The biology of political narcissism: Donkey brains vs. Elephant grey matter

Illustration Republican Elephant Democrat Donkey

Anti-Republican science writer Chris Mooney stirred a hornets nest of controversy with the publication of his recent book, The Republican Brain, a follow up to his 2007 polemic The Republican War on Science. His thesis: conservatives are scientifically illiterate and the root causes are biogenetic.

 It’s a silly proposition to anyone even remotely familiar with biology or genetics, but Mooney nonetheless gets lots of traction in the usual hyper-political, doggedly antic-conservative blogs and magazines. As I wrote in articles in Forbes and Science 2.0, scientists find his reasoning facile at best. Now a new study of the genetic influences on economic and political attitudes led by Cornel University professor Daniel Benjamin.

 Mooney bases his conclusions primarily on two issues: anthropogenic global warming and evolution. but he extends his “reasoning” to a range of other political and economic issues, including the heated ideological battle over whether Keynesian deficit spending or austerity is the best cure for government deficits.

 By Mooney’s addled judgment, the heat generated by Republican grey matter working through complex scientific theories pops their hard-wired neural circuits like corn heating in a kettle. Because science is made up of “facts,” he writes, there must be some neuro-cognitive evolutionary reason for why the right wing brain limps along as it does. He equates the far right of the Republican base, which does fervently embrace these anti-science views, with both Republicans and conservatives in general.

 The Cornell study reduces Mooney’s analysis to the hogwash category. Although genetic factors explain some of the variation in a wide range of people’s attitudes, such as preferences toward environmental policy and financial risk taking–that’s just common scientific sense—most associations with genetic variants are likely to be very small.

 According to “The Genetic Architecture of Economic and Political Preferences,” published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online, given what is currently known, the molecular genetic data has essentially no predictive power for the 10 traits studied, which included preferences toward environmental policy, foreign affairs, financial risk and economic fairness. The authors used the results of recent surveys of subjects from the Swedish Twin Registry, who had their educational attainment, four economic preferences (risk, patience, fairness and trust) and five political preferences (immigration/crime, foreign policy, environmentalism, feminism and equality, and economic policy) measured.

 “An implication of our findings is that most published associations with political and economic outcomes are probably false positives. These studies are implicitly based on the incorrect assumption that there are common genetic variants with large effects,” said Benjamin. “If you want to find genetic variants that account for some of the differences between people in their economic and political behavior, you need samples an order of magnitude larger than those presently used,” he added.

 The researchers do suggest that genetic data—taken as a whole—could eventually be moderately predictive of economic and political preferences, but the simplistic left/right paradigm that so neatly justifies Mooney’s self-perception of flexibility and inherent goodness is more vanity than science. But even that conclusion is fungible.

 Many views are likely to change over time, often in lock step with other personality traits. Most of those who embrace global warming theories blindly follow the biases of their political crowd without reading the reports and researching the science. By and large, these individuals vote Democrat. Deniers, mostly hard-edge Republican conservatives, blindly reject mainstream science without understanding or even reading the key studies; it’s pure follow the elephant up ahead political conformism. My guess is those two scientifically illiterate majorities, extremist Republicans and Democrats, have a lot more in common genetically and cognitively than either side would ever acknowledge

 Or look at the sharp ideological divide over shale gas and fracking. Five years ago, for example, “progressives” exuberantly promoted shale gas as a “bridge to the future.” Today, with no change in the fuel’s environmental profile, but now that inexpensive shale gas is plentiful and will likely remain around for decades, Democratic sheep demonize shale gas as a “bridge to nowhere,” or worse, call it an environmental disaster. That’s not biology at work.

 Despite Mooney’s hyper-partisan, bumbling analysis, the origins of ideological viewpoints is an important field for future study. The five prominent personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and stability) are a good starting point and are likely to capture much of the variation in political and economic preferences. For example, patience is likely a dimension in IQ, while openness may mirror a liberal-conservative spectrum of political leaning. Linking these attitudes to biological traits may take some time, but we may yet get there—no thanks to Mooney.

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