Is 'the liberal gene' nonsense? No, but the jokes on the subject are
I have a problem. I have no sense of humour when it comes to science. None. If you make a joke, and the punchline is, say, people who catch swine flu turning into pigs, I will stare flatly at you and say “that’s not how it works. It’s just a virus that originated in pigs.” It puts severe constraints on the sort of parties I can go to.
With that in mind, imagine how I feel at the moment, as dozens of japesome Right-wingers in the press make hilarious jokes about the “liberal gene” apparently found by researchers at Harvard and the University of California. So: does the joke stand up to scrutiny?
Let’s take a look at the details. DRD4, a sequence on chromosome 11, is the guilty party. It codes for a protein called dopamine receptor D4, which affects how the brain responds to the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine – part of the reward system of the brain, which gives us pleasurable feelings when we consume certain drugs or foods, or have sex, to encourage us to do it again.
One variant of the DRD4 gene, DRD4-7R, is associated with “novelty seeking”. People with that particular variant are more likely to be exploratory and exciteable. The researchers hypothesised that people with this novelty-seeking gene would be more likely to seek out more points of view, and be more interested in learning about them. They would therefore, they suggested, be likely to have a more varied group of friends in adolescence, and would thus be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles. If they had many friends, the consequence would tend to be political liberalism. (Of course, having the non-variant allele is just as linked to not being liberal: you’ve got to have one or the other. So this is just as much a finding of a “gene for conservatism”, really.)
The research has borne that hypothesis out, at least so far: the published article, in the Journal of Politics, says: “It is important to note that the 7R allele by itself does not make a person liberal and neither does simply having a greater number of friends as a teenager… Rather, it is the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal.”
As is often the way, this is not a straight nature-and-nurture divide: people genetically predisposed by the DRD4-7R variant to seek out novelty will tend (statistically) to have more varied friends, and people who have more and more varied circles of friends tend to be more liberal politically. It is a complex interplay of genes and environment, as it always is. Geneticists are always wary of the phrase “the gene for” in relation to a complex behavioural trait.
Further, it’s not a large effect. “While our finding is statistically significant, the strength of the association is quite small” warn the researchers: thousands of other factors, genetic and environmental, will also play a part. It’s interesting in that it gives a specific example of how our political leanings can be genetically affected, but surely we knew, in the general sense, that it would be anyway. After all, all our behavioural traits are to some degree heritable: it would be profoundly unexpected if political affiliation alone was not.
From the point of view of comedy, though, I would be extremely careful – were I a Right-winger – about using this for Humorous Purposes. Our own leader item today chortles at the idea of a “lifetime cure for Lefties“. But every bit as significant as the link between DRD4-7R and liberalism is the link between liberalism and having a lot of friends. If I were in the mood for writing lazy jokes, I might want to point out that being a lonely teenager is an environmental risk factor for being a Tory. Instead, I’m just going to say that this is an interesting study, but calling it a “gene for liberalism” is a huge overstatement.
I decided to post a blog reaction since it gave this a more critical look than most news outlets that are now claiming genetics make you a liberal.
Also, friendless/shut in/loner/introvert liberals report in.