Many of us are now spending an inordinate amount of time wondering how did we get here? A polarized America and DJT as president. To progressives the future seems bleak, while conservatives are hopeful. Understanding the root of these differences is important. Why is one person ultra-conservative and another ultra-liberal, while others are not committed to either side or viewpoint? The answers lie in the human brain, the genetic material we inherit from our parents, and our life experiences. The good news – political views are not fixed.
Brains are plastic – this does not mean they are made of plastic. No, it means they are flexible, malleable, and ever-changing. Brains are remarkable organs and along with genes make us who we are. This is particularly true in the developing brains of children. But, adult brains also change. Life experiences – learning – results in actual physical and chemical change our brain – this is neuroplasticity.
Our identity, in fact our soul, resides in our brains, and is altered by learning and skill development. The small gaps between neurons, the synapses, form a pattern in the brain and along with the chemical signals that move across them, determine much of our personality at any given point in time. But, genes also influence who we are. After all, they carry the instructions on how to build our brain.
The long standing assumption that social behaviors and political preferences are purely cultural can now be challenged with the technological advances of molecular biology. Studies of adult twins, their relatives, adoption studies, and twins reared apart has provided some interesting insights into the biological basis of politics. Now it is possible to locate the parts of the genome which account for the heritable parts of political preferences. (If you don’t know, the genome is the complete set of DNA a person has, about 50% comes from each of our parents.) The genome is arranged in 23 packages of DNA called chromosomes, and we receive 23 packages of DNA from each of our parents so we have 46 packets, or chromosomes.
Peter Hatemi of the University of Sydney and colleagues (2011) presented the first genome-wide analysis of Conservative-Liberal attitudes from a sample of 13,000 respondents whose DNA was collected in conjunction with a 50-item socio-political attitude questionnaire. Several significant linkages were identified as were potential candidate genes for influencing the way we think about politics. They found genes on chromosomes 2, 4, 6, and 9 that correlated with the political views of the participants.
On chromosome 2 there are 84 genetic markers that showed high correlations with political beliefs. But, only two seem implicated in human social and cognitive behaviors. The gene KYNU codes for a protein that is an NMDA antagonist (see below). In addition, GPR39 is part of the G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). It seems to be important for the functions of numerous organs and influences a wide array of physiological roles, including vision, smell, food intake, immune system activity, and autonomic nervous system (blood pressure and heart rate), as well as behavioral and mood regulation- receptors in the brain bind several different neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
On chromosome 4 the gene NARG1 codes for a protein (NMDA) thought to be important for vascular, blood cell, and nerve cell growth and development. The gene is expressed at high levels in the testis and eyes, but also found in the largest connective pathway in the human brain (corpus callosum). NMDA receptors play an important role in a wide range of physiological, behavioral, and cognitive processes and contribute to nerve transmission at sites throughout the brain and spinal cord. Both human and animal studies have identified NMDA being related to cognitive-behavioral performance, working memory, counting behavior, social learning, fear conditioning, spatial learning, motor performance, and social interaction, to include pro-social, anti-social, and aggressive behavior.
Chromosome 6 has more than 250 genes correlated with political views. Eight of these genes have been implicated in human behavior and cognition. Most interesting in this group are two neurotransmitter receptors (HTR1E and HTR1). They are receptors for serotonin, a hormone that exerts a wide variety of physiological functions through a multiplicity of receptors. The serotonin system influences cognitive and behavioral processes, presynaptic inhibition, and influences blood flow. The highest concentrations occur in the brain’s frontal cortex, where it is believed to regulate the release of dopamine. Previous studies have found serotonin receptors important in a wide array of psychological and behavioral traits, including: executive control, impulsivity, compulsive behaviors, mood, anger, aggression, fear, cooperation, learning, memory, body temperature, sleep, sexuality, appetite, metabolism, personality traits, suicide, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, addiction, posttraumatic stress, and autism, among others.
On chromosome 9, GRIN1, a glutamate receptor, codes for a protein that is a critical subunit of NMDA. This location also includes DBH, a gene that codes for a protein that converts dopamine to norepinephrine. DBH has been positively associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and substance dependence, while norepinephrine is notably involved in the stress response or ‘‘fight or flight’’ response. Another marker of interest is LHX3 which is expressed at all stages of early development with essential roles in pituitary and motor neuron development. There are also a large number of genes related to olfaction in this region. The majority are lipocalins a group of proteins that are suspected to play a role in reproduction, odor transport, taste reception, and are linked to olfaction and pheromone receptors. The two odorant binding proteins also belong to the lipocalin superfamily and are believed to participate in odor detection by transporting, deactivating, and selecting molecules through the nasal mucus to olfactory receptors.
Exactly how all of these molecules interact to produce a conservative or progressive view point remains to be determined. Sorting out how conservatives can be so intolerant of other human beings and liberals can be tolerant to a fault will be an interesting exercise. Both extremes are undesirable. Research like this can provide insight into the evolution of the human brain – if it’s not already too late.
Jumping from molecules in the brain that allow some individuals to deny science – to events in biosphere may be too much for some individuals to handle. But, here we go.
Sea level is rising, we are experiencing record breaking temperatures year after year, storms are more frequent and violent than we have experienced in recent history, the percent of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has been since humans started practicing agriculture, biodiversity is at serious risk.
Conservative say so what, who cares, it’s not important or it’s not happening. While progressives are trying to slow the rates of carbon dioxide emissions and are seriously concerned.
The message to conservations should be – your life support system is falling part. Do something or your descendents(and maybe even you) will be paying the price.
Denial of science is not only exhibited on the right. On the left some parents refuse to vaccinate their children and reject the germ theory of disease. They are a public health hazard.
The irrational mind and its biochemistry threaten the integrity of the biosphere. We cannot afford this with 7+ billion humans on the planet.
Recognition of fake news, disinformation campaigns, and politically mischievous requires a discriminating brain grounded in reality. Something that appears absent in a significant portion of the electorate.
Knowing this makes my brain anxious about the irrational brains counting the White House, the legislature and the future.
Clark, I. Genre, Identity, and the Brain: Insights from Neuropsychology. The Journal of General Education 65, no. 1 (2016): 1-19. doi:10.5325/jgeneeduc.65.1.0001.
Hatemi, P. K., S. E. Medland, and L. J. Eaves. 2009. Genetic Sources for the Gender Gap? Journal of Politics 71 (1): 262–76.
Hatemi, P. K., C. L. Funk, S. Medland, et al. 2009. Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Attitudes over the Life Course. Journal of Politics 71 (3): 1141–56.
Hatemi PK, Gillespie NA, Eaves LJ, Maher BS, Webb BT, Heath AC, Medland SE, Smyth DC, Beeby HN, Gordon SD, Montgomery GW. A genome-wide analysis of liberal and conservative political attitudes. The Journal of Politics. 2011 Jan 14;73(1):271-85.