Don’t Blame Me… I Voted Because of My Genes
Beneath the election-year rumble and roar, a debate is stirring that could change the way people think about politics and voting. What if your political leanings, voting habits and actual vote were already programmed into your genes?
David Bader, Gladys P. Stahlman Professor and professor of medicine, cell and developmental biology, and John G. Geer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, bring the question to the classroom with their team-taught course, Genetics and Politics.
A hot button this campaign year, the issue (and class) has garnered attention from national media. Bader and Geer explore the topic with their students, along with input from outside authorities and Vanderbilt faculty such as Marc Hetherington, an associate professor of political science. The class has hosted experts such as University of California at San Diego researcher James Fowler, who has used studies of twins to link voting behavior to genetics.
We asked the professors and a few of their guests to explain the issue.
So, is there a relationship between genes and politics?
Bader: It’s hard to imagine but the genome and the environment are inexorably linked. They don’t make sense without each other. Your genes are the product of the body’s response to nature.
Geer: (Yet) political behavior is complicated. The idea that there is a genetic component suggests that it is one factor. The idea that genes shape behavior is a general tendency. It won’t predict specific behavior.
Fowler: Genes are the institutions of the human body. They constrain what is possible and they set the rules. Studies of genetics and politics are throwing political science into three dimensions and demonstrating that genes may play a role in voting behavior and that shared environment may not matter at all.
So campaigning for voters is moot because our genes already know for whom we’re going to vote before we do?
“While your genes don’t change, the way they’re used is constantly changing. No species is a robot to its genes.”
— David Bader
Bader: Your genome is set at conception—you are who you are, but that doesn’t mean the expression of your genes is invariant. While your genes don’t change, the way they’re used is constantly changing. No species is a robot to its genes.
Hetherington: There are more explanations than one to understanding political behavior. While people have many predispositions that probably are linked to genes, they can act in different ways, depending on different circumstances. How those predispositions mix with environment will tell us more than the predispositions alone.
Geer: If genes do drive behavior, perhaps we should be less worried about red and blue states [and recognize] that such outcomes have a deeper cause, that the differences we have are not just because we choose to disagree, but because we naturally disagree.
But what if my parents are Republicans and I’m a Democrat? Does that blow apart the genetic connection?
“If my parents are responsible for my political behavior, they have a lot to answer for.”
— John G. Geer
Hetherington: If the genetic link were clear, we ought to see overlaps in behavior between parent and child, but it doesn’t always happen. The son may have had different experiences. Maybe he’s surrounded at college by Obama supporters while his parents hang out among McCain supporters. The son has grown up in a more racially tolerant time. These kinds of things have an impact on behavior, too.
Bader: Perception in humans may also be regulated in the same way (as voting behavior). We just don’t know what those genes are quite yet.
Geer: If my parents are responsible for my political behavior, they have a lot to answer for. It’s not fair that I look like my father and am voting like him, as well.
So it comes down to a chicken and egg conundrum? There’s no precise way to know whether genes or environment are driving the political process?
Geer:One’s environment matters as does the interaction of genes and the environment. [For example, Geer predicts the state of the economy and whether U.S. troops are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, not genetics, are likely to be the overriding forces in play in the fall 2008 elections.]
Hetherington: Is there a tipping point between genes and environment? I can’t say for certain. I do think that threat plays an important role in political behavior. The more widely people feel threatened, the more alike they are going to act.
Bader: Being a Democrat or Republican can mean different things at different times. The litmus test for political affiliation changes. Human traits like altruism and dogmatism may be more closely driven by our genetic background, while being a Democrat or a Republican may be more distantly associated.