About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, February 09, 2012
Republican brains, Republican genes
There has been much talk of, and much furor about, a spate of research into the biological bases of the differences between people who are politically conservative or liberal. Chris Mooney has a new forthcoming book provocatively entitled The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality (a follow up to his previous The Republican War on Science). Republican commentators, predictably, are not happy. (Though I didn't hear them complaining when Jonathan Haidt's research hinted at the possibility that conservatives have more moral dimensions than progressives — if one can seriously consider issues of “purity,” unconditional respect for authority and unreflective nationalism as part of the moral sphere.)
Chris has published a series of posts on his blog and at the Huffington Post about both genetic and neurobiological research purporting to explain why Republicans think differently from Democrats, and has even invoked evolutionary explanations underlying these differences. The research is certainly interesting, and some of the findings intriguing, if preliminary. The general idea is that conservatism is ideologically “defensive,” while liberalism is “exploratory,” and that accordingly different personality types are attracted to the Right or the Left.
For instance, a study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has shown that conservatives react very negatively and very strongly — from a physiological perspective — to images of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as if engaging their fight or flight response against a perceived threat. Liberals, somewhat predictably, reacted positively to the same images, as if they were exposed to an appetitive stimulus (no, we are not talking sexually appetitive). The more interesting finding of this type of research, however, is that the responses of the two groups are not symmetrical. For example, conservatives dislike President Obama much more than liberals like him, and while liberals showed themselves willing to read news from a variety of sources, including Faux News, conservatives concentrated almost exclusively on the latter, pretty much ignoring stories labeled as originating from CNN or NPR (this is regardless of the actual content of the story).
Research highlighted by Chris indicates that these distinct behavioral attitudes map to differences in the way their brains react to stimuli, and that these in turn are associated with genetic differences between the two groups. Now, Chris is careful in stating that “to study the biology or genetics of political differences is not to embrace determinism,” and rightly so. But a good number of his readers aren’t quite so nuanced, judging from the tenor of the comments his posts receive.
Instead, people seem to jump the gun from the (very preliminary, somewhat cursory) evidence to the two classical fallacies of biologization: 1) if it’s in the brain it’s “biological” (as opposed to cultural), and 2) if it’s genetic it can’t be changed. The first fallacy is part of the recent trend that Julia and I labeled "neurobabbling" (and that Raymond Tallis less charitably refers to as neurotrash), while the second one is as old as the controversies over the heritability of IQ during the second part of the 20th century (and repeats the same mistake of creating a false dichotomy between nature and nurture).
(There is a third problem with this line of inquiry, which comes into play when people invoke evolutionary, usually adaptive, explanations to account for complex cultural traits of modern societies. While there likely are discernible traces of our evolutionary past in pretty much everything we do, it is just too easy to make up stories about that past, and too darn difficult to find a shred of evidence to actually test those stories. Not that this seems to be of any deterrence when it comes to selling books or writing sensationalistic articles, of course.)
I have recently touched on the problem with correlative analyses of brain and behavioral activity here at Rationally Speaking. Of course we will find, always, a neural correlate of any human behavior. That’s how humans behave, through actions that are rooted in the functioning of the brain. That said, it certainly is interesting to discover that the brains of liberals and conservatives look different in an fMRI scan, but to go from that observation to building a solid causal scenario isn’t that easy. Brains are things that grow and change in response to myriad environmental stimuli, from before we are born to pretty much the end of our lives. It is very difficult — and certainly hasn’t been done by the recent flurry of studies — to disentangle genetic, environmental, and developmental effects for any human behavior, let alone for something as complex and context dependent as being conservative or liberal in 21st century United States. It’s not just that we don’t know whether having a certain brain predisposes someone to be a Republican or whether being a Republican molds our brain responses in a certain way. It’s that the very question doesn’t make much sense because the causal pathways are complex, interrelated, and full of feedbacks.
Similarly with the issue of genetics. Genes don’t make us think or vote. They just make proteins. There are huge layers of complex causality separating a given strand of DNA and your decision to watch Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart, so that discovering genes influencing a given behavior (many, many other things being equal) is interesting, but constitutes only a tiny fraction of the puzzle, and one that is particularly apt to be misunderstood by the public and exploited by demagogues.
And here is the crux of the problem: again, the science of any human behavior is intrinsically interesting (to humans), and certainly worth pursuing. But the history of this type of research is fraught with sloppy experiments and hasty interpretations on the part of scientists themselves, and has the potential to lead to disastrous social attitudes and policies (if you want just one example, think of the infamous eugenics laws enacted by a number of states in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century — with support from progressive intellectuals, I might add — and which led to 60,000 people being forcefully sterilized because of sloppy science twisted in the service of ideology).
The risk we face in the case of this new trend of biologizing politics is that — regardless of Chris’ and others’ careful disclaimers — many people will conclude that there is no point in engaging “the other side” because, you know, they can’t help themselves, they are the way they are because of their brains, their genes, and their evolution. Chris ends one of his pieces (on the alleged evolutionary roots of the political divide) by saying: “the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we’d have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.” Nice quip, but as it turns out plenty of conservatives accept evolution (and global warming, etc.), and there is a good number of progressives who believe in coocoo notions about vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being the result of a government conspiracy, and of course the perennial favorite, quantum mysticism.
The reality is that we are the product of both biological and cultural evolution, that we are constrained by our genetic makeup, and that everything we think and do is mediated by our brains. But our political opinions do change, both over our lifespan and sometimes from an election to the next, and they change because we can be persuaded through a variety of means, some of which even include rational discourse! So, let us certainly look at the science of politics, but let us also not neglect to engage each other on the issues whenever possible, and as reasonably as we can manage.