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February 4, 2009

Isolating the neocon gene

Filed under: Philosophy — rmangum @ 4:55 am
Tags: ,

There are two opposing schools of thought that currently present a major stumbling block to the understanding of human personality and social dynamics. The first is the doctrine of social constructionism, which holds that nothing about human beings (or even the phenomenal world) is innate or might prove recalcitrant to social conditioning. These folks have their stronghold mainly in humanities departments in American (and no doubt Canadian and European) Universities, and giving them their druthers would likely result in something resembling the “Death Camp of Tolerance” episode of South Park.

The other, equal and opposite, fallacious ideology is scientism. The natural sciences, particularly physics after Einstein and biology after Darwin, have made such great strides in the modern era, that it is tempting to seek answers to complex human social problems using the same methodology, or finding roots in more easily explicable natural phenomena. The Austrians have long complained of scientism in economics, which has since Paul Samuelson consciously modeled itself on physics (even divided artificially into micro and macro levels in imitation), as if human actors were as regular and predictable as atoms. Evolution has probably been even more often abused. Note that I am not arguing for creationism or some kind of mystical interpretation of reality here. One such idea that seems to me a mere scientistic metaphor is the concept of memes, where the role of ideas and ideology in human society and history is recast on the model of Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” theory, with human minds as nothing more than passive vessels for meme replication.

And then there’s this article by James Q. Wilson, which claims our politics is determined by our DNA- or about 40% of it anyway, whatever that may mean. Now I don’t really have the expertise to analyze the method of the tests to prove this, but let me just question the means by which the testers can adequately categorize political beliefs in the first place. Wilson, it seems, has anticipated this complaint.

Liberals and conservatives come in many varieties: one can be an economic liberal and a social conservative, say, favoring a large state but opposing abortion; or an economic conservative and a social liberal, favoring the free market but supporting abortion and gay rights. If we add attitudes about foreign policy to the mix, the combinations double. Most tests used in genetic studies of political views do not allow us to make these important distinctions. As a result, though we know that genes affect ideology, that knowledge is clumsy. In time, I suspect, we will learn more about these subtleties.

As someone whose political views have swing from left to right and back throughout his life, and who has investigated the change of ideologies throughout the last 200 some odd years, I think I can say with some authority that Wilson’s own acknowledgment of the liberal/conservative dichotomy the scientists are working with as “crude” barely begins to cover it. What is considered right or left, liberal and conservative, not only changes through the generations, but does not do so in any predictable way; it constantly produces new permutations and hybrids. In time, I suspect the empirical scientific method will teach us nothing more about these subtleties.

Now, it’s not that I think there is no value to the studies (which also find a 60% influence of genetics on who votes and who does not), but I think that what they are actually testing for is not any specific set of ideas we cam categorize as liberal or conservative, but for certain dispositions, such as conformism, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, enthusiasm for causes, and so on. Given a certain genetic disposition to such tendencies, combined with family and school environment, and the prevailing climate of ideas (what the Gramscian Marxists like to call “hegemony”) you can come to an understanding of what makes up a person’s “political DNA”. As for finding the “complex array of genes that affect politics”- good luck with that.


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