Several weeks back, a lot of ink was spilled on issues raised when Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis refused to provide marriage licenses because providing them to same-sex couples would make her implicit in their sinfulness. From the liberals came the rights of all individuals to partake in the rites of society; from the conservatives, the right to religious freedom. No matter which side you agree with, most of what appeared in print could properly be called ‘rot’. So many articles preaching to the same choirs, rather than a reasoned attempt to persuade others.
From professors Robb Willer at Stanford and Matthew Feinberg at the University of Toronto comes a study in how to convince a political opponent to support your position on an issue. They found that if you tailor your argument to the moral values of your opponents, you have a better chance of persuading them of your viewpoint. If you tell a conservative that same-sex couples are proud, patriotic Americans, they are more likely to accept your argument; if you tell a liberal that making English the official language of the United States would improve the lives of immigrants, they are more likely to respond positively.
George Lakoff has picked apart the Enlightenment notion we like to hold that our beliefs are the result of reasoning about the issues around us. Jonathan Haidt has provided insight into the foundations which make us conservative or liberal; conservatives prioritize obedience, conformity, and purity; liberals fairness. In his book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us, Avi Tuchman describes the biological and social foundations which have such a large impact on the beliefs we hold.
Tuschman notes that you can better predict whether a U.S. voter will vote Democratic or Republican based on their religiousness, than their income. ‘Personality factors’ play a huge role in our political beliefs. Dividing personality into five factors has been quite successful at understanding humans of all persuasions across diverse world cultures. Those factors are:
Individuals high on the openness scale are primarily politically liberal; those high on conscientiousness are mostly conservative. Extraversion corresponds, though less dramatically, with liberalism. Tuchman notes that personality as measured by these five traits has a genetic component; average heritability of openness is 57%; of conscientiousness 49%.
Summarizing the work of these authors and others, our beliefs are fashioned by:
Genetics and Biology
Genetics and Biology
Humans tend to be tribal. Ethnocentrism is characteristic of conservatives. Inbreeding increases altruism towards members of one’s group, and increased hostility towards those outside the group. Cultural conservatism is fueled by concern for infectious disease; through inbreeding, individuals inherit traits which protect against the diseases prevalent in their region. Individuals practice phenotypic assortative mating, meaning they seek mates who have similar features of certain types, including ‘ear lengths, neck circumference, interpupillary breadth, and lip circumstance’. All of which reinforces ethnocentric grouping and conservatism. Reinforcing this grouping, geneticists have shown how smell influences mate choice, and this is related to pheromones and lipocalin proteins OBP2A and OBP2B.
Inbreeding, however, reduces genetic variation of a group, increases the prevalence of certain diseases like cystic fibrosis, and makes the group less capable of adjusting to a changing environment. In this case, openness provides advantages, and this openness is associated with a more liberal outlook.
(A study of Icelanders showed that peak fitness for matings occurs between third and fourth cousins. This enhances the advantages of inbreeding without the resulting disadvantages.)
Geneticists have also found a connection between genes and openness. There is a gene which codes for D4 on the short arm of human chromosome 11. Those with a longer D4 allele collect dopamine less efficiently, which causes them to take greater risks and seek more novelty, all associated with openness and, from it, to political liberalness. Societies which had a need for long-distance migration have a higher incidence of this longer allele; it presumably gave them an advantage when faced with novel situations.
Some biological characteristics which characterize conservatives are a larger right amygdala, and liberals, a larger anterior cingulate. The amygdala is the part of the brain which processes emotions; the anterior cingulate the part that supplies inhibition, control, and empathy. This is likely related to the fact that conservatives startle more easily in response to threatening images or sounds.
First-born children are more conscientious than later-born siblings, and so more conservative. They are organized, achievement-orientated, reliable, responsible, self-disciplined, and have high scholastic achievement. Birth order plays a larger role in political orientation of siblings than the fact the siblings have the same parents and have been raised in the same surroundings. Later-born siblings are much more likely to be liberal. Birth order is so compelling that siblings are only slightly more likely to have similar personalities with each other than with children in the population at random.
