Op-Ed: Political leanings may be rooted in our DNA, but we’re also more than our genes

Members of the audience listen to a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News in Miami on June 26.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
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Increasingly, the intellectual consensus seems to be that our political leanings are hard-wired in our genes. There is some excellent research behind this thinking, and I’ve certainly come around to believing that DNA plays a bigger role in our political worldviews than many on the right or left are willing to accept.

But we also shouldn’t get carried away. We’re more than our genes, and we shouldn’t reduce our political orientations to the sort of essentialism that has taken over identity politics.

Take author Sebastian Jünger’s recent essay for the Washington Post. In it, he suggested that the way out from our politically polarized dysfunction is to recognize that maybe conservatives and liberals are just born that way.


I don’t dispute the research he cites, just his conclusions. “If liberalism and conservatism are partly rooted in genetics, then those worldviews had to have been adaptive — and necessary — in our evolutionary past,” Jünger writes. “That means that neither political party can accuse the other of being illegitimate or inherently immoral; we are the way we are for good reason.”

We’re more than our genes, and we shouldn’t reduce our political orientations to the sort of essentialism that has taken over identity politics.

Who says? I’m a big fan of Jünger, but I don’t see it. There are all sorts of genetically influenced traits that we condemn all the time. Genes play a big role in male violence — including rape and murder — but we rightly condemn both. Part of what makes civilization a meaningful concept is the way we train — i.e. civilize — people to conquer their more primal impulses.

Saying you can’t condemn views if they’re part of our evolutionary programming is a good example of the naturalistic fallacy that ascribes morality to nature. I’m also deeply skeptical that today’s culture war combatants will suddenly lay down their weapons in an outpouring of acceptance if we can only convince them their opponents were just born that way. Many atheists believe religion is an atavistic impulse rooted in our genes. That insight hasn’t always made them more tolerant of religion.

Another problem with this sort of argument is that it rolls right over important context, by reducing complex political arrangements to mere gene expression among subpopulations.

Jünger says, defensibly, that: “Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict.” He assigns the former task to conservatives — who want to protect the nation — and the latter to liberals — who are dedicated to equality and “social justice.” Other versions of this kind of argument often reduce conservatives and liberals to “hardwired” opponents of change or champions of it.


Obviously, there’s something here. But the reality is such divides run straight through the human heart. Our genetic programming may tell some of us to obsess over social justice and others to fixate on external threats, but most of us care about both.

Most conservatives worry about social cohesion and equality and most liberals care about external dangers, but each side works from different definitions and assumptions over how to define the problems — and how to solve them.

And then there’s the definitional thicket. During the Cold War, the most dedicated and doctrinaire communists in the Soviet Politburo were often referred to as “conservatives.” This vexed many American right-wingers. In America, anti-communism was at the heart of being a conservative, so could the hardest-line Soviets also be conservatives?

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Well, yeah. In 1957, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a brilliant essay, “Conservatism as an Ideology.” In it he observed, “Conservatism differs from all other ideologies except radicalism: it lacks what might be termed a substantive ideal.” In other words, what a conservative believes depends on where he or she lives, and what, exactly, they wish to conserve. What Saudi Arabia’s or North Korea’s conservatives want to conserve is very different than what conservatives in the United States want to conserve.

More broadly, there’s a vast amount of small c or “genetic” conservatism in contemporary progressivism and a great deal of radicalism in conservatism. That’s because — for now at least — the right supports the market and the “creative destruction” it brings, while the left defends the regulatory state and the protections it provides. I’m called a conservative because I want to dismantle much of the New Deal, and Nancy Pelosi is called a progressive because she wants to defend it. But which of us is acting on some “conservative” genetic imperative to resist change?


It’s becoming clear that our genetic programming makes persuasion more difficult than we once thought. But at the end of the day, it’s all we’ve got. And persuasion becomes more difficult when we turn philosophical arguments into a mere appendage of a new form of identity politics.