Some of us are born with blue eyes. Some of us, a very special few of us, are born with red hair.
And some of us are born with a love for Jon Stewart and a loathing for Rush Limbaugh pre-programmed deep into our soul.
Just as some of us are born with a love for Rush and a loathing for Jon.
It's true: Our bedrock political beliefs, that stuff that makes us conservative, liberal or moderate, are in fact partly tied to our genetic code.
We know this because a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor, working with colleagues for the better part of a decade, has slowly but surely proved the once-heretical thought that our DNA plays a role — maybe a significant role — in whether we are politically red, politically blue, or some shade of purple in between.
“How are we going to distribute resources within the tribe?” asks Prof. John Hibbing. “How are we going to relate to that tribe over the hill? How are we going to punish people who break the rules? These are things we have dealt with since we were hunter-gatherers ... and it seems to us that a lot of policy positions follow from these very broad, deeply predisposed genetic conditions. Which is why we called the book, 'Predisposed.' ”
The new book, which Hibbing co-wrote with two colleagues, is in many ways the capstone to a decade of groundbreaking political science research, much of it done right here in Nebraska.
Not so long ago (OK, 14 years ago) when I was a fresh-faced student in Hibbing's intro to political science course, pretty much every expert in the field believed that you learned your politics from your parents, and then reshaped those politics as you grew into an adult.
But Hibbing had his doubts. He doubted that the traditional tools of political science, things like public opinion surveys and voting patterns, really got to the core of two big questions. What do we believe? And even more important, why do we believe it?
“People are amazing at misleading themselves,” he said. “We needed to get at something deeper.”
So Hibbing, along with Rice University Professor John Alford, used an existing study of 16,000 identical and fraternal twins to ask a tantalizing question: Are politics learned or bred?
Sure enough, the identical twins — twins who share an entire genetic code — tended to answer identically on questions about school prayer and the death penalty, taxes and X-rated movies, more often than fraternal twins, who are no more genetically alike than other siblings.
The study's conclusion: Genetics account for roughly half of our bedrock political beliefs. Our environment accounts for the other half.
The news media loved it. Stories appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and scores of other magazines and newspapers.
Veteran political scientists did not. Many reacted as if Hibbing had set off a stink bomb in the dean's office.
They criticized the study's methodology, sample size and conclusion. On some level, many flatly refused to believe that politics could be both learned and bred.
“Basically a lot of (experts) thought this idea was absolutely ridiculous,” Hibbing said.
Hibbing had already cannonballed into the water. Now, with the help of Alford and UNL professor Kevin Smith, he decided to dive to the bottom of the pool.
Further testing and surveying found that right-wingers tended to be “absolutists,” who believe in clearly defined right-and-wrong answers to social, religious and political questions. They tended to value unity and tended to vote for candidates viewed as strong, unwavering leaders. “Contextualists,” on the other hand, tended to value debate and nuance. Contextualists tended to fall left-of-center on the political spectrum.
The researchers partnered with geneticists and worked to identify the genes that determine political thought, at one point replicating a University of California-San Diego study that found at least some link, though not a strong link, between dopamine levels and how you view the political landscape.
They brought people into a lab, hooked them up to monitors and showed them pictures. Nice pictures, like a beautiful sunset. Not-so-nice pictures, like a photo of someone vomiting.
The nervous system of a person who self-identified as liberal tended to react more strongly to the sunset. The nervous system of a social conservative reacted much more strongly to the negative images, like the vomiting. In another study, they set up eye-tracking tests and determined that liberals spent more time looking at positive images while conservatives tended to focus more on negative images.
“If you aren't attuned to threats from the environment, you might be in big trouble,” Hibbing said. “Sometimes the world is a dangerous place. Of course, sometimes it's not.”
This year Hibbing and his colleagues redid their original twin study, this time with new sets of twins and a new set of questions. And again, it determined that on bedrock political issues, twins who shared an entire genetic code agreed more than twins who didn't.
Smith, a UNL political science professor and one of the co-authors of “Predisposed,” argues that the new study and others like it all but slay that old idea that our political ideology is 100 percent learned.
“That simply seems to fly in the face of a large amount of empirical evidence,” Smith says on a video released with the newest report.
“Predisposed” is the UNL professors' attempt to pass on their past decade of research to the general public. They want people to understand that conservatives and liberals are biologically different.
“If you want to understand the other side, instead of just calling them names, this is the book for you,” Hibbing says.
Next, Hibbing wants to study the biology behind violent extremism. What makes one man a suicide bomber and the other a nonviolent protester?
And he wants to research voter apathy, too. Preliminary testing done with a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, Jeff French, suggests that men and women with high cortisol levels — men and women who may get easily stressed out — tend not to vote.
He's now spent a decade at the intersection of political thought and genetics. During that decade, my old professor's research suggests that liberals have met like-minded liberals, and conservatives have met like-minded conservatives, in classrooms, bars and church groups — continuing a self-selection that has likely been occurring in some form since the dawn of political thought. They also now self-select their own kind through avenues, like online dating sites, that didn't used to exist.
They have met, fallen in love and had children. And those children, the next generation of voters, now carry these like-minded parents' genetic codes.
Which suggests something truly terrifying: The coming decades may be even more polarized than the present. We'll get more divisive and more angry with one another — unless we consider that there are genetic differences in how we view the world, the same as there are genetic differences that cause your blue eyes and my red hair.
“If people recognized how we're wired, how we're truly different, than maybe we will practice a little more tolerance toward one another,” Hibbing says.
Let's hope so.