The theory of ‘Parent-Offspring Conflict’ contends that children, to enhance their own chances for success, require more investment from parents than parents are willing or capable of providing. One view holds that first-born children learn conscientiousness via ‘alloparenting’, that is, being put in charge of younger siblings since parents can’t do it all. It also makes them appreciate authority.
Another perspective is based on a Darwinian evolutionary concept of divergence. Throughout history, and still today in many parts of the world, infant mortality has been high, with as few as 50% of children reaching the age of 5. To enhance their survivability, children, like species, seek to populate separate niches to reduce competition. If older children inhabit the niche where they identify with their parents’ authority and strive for achievement to satisfy their parents’ aspirations for them, younger siblings express a wider variety of interests and a bit more rebelliousness as they seek their niche.
Hunter-gatherer societies have been highly egalitarian. Where there is a high level of mutual dependence, and where individuals can easily leave their group, giving them options, relationships tend to be equal, including relationships between the sexes. Agriculture, however, not only transformed the economic environment, but also the socio-political one. The interdependency of the group was lessened. The ability to feed oneself depends on having land, which is inherited, diminishing the ability to exit the group and still thrive, increasing the need to be obedient to one’s parents. The ability to grow more food than necessary to sustain the group allowed some to accumulate wealth, and with it power. Not needing to move around, women were able to have more children, and a division of labor between males and females followed, leading to more hierarchy in which men were in charge. Fathers gained control over whom their children, particularly their daughters, could consort with. Hierarchy, control, and obedience is the definition of a conservative society.
On the other hand, in modern industrial societies, in part to support the increasing cost of children who are non-productive as they pursue education, more women have entered the workforce, a trend intensified during war by the need for women to work to replace the duties of men gone to war. This increases mutual dependence, making relations between the sexes more equal, and countering the conservatism that the turn to agriculture had engendered.
Phenotypic assortative mating, where men and women seek partners who have a lot in common with each other, also sorts for political views. Conservatives are more subject to desiring mates who resemble them, while liberals are more likely to seek partners who differ. In both case, we sort by political views, and create families where parents are politically similar. In addition to political segregation by mate, there has been an increasing tendency to segregate politically by geography, either by moving to areas where others live who share our values, or adopting the values of the areas we move to. This has some influence on the children we raise.
Children of parents who have authoritarian attitudes tend to turn out conservative; those of parents with egalitarian attitudes are more likely to become liberals. Left-leaning activists are more likely to have career-type mothers. Members of neo-Nazi or white hate groups were more likely to have had abusive, alcoholic fathers, or to have lost a parent when young.
In research on views on climate change, Yale’s Dan Kahan shows that we choose to accept or deny climate change arguments more on the beliefs of those with whom we share close ties. This was actually a surprise; they expected that higher scientific and numeric literacy would lead to higher acceptance of what scientists are saying about climate change. We tend to sort ourselves into groups of people with similar attributes or beliefs, and once there, double-down on accepting what our groups’ beliefs are. Those whose beliefs were more associated with hierarchical individualism tended to disbelieve in the seriousness of climate change; egalitarian communitarians the opposite. These two groups align well with conservative and liberal outlooks, but it seems that once we have sorted ourselves in general terms, we accede to the group’s views in specific areas.
We do educate ourselves, we do ponder life’s mysteries, we do gather facts, and sometimes, maybe just sometimes, the views we come to are influence by our use of reason.
When a flurry of articles appears in response to the situation like the one surrounding Kim Davis, if we chance upon a forcefully conservative article, we could dismiss it with the swipe that the author’s views are merely a reflection of his more efficient dopamine-processing D4 allele; or if searingly liberal, it’s no more than a reflection of his larger anterior cingulate. It would be truly sad if we had to dismiss all viewpoints as mere emanations of genes, or agriculture, or a missing Dad or working mother. And yet, if we want to appreciate the kernel of an argument, we can likely do that best by stripping off the garnish of biology, and history, and parenting, and seeing it for its unadulterated self. If we can get past the blather, maybe there will be a gem to discover.