GENEWATCH
 
EDITOR'S NOTE
By Samuel W. Anderson
 

While we were putting together this issue, Council for Responsible Genetics board member Sheldon Krimsky suggested I look into 'genopolitics,' a subset of behavioral genetics dealing with the genetic basis for political behaviors. More specifically, he suggested I look up the phrase 'Genetic Variation in Political Participation.' The article with that title, published in the American Political Science Review in 2008, led me to a trove of studies connecting various elements of human 'political behavior'-from the fervor of one's partisanship to whether or not one turns out to vote-to a genetic basis.

This was great fun, especially after reading the opinions of some who had been warning for years of the fallibility of claims that various specific behaviors are 'heritable.' Two common themes emerged of many of the studies in question: a reliance on twin studies, and a failure-sometimes blatant-to properly take into account environmental factors. When I spoke with Jonathan Beckwith about this (page 8), he recalled a study on the heritability of intelligence in which the researchers attempted to discern how much their subjects' environments might also contribute to their development by counting the 'number of books' in their subjects' places of residence. (No word on whether General Relativity was counted the same as The Da Vinci Code.)

The study 'Genetic Variation in Political Participation,' authored by James Fowler, Laura Baker and Christopher Dawes, fits right into that canon. The research, like so much behavioral genetic research, is based on twin studies. In short, it compares a group of identical twins, who share all of their DNA, to a group of non-identical twins, who don't. The premise: if the pairs of identical twins turn out to be significantly more likely to share the same voting habits (both twins vote or neither does) compared to the non-identical twins, this suggests 'that a signi?cant proportion of the variation in voting turnout can be accounted for by genes.' More specifically, they found that '53% of the variance in turnout behavior can be accounted for by additive genetic effects,' coming in well ahead of 'the shared environment' (35%) and the 'unshared environment' (12%).

Let's think about that a moment. Doesn't it sound like they are suggesting that the number one most likely reason Joe shows up at the polls on voting day more often than his non-identical twin, Jill, is because he inherited some gene, or combination of genes, that makes him more likely to vote? In fact, that is just what they are saying.

This is one of those studies that doesn't pass the 'sniff test,' especially given the multitude of studies showing the importance of environmental factors. Some of the most common factors lie outside of this study, since the twins are, presumably, the same age and race. The authors of the study also accounted for education level, which has been shown to be far and away the most significant indicator of voting turnout (79% of college graduates vote, versus 57% of high school graduates and 43% of high school dropouts). But the study-again, like so many other twin studies-rests heavily on the 'shared environment' assumption: that there is no significant difference between the way identical twins and non-identical twins grow up; that a pair of non-identical twins share the same environment growing up, just as a pair of identical twins do. I can't dispel that assumption in this little editorial, but luckily for the curious reader, several of the pieces in the following pages do quite a good job of it.

Whatever the reliability of the methods, one of the big questions one has to ask, after reading studies connecting genes to everything from political participation to sexual preference, trying to reduce complex behaviors into a very narrow causation, is: What is really being accomplished here? Why are we studying this? With more people in fields from psychology to political science turning to genetics to pull down more research funds, the authors of the genopolitics study seem to know what their real accomplishment is: 'These studies provide the first step needed to excite the imaginations of a discipline not used to thinking about the role of biology in human behavior.'               

 
 
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