Predestined to be liberal?

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Most people like to think they've carefully thought out their positions. They’ll say that they’ve fairly assessed both sides of an issue and have come to their particular position through thoughtful analysis. Well, what if a large part of their decision-making process had absolutely nothing to do with the substance of the issues but instead with their genes? What if their thought process was more rationalization than analysis? This very well may be the case: a gene has been discovered that influences liberal beliefs.

The gene that scientists think leads to liberal beliefs is DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene. Dopamine affects novelty-seeking, and medical geneticist James H. Fowler (University of California, San Diego) argues that increased novelty-seeking results in being more interested in other people’s points of view. Thus, people in whom this gene is very active will take their friends’ positions seriously, and, as they befriend more and more people over time, they will eventually be open to a variety of opinions. Fowler and his colleagues in their study controlled for age, sex, culture, and ethnicity, and DRD4 appears to predispose people to liberalism regardless of these variables.

Of course, Fowler and company would not say that liberal belief is reducible to genetics—environmental factors play a role as well. The key to liberal belief is in fact that the person needs to be social enough to have made friends across the ideological spectrum. Fowler has no intention of replacing environmental factors with genetic ones but rather wants to show how genetics play an important role in belief formation.

Though Fowler’s research did not directly address the topic of religious ideology, his argument seems to readily apply to it. After all, if “liberal” is defined as being open to several viewpoints, this definition is broad enough to encompass religion as well as politics. In that case, DRD4, combined with exposure to a variety of religious viewpoints, could result in someone being a religious liberal.

Liberal beliefs, then, appear to have at least a partial genetic grounding. It will be interesting to see if DRD4 or another gene impacts conservative belief as well. Even if conservative beliefs do not have a genetic base, the questions of how free will and rationality interact with genes and the environment will continue to be relevant in philosophical discussions. Are our beliefs more than the product of our genes and environment? Somehow, we’ll have to decide.

For more, see “Researchers find a 'liberal gene'” in Medical Daily.