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“Gene-whiz” science strikes again: Researchers discover a liberal gene

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Homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Or so religious conservatives would have us believe. But liberalism is in our genes. Or so researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University would have us believe.

Yes, the inevitable has happened. Just before Election Day—surely not a coincidence—scientists report an association between liberal political views and DRD4, a gene that produces a receptor for the neurotransmitter dopamine. The study in The Journal of Politics, published by Cambridge University Press, examined 2,000 subjects and found a DRD4–liberalism correlation in those who had lots of friends in adolescence.

The lead investigator, U.C. San Diego’s James Fowler, focused on DRD4 because it had previously been linked to "novelty-seeking". According to a San Diego press release, Fowler reasoned that "people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends’ points of views. As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average."

The U.C. San Diego–Harvard team brags that it is the first to link a specific gene to a specific political outlook. Actually, if the team’s claim holds up, it will be the first confirmed linkage of a specific gene to any complex behavioral trait.

The "liberal gene" is just the latest in a long string of dramatic claims from behavioral genetics—or "gene-whiz science," my preferred term. Behavioral genetics, which traces behavioral differences among individuals and groups to genetic variance, receives an inordinate amount of attention, especially considering that its findings so rarely hold up to scrutiny.

Researchers, or gene-whizzers, typically make a surprising announcement: There’s a gene that makes you gay! That makes you supersmart! That makes you believe in God! That makes you vote for Barney Frank! The media and the public collectively exclaim, "Gee whiz!" Follow-up studies that fail to corroborate the initial claim receive much less or no attention, leaving the public with the mistaken impression that the initial report was accurate—and, more broadly, that genes determine who we are.

Over the past two decades, gene-whizzers have discovered "genes for" high IQ, male homosexuality, religious belief, gambling, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, alcoholism, heroin addiction, sadness, extroversion, introversion, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, seasonal affective disorder, violent aggression—you get the picture. So far, not one of these claims has been consistently confirmed by follow-up studies.

These failures should not be surprising, because all these complex traits and disorders are almost certainly caused by many different genes interacting with many different environmental factors. Moreover, the methodology of behavioral geneticists is highly susceptible to false positives. Researchers select a group of people who share a trait and then start searching for a gene that occurs not universally and exclusively but simply more often in this group than in a control group. If you look at enough genes, you will almost inevitably find one that meets these criteria simply through chance.

The most prominent of all gene-whizzers is the geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute. He first attained fame and fortune in 1993 by "discovering" a gene linked to male homosexuality. After his initial report in Science, Hamer and a journalist quickly co-wrote a book, The Science of Desire The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior (Simon and Schuster, 1994), which The New York Times named a "notable book." Meanwhile follow-up studies found no evidence for the gay gene.

In his 2004 book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes (Doubleday), Hamer claimed to have found a gene linked to religious belief or spirituality. TIME devoted a cover story to Hamer’s claim, but in a review for Scientific American, journalist Carl Zimmer quipped that Hamer should have titled his book "A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study."

Hamer also led the group that in 1996 first linked the DRD4 gene to "novelty-seeking". Lots of other groups have sought to replicate Hamer’s finding, but according to a 2008 review "the strength of evidence for this association remains uncertain." Meanwhile, DRD4 has also been tied to schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, bipolar disorder, sex addiction, anorexia nervosa, binge eating and, now, liberalism, according to Wikipedia.

I hope the liberal-gene finding—unlike all previous gene-whiz claims—holds up, because then we can create a utopia by genetically engineering liberal designer babies. We could even pay for it with Obama’s health care plan! But alas, this vision—like the liberal gene itself—is just a fantasy.

I’ll describe Margaret Mead’s theory of war in my next post.

Image: Does a gene make Barney Frank liberal?

Credit: Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. ildenizen 5:05 pm 10/29/2010

    Hmm… I used to be a raving hard core conservative. Now I would be considered a flaming liberal. Not sure how that jives with this "genetic" research.

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  2. 2. robert schmidt 5:47 pm 10/29/2010

    @ildenizen, there is a tendency in the media to oversimplify findings about genetics and disease or even ability. Humans are very complex things. Our genes may make us predisposed to certain conditions but they often aren’t a binary on / off switch. Also individual pathologies may have many triggers. For example; an increase risk of developing breast cancer has been correlated with a defect in the BRCA1 gene. That doesn’t mean you will develop breast cancer if you have a defect in this gene. And it doesn’t mean that if you have breast cancer you have a defect in this gene. Reality is more complicated than that. When linking personality with genes I suspect you’ll find it even more difficult determining relationships as personality is affected by many other factors as well. One needs to be careful about taking these kind of generalities and linking them with a specific incidence of a disease or trait.

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  3. 3. garedawg 6:08 pm 10/29/2010

    I think the correlation can be explained by the following cause and effect. Those with lots of friends as teenagers tend to party a lot, frying brain cells instead of reading or studying. This leads them to adopt liberal viewpoints later on.

