“Genopolitics” sounds formidable but may say little

Graphic by Dan Saelinger of Scientific American

As 24/7 news coverage of the U.S. presidential elections winds down, here’s an interesting little postscript from behavioral genetics:

In a post for Scientific American, geneticist Evan Charney and political scientist William English assess attempts to match genes with voting behaviors. Apparently dozens of studies over the past few years have sought a role for genetics in tagging liberal versus conservative ideology, party loyalty and voting practices. According to Charney and English, none of the studies actually say much – but we can take a broader lesson from their mistakes.

In addition to pointing out these studies’ methodological flaws, the post authors take issue with the general notion that human behavior can be meaningfully traced back to a handful of genes. As Charney and English put it: “The chance that any complex human behavior — such as voting — might have one or two major predisposing genes is practically zero.” Their point is well-taken, especially since the lure of genetic explanations touches many fields. Looking at the big picture, it’s worth asking how a discipline like “genopolitics” could be constructive, or whether it’s an attempt to impose genetics on a field that doesn’t really have need for it.

Next on Mind the Gap: For a look at politics that’s got less genetics and a lot more neuroscience, Brown professor Fiery Cushman will speak at Penn this Monday night about the cognitive mechanisms underlying political and moral beliefs. I’ll be covering the lecture on the blog, so make sure to check back here as well!

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