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Charneyessay - Genes and Ideologies There is a trend among...

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Genes and Ideologies There is a trend among behavioral scientists to view ever more complex “attitudes” and/or “systems of belief” as in some sense genetically determined (or “heritable”). Consistent with this trend is the recent article of Alford, Funk, and Hibbing titles “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?,” (American Political Science Review 99, 2 (May): 153-167) in which the authors claim to have demonstrated that when it comes to the transmission of political ideologies, genes count for more than environment. Their article has received an enormous amount of attention among political scientists and in the popular press. I critically evaluate the research technique on the basis of which the authors’ support their claims and argue that it suffers from significant methodological flaws. Such flaws notwithstanding, I demonstrate that the authors’ data do not clearly support their conclusions. I then question the cogency, from a historical and theoretical perspective, of proposing the existence of “liberal” and “conservative” “phenotypes” and “genotypes.” My argument has implications beyond the findings of Alford, Funk, and Hibbing, and applies to all studies that claim to have demonstrated the heritability of complex and politically relevant attitudes.
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1 [R]esearchers in human behavioral genetics have taken an overly simplistic view of human social behaviors and aptitudes. The failure to consider more complex views of the interactions both between genes and between genes and environment may explain the absence of any bona fide findings of genes associated with the behaviors they study. Nevertheless, the studies have often been presented by scientists as if conclusive, thus attracting considerable media and public attention. Journalists have moved from conclusions based upon the simplistic assumptions underlying the studies to present to the public simplistic views of human social problems and human social arrangements. This translation is sometimes encouraged by scientists themselves, providing journalists with provocative statements for their newspapers and magazines. 1 Jonathan Beckwith, American Cancer Society Professor of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard University (2006, 89) There is a growing trend among behavioral scientists (particularly psychologists) and now, political scientists, to view more and more of human behavior as in large measure attributable to our genes. In the old debate of “nature v. nurture,” “nature” now seems to have regained the ascendancy it once held when William Galton, author of Hereditary Genius, wrote in 1875 after one of the first “twin studies,” that as regards behavioral, psychological, and cognitive characteristics, “There is no escape from the conclusion that nature prevails enormously over nurture” (Galton 1875, 397). A popular book on genetics asserts triumphantly (on behalf of “nature”): [G]enes not only determine how we look, but how we act, feel, and experience life. In case
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