Do our genes affect our decision to vote or whom we vote for? They may, according to Peter Loewen, who is at the forefront of an emerging field called genopolitics. Loewen starts as an assistant professor of political science at U of T Mississauga in January. He spoke recently with U of T Magazine editor Scott Anderson about his research.
First, what is genopolitics? Genopolitics takes seriously the possibility that some of the differences we see among individuals, such as their propensity to participate in politics or how they respond to different types of policies, may be due to genetic variations.
Voting in elections is a modern phenomenon. Are you saying humans have genes that regulate their political views or inclination to vote? No. There’s no single gene that decides if you’re conservative or liberal. But if I told you that people who dislike conflict are less likely to vote, and that conflict avoidance has some degree of heritability, then I don’t think it’s too great a leap to say that the same genes that regulate conflict avoidance also partially regulate engagement in politics.
Genes are rarely deterministic. They influence the tendency toward certain behaviours, but we are still social creatures who are affected by our environment.
Is there a genetic basis for political ideology? Evidence from past twin studies suggests that our basic political attitudes and ideology are partially heritable. And now, recent research has identified an important gene in that process. People who have a certain form of the DRD4 gene and in their youth are exposed to many viewpoints through a large number of friends are more likely to be liberal than people who either don’t have that version of the gene or don’t have a lot of friends when they’re young. This is an example of a relationship that’s not purely genetic but is an interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment.
You have identified a gene that you believe affects voter turnout. How did you locate that gene? We got the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as ADD Health) in the U.S. We couldn’t look at all 25,000 human genes, so ADD Health picked out candidate genes that are known to affect certain social behaviours. We examined these and asked, “What are the political analogues of the behaviours that are associated with these genes?” One of the genes we looked at, CHRNA6, is associated with impulsive behaviour. An existing theory states that the more impulsive you are, the less likely you are to get involved in politics. Our study showed, in fact, that people with the CHRNA6 gene are significantly less likely to have voted in the 2004 U.S. election.
Could genopolitics be used to explain why India has a democratic system and China does not? Absolutely not. Your question reflects a common line of thinking that’s incorrect. We are not looking for differences between big groups of people; we are looking for differences within groups of people. It would not be correct for us to make arguments about differences between large populations.
What challenges do you face studying genopolitics? It’s still an expensive field. And there are some understandable concerns about studying the genetic basis of political behaviour.
Such as? People have a generally rudimentary understanding of behavioural genetics and the function of genes. One of the challenges is bringing folks around to the idea that we can have free will but still be constrained by our genes.
What aspect of your research has excited you the most? That it opens up a whole new way of thinking about political behaviour.