seeks to involve how we respond to questions of fairness, empathy and respect for authority, alongside in-group belonging and other drives, and it’s a proposal with lots to offer anyone who’s genuinely interested in fording the gulf between left and right — all neatly summarized in this TED talk from 2008. 

Haidt’s optimistic takeaway is that both left-wing and right-wing value systems have proved essential assets throughout our history in structuring societies and building civilizations. 

As an aside, I contacted Haidt via email for this article, and received this reply:

Dear Correspondent:

I apologize to you for this autoresponse, but America’s bizarre politics has filled my inbox and calendar. I can’t add a single thing to my calendar for many months, not even a phone call. I will remove this autoresponse as soon as America returns to its normal levels of political dysfunction.

Jon Haidt

Which I thought was very funny. But then I realized, coming from a man whose job is to make sense of our political lives, it was also a fairly alarming barometer reading on just how pressurized debate has become.

Drawing a similar conclusion about the positive historical contribution both sides have made, Petersen distills the evolutionary perspective into a much simpler sketch of why our species is so deeply divided. He says, “The left-right distinction is organized by two questions: (1) Who is in our group?; and (2) What is our responsibility toward fellow group members?” If you’re a liberal, you’ll cast your net for group inclusion far and wide — to cover minorities, people from other cultures and countries, perhaps other species. “A conservative perspective,” on the other hand, “entails that we have a more restrictive view of who we’re obliged to help.”

For Petersen, as much as they are in opposition, the two worldviews are also symbiotic, both instrumental to humanity’s survival since long before the dawn of civilization as “successful adaptive strategies.” He notes that, for example, “If our ancestors hadn’t been ready to restrict altruism toward free-riders, they wouldn’t have fared well over evolutionary history. Similarly, if our ancestors hadn’t been ready to reach out and seek to establish new cooperative relationships, they also wouldn’t have fared well.”

In that sense, both left- and right-wing outlooks can be seen as the natural and useful outcomes of how we came to cooperate as a species. “One can speculate,” he adds, “whether this need to balance the strategies is why political ideology is so equally distributed in populations across the world?”

It’s one thing to muster respect when your field of vision covers thousands of years, but it’s much harder to feel it for someone whom you sincerely believe poses an immediate threat to the wellbeing of people, families and communities who are alive in the world right now. But here it might be worth revisiting Hatch’s balladeer bromance with Kennedy from an evolutionary angle, since the people in society who seem to find it easiest to hold their ideological opposites in high esteem are often the politicians themselves. Anecdotally at least, this is a well-documented phenomenon, and if political psychologists haven’t got around to researching it yet, perhaps they should.

A perfect case study would be Jess Phillips, a working-class MP for the British Labor Party. As an outspoken socialist and feminist, she shocked many by going public about her friendship with Jacob Rees-Mogg, a wealthy, pro-life, ultra-right-wing member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet who serves as a cartoon hate figure for many on the U.K. left. In a 2015 magazine interview Phillips described Rees-Mogg as “great — very funny and kind,” admitting also that, “I was raised to hate Tories; in our house Tory was a swear word. But since I got into the Commons I’ve met so many nice ones, who care about their communities, who care about women’s rights.”

Given the strength of camaraderie our tribal psychology seems able to marshal, it could be that for some professional legislators, their party allegiances are being tempered by a whole other sense of in-group belonging — to a political class that’s under fire from all sides by an increasingly angry public. Or it might just be that working in the same place, making polite conversation in elevators and corridors and lines at the canteen, simply exposes natural political enemies to that thing that tends to stay hidden in the majority of online conversation — their common humanity. 

After all, even after millions of years of human evolution, if you compare a strand of left-wing DNA with that of a right-wing person, you’ll find they’re 99.9 percent identical. It’s just that you have to get pretty close up to see it.