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Scientists at Harvard and the University of California, San Diego, have provided evidence for the first time of a gene that plays a role in shaping an individual’s political beliefs.
The study, published last week in the October issue of The Journal of Politics, analyzed data from over 2500 adolescents and found that a specific variation in a dopamine receptor gene normally associated with novelty-seeking can lead to more liberal political ideologies in an individual.
However, the variation in the gene known as DRD4 only displayed an association with political liberalism if the subjects had an active social life while growing up, according to the study.
The principal author of the study and Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science at UC San Diego, James H. Fowler ’92, explained novelty-seeking can lead to highly individualistic behavior.
“If you also have an active social life, with people with different lifestyles and world views, you are much more likely to develop liberal views,” he added.
Fowler emphasized that the results of the study show a combination between one’s environment and one’s genes determines political ideology, not simply one or the other.
“We studied the gene because we have already been studying the environment ad nauseam,” Fowler said, citing a multitude of studies linking political leanings to ethnicity, race, education, and socioeconomic status. “This way of thinking assumes we are all blank slates, and that’s just not true.”
Fowler and his team members first drew on psychological studies indicating that among the five domains of personality—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and stability—liberals tend to score high on openness. Because the methods used to measure openness on these tests were similar to those used to measure novelty-seeking, the researchers decided to focus on the DRD4 gene, Fowler said.
Fowler, who has also done extensive work on social networks, emphasized that this study is just the tip of the iceberg in the field of genopolitics.
“We are only explaining one half of one percent of the variation in political ideology,” he said. “This is not the only gene that matters.”
Researchers now, including assistant professor of political science Peter Hatemi at the University of Iowa, are trying to create an entire genome map for political ideology.
One of the co-authors of the recent study is Pforzheimer House Master and Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas A. Christakis. He and Fowler are co-authors of the book “Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.”
The other authors of the study are Jaime E. Settle and Christopher T. Dawes from University of California, San Diego.
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