Politics might be in your genetics


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If you felt compelled to go to the polls and vote for Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama last month, there may have been more to it than your concern for the fate of the nation.

Your genes may have been whispering.

Oh, researchers don't think genes determine whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, at least not yet.

"That's family conditioning, mostly," said University of Illinois political science Professor Ira Carmen.

But genes, genes in your brain especially, may have an effect on whether you're registered to vote and tend to do so, on your propensity for characteristics with a political impact like cooperation and conflict, and on how hospitable you feel toward candidates of a different gender or race than you, among other things.

Nearly 70 experts from New York to California and Canada, and in fields ranging from genetics and neuroscience to political science and cognitive psychology, are discussing such effects today at the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology in what's being billed as a first-of-its kind interdisciplinary Conference on Biology and Politics.

"This is a very new synthesis; it's just beginning," said UI Professor Gene Robinson, an entomologist and neuroscientist known for studying the relationship between the highly developed social behavior of bees and the genes in their brains, many of which are "conserved" – that is, present – across species, including humans.

It was the idea of Robinson and Carmen, who have worked together for nearly a decade, to hold the conference as an opportunity to assess where the field stands and where it should be headed, at a time when technology and the sequencing of the human and other genomes have opened intriguing new avenues for inquiry. They approached the National Science Foundation, which promptly doubled their funding request.

"It's really an historic meeting," said Carmen, a pioneer in studying genetics and politics.

It also is an opportunity for the UI and the Institute for Genomic Biology to stake a claim as a key player in the emerging field.

Harris Lewin, the UI professor who directs the interdisciplinary research center, noted that it already hosts a group, headed by Robinson, pursuing a research theme in the genomics of the brain and behavior.

Where social behavior like participation in politics is concerned, genes have tended to be either dismissed as a factor, with environmental conditions doing the driving, or viewed as deterministic, mostly the former. The debate has often been characterized as nature versus nurture – genes versus environment.

But Robinson said scientists are now finding that it isn't necessarily an either-or proposition: Genes can have an impact on social behavior, and the environment – family life, conditions in a bee hive and so on – can shape the impact those genes have, in fact the brain's very structure.

Some of his UI research, for example, shows bees shifting roles as needed from inside-the-hive workers to foragers for food outside, with their genes shifting with them.

"Genes don't work alone; they work together with the environment," said Justin Rhodes, one of the speakers at the opening session of the conference Friday and a biologist in the UI Psychology Department who explores how genes and environment affect voluntary behavior.

Robinson said it's a long way from bee to human behavior. He said he tells his students "bees are complex, but humans are unfathomable." Then he invited the conference participants to prove him wrong on the second point.

That day is a ways down the road and the answer almost certainly will be considerably more complex than the existence of a Democratic gene or a Republican gene, experts at the conference said.

"We're going to be talking about dozens, maybe hundreds of genes," working in concert and with environmental factors, said James Fowler, a University of California, San Diego, researcher who focuses on genes and political behavior.

Fowler outlined a series of studies with identical and fraternal twins that show they share a tendency to vote or not. This appears to be genetic, since the environments of the pairs are the same, more or less, and the identical twins, who share a 100 percent genetic heritage, tend to act alike even more strongly than fraternal twins, whose shared heritage is 50 percent.

Other studies found similar correlations to political behavior like running for office, donating money to a candidate and attending campaign rallies.

"All of (the studies) are telling us that genes matter for political participation," Fowler said.

Researchers also have found a link between genes and level of attachment to your preferred political bent, Fowler said, although not to your party choice at this point.

Still, he said it may eventually turn out that your parents passed on more than their political opinions around the dinner table in influencing your politics.

"It is increasingly difficult, I think now, to argue against the heritability of political behavior," Fowler said.

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