Today's NYT opines that
"there is tempting evidence of a hereditary component to political choices. There is a strong correlation between the partisan choices of parents and children. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins suggest that genes are at work alongside the social and psychological influence of parents. Political scientists at the University of California, San Diego have gone another step, identifying specific genes associated with voter participation and partisanship.
It seems as if people with one variant of the MAOA gene are more likely to vote than those with the other version. Among regular churchgoers, those with one type of the gene that make the 5HTT transporter molecule in the walls of neuron cells (don't ask) are substantially more likely to vote than those with the other.
The moral of the story:
If certain genes make us more receptive to political messages, or more or less likely to vote, then we know the next step society must take: Keep the drugs that target the specific genes out of the hands of political consultants.
The Times has been bamboozled by a very schematic paper by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes at UC San Diego. The paper is full of caveats that serve as red flags. Here's one: "It is crucial to point out at the outset that we cannot test, given our data, the potential causal pathways we suggest. Therefore, the goal of this study is to show association rather than causality."
On the grounds of that "association", they make the huge claim that "these results represent an important step for political science as a discipline. Specifically, they show that incorporating genetic information into our theories and analysis may contribute to a greater understanding of political behavior." Hubris indeed.
In the end, Fowler and Dawes offer an argument by analogy--and a clever, if particularly dubious one in this case. Political scientists have emphasized the role that institutions play in shaping and constraining political behavior. Their argument takes the new institutionalism a step further: "Genes are the institutions of the human body: they constrain individual behavior just as political institutions constrain the behavior of groups of people. In this article we demonstrate that possessing a particular gene is associated with voting activity. Even after controlling for factors known to influence turnout, having a high MAOA allele raises the likelihood of voting by about 5%."
Thanks, but before I come even close to buying the argument that genes determine voting behavior, I want causality, not correlation. And before I begin rethinking the social sciences, we need a lot more hard science, not just speculation. Bringing genetic research to bear on the messy reality of political behavior, especially when the science is still so undeveloped and theoretically unsophisticated, is problematic. Attributing complex human behavior to two genes on the basis of speculative associations is simply not good social science. Our standards should be higher.