Social scientists are stumped. Why do we bother to go to the polls when we know our individual vote has no chance of determining the result of a national election? Variations in turnout — by age, race, income or whatever — are hard to fit into a theory of human conduct that assumes that people are rational. But with time to spare before the November election, molecular biology is coming to the rescue. In the same way that researchers have teased out a role for genes in determining sexual orientation or the propensity to smoke, they are deploying genetics to understand our political choices.
That sounds like a stretch, and it may well be. But there is tempting evidence of a hereditary component to political choices. There is a strong correlation between the partisan choices of parents and children. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins suggest that genes are at work alongside the social and psychological influence of parents. Political scientists at the University of California, San Diego have gone another step, identifying specific genes associated with voter participation and partisanship.
It seems as if people with one variant of the MAOA gene are more likely to vote than those with the other version. Among regular churchgoers, those with one type of the gene that make the 5HTT transporter molecule in the walls of neuron cells (don’t ask) are substantially more likely to vote than those with the other.
According to the researchers, James H. Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes, it works more or less like this: stress causes the release of excess serotonin in the brain, which can kill off neurons if it is not metabolized. People with the right versions of the MAOA gene and 5HTT are better at handling stress because they are better at synthesizing the molecules needed to reabsorb serotonin and break it down. And people who are better at handling stress deal better with the conflicts and strains inherent in forming political opinions and voting.
Similarly, folks with the A2 version of the D2 dopamine receptor gene are more likely to identify as partisans because better dopamine signaling in the brain is related to more social attitudes and promotes attachment to groups like political parties.
Of course, these findings don’t have to mean that we are robots. They merely suggest that genes affect how susceptible we are to social and environmental stimuli. If certain genes make us more receptive to political messages, or more or less likely to vote, then we know the next step society must take: Keep the drugs that target the specific genes out of the hands of political consultants.
[Via NY Times]