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  4. 4. wildthing 7:52 pm 10/29/2010

    ao is there a gene find an excessive trust in finding genes? Probably liberal versus conservative has something to do with fear versus curiosity in problem solving or mental processing… genetic referecnce to specific cognitive constructs is impossible which in fact bring up the question of midn bersus brain function in that perhaps the mind fires brain cells as much as brain cell fires up the mind… and perhaps the mind is to some extent collective… Excessive search for genes that control behavior is a search for ways to control and edit human behavior which is a very inhumane behavior.

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  5. 5. ConcernedCitizen 8:37 pm 10/29/2010

    I like the healthy dose of skepticism in this article. Refreshing change from the media telling me what to think.

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  6. 6. Gojira1974 8:38 pm 10/29/2010

    Genes are both incredibly powerful and incredibly impotent simultaneously. They provide biochemical responses to stimuli, but there has been no mechanism proposed for their direct action on conscious activity. The brain works in strange and mysterious ways, and transcriptome wide studies have only recently been conducted. We know a lot about how genes are expressed, and in some cases regulated, but we really don’t know a lot about their complex network interactions. It’s like looking at the all major and minor flight route connections (times 10,000) in the US from Space and trying to predict all the interactions of a single plane. The work is only just beginning.

    Geneticists are molecular biologists practicing without a license. The old ways of genetic manipulations are passing away. Whole transcriptome analysis is the future.

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  7. 7. Cosmic 10:58 pm 10/29/2010

    I’m liberal and I did have lots of friends in high school. I still love to learn other points of view. I have even met Dean Hamer! So there’s one data point for the study.

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  8. 8. Tom O H 7:29 am 10/30/2010

    "I hope the liberal-gene finding–unlike all previous gene-whiz claims–holds up, because then we can create a utopia by genetically engineering liberal designer babies."
    I could not think of anything worse for the world! If we were all uber-liberals what would happen then? Socialism thats what.(lol).

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  9. 9. robert schmidt 1:17 pm 10/30/2010

    @Tom O H, "If we were all uber-liberals what would happen then? Socialism thats what.(lol)." I’d take socialism over fascism any day. (lol).

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  10. 10. WRQ9 2:04 pm 10/30/2010

    I’m a pasty faced unatractive socially repressed republican, is there a drug I can take to be more like you? Except I’m not a republican, but it would be in my best interest to be…
    If there is a gene for government employees, we can eliminate a lot of unnecessary applicants. Ya! I can see where this could be a bipartisan boon, cutting costs by simplifyin government! I’m so glad we’re in such good hands.

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  11. 11. dbtinc 9:16 am 10/31/2010

    This article is a joke right? Is there a humor section in SA now?

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  12. 12. Tom O H 3:02 pm 10/31/2010

    I think I d rather have fascism to be honest, as crazy as that sounds, fascism works!
    But seriously I m just poking fun at the idea that all conservatives are gun-totting, gay-hating, fundamentalist christian morons!!!
    And of course the idea that liberals are FAR more intelectual than their conservative counterparts hahaha.

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  13. 13. Postman1 8:12 pm 10/31/2010

    I’d just like to hear if they found a cure for it. LOL

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  14. 14. Cpo USN Ret - Joseph C Moore 6:55 pm 11/2/2010

    It appears to me, from the topics in the e-mail newsletter that Scientific American is becoming Junk Science American.

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  15. 15. Cpo USN Ret - Joseph C Moore 6:58 pm 11/2/2010

    There is another choice for the thinking man (person)and that is Libertarianism.

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 10:17 am 11/3/2010

    This supposed "doctor" Hamer is nothing but a fraud. He needs to be sued for the damages he is doing to society. Then he needs to be tarred and feathered (an experience that tended to be fatal rather more often than not). I met one of the "scientists" that claimed to have created cold fusion. He very much seemed like a greasy used car salesman. I am strongly reminded of the Baby Einstein DVDs that Disney has started a recall on because they are proven to decrease intelligence in children.

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  17. 17. AET RaDAL 11:07 am 11/5/2010

    "Follow-up studies that fail to corroborate the initial claim receive much less or no attention, leaving the public with the mistaken impression that the initial report was accurate…"

    The exact thing happened with the David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine study that was published in PlosOne on duration dilation. The study is so flawed I use it as a critical thinking exercise for high school physics students who figure out it’s bunk – and that includes kids with Aspergers at Summit Academy in Toledo, Ohio! But the mainstream media that championed the study has barely taken notice of my work that clearly turns the results over, though I must admit that eventually they will, simply because I keep using it as a lecture presentation and the students and their teachers love it so much.

    If high school kids can see and prove that duration dilation is not a function of elongated memory, as Eagleman claims, then eventually the media will pick-up the story and the study will be discredited, as it deserves to be.

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  18. 18. AET RaDAL 11:19 am 11/5/2010

    I forgot to sign my name to that statement on Eagleman. My name is Marshall Barnes, R&D Eng and my paper on that Eagleman question can be viewed at which was originally published in the now defunct, Scientific American Blog Community back in 2007.

    Some of the links are dead but the information quoted from them can easily be referenced from other sources.

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  19. 19. AET RaDAL 11:58 am 11/5/2010

    That’s a straw argument. It’s not a choice between two extremes.

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