Perspectives on Politics

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Genes and Ideologies

Evan Charneya1

a1 Duke University. E-mail: echar@duke.edu

Abstract

There is a trend among behavioral scientists to view ever more complex attitudes or systems of belief as in some sense genetically determined (or “heritable”). Consistent with this trend is the recent article of Alford, Funk, and Hibbing titled “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” in which the authors claim to have demonstrated that when it comes to the transmission of political ideologies, genes count for more than environment. Their article has received an enormous amount of attention among political scientists and in the popular press. I critically evaluate the research technique on the basis of which the authors' support their claims and argue that it suffers from significant methodological flaws. Such flaws notwithstanding, I demonstrate that the authors' data do not clearly support their conclusions. I then question the cogency, from an historical and theoretical perspective, of proposing the existence of “liberal” and “conservative” “phenotypes” and “genotypes.” My argument has implications beyond the findings of Alford, Funk, and Hibbing, and applies to all studies that claim to have demonstrated the heritability of complex and politically relevant attitudes.

Footnotes

Evan Charney is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University (echar@duke.edu). An earlier version of this paper was presented as part of a panel on Genetic and Evolutionary Bases of Political Behavior at the 2006 APSA annual meeting. He would like to thank Jonathan Beckwith and Cory A. Morris for agreeing to provide a written response to Alford, Funk, and Hibbing and Hannagan and Hetemi; Tracy Rupp for her many invaluable comments and suggestions; Ira Morgan for helpful exchanges, and the members of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Polich and the IGSP Center for Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy, and in particular Robert Cook-Deegan and William English. He would especially like to thank Jim Johnson for his clear commitment to genuine debate within the profession as evidenced by his willingness to publish an article that runs counter to the latest vogue in political science.

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