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Political DNA

Hair, eye color and politics? Researchers discover a genetic link that could determine how you vote.


The article, "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?," is co-authored by Caroline Funk, associate professor of political science at VCU, along with John R. Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University, and John R. Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska.

The article was published in the May edition of the American Political Science Review, "the highest peer review journal in political science," says Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. "If it's in there, you can bet it's going to enter the national discussion." It did. In July The New York Times followed up on the article. And those in public-policy circles have been buzzing.

The article is based on a study of roughly 4,500 pairs of twins from the Virginia 30,000 — a twin registry based at VCU.

The study looked at how roughly 4,500 pairs of twins responded to 28 phrases, such as "women's liberation" or "death penalty." Each response was measured against an index to gauge how conservative their answers were and then compared with the results for identical and fraternal twins.

The study didn't find microscopic nucleotides stamped Democrat or Republican, but it did find that the political attitudes of identical twins — who share 100 percent of their genetic material — were more alike than the attitudes of fraternal twins, who share only 50 percent of DNA.

Specifically, the article reports that our genes affect general political disposition as much as our environments do — and almost five times more than parental influence alone. "This isn't about nature or nurture," Funk says. "It's about nature and nurture."

Other fields of academia have long embraced the idea that behavioral patterns are linked to genetics. But political scientists "do not take seriously the possibility of nonenvironmental influences" on politics, the professors write in their article.

But the notion makes sense, says Scott Allison, chair of the psychology department at the University of Richmond.

Evolutionary psychology — the psychology using genes — has been a hot topic for the last 10 years or so, Allison says, and focuses on genetic manifestations not just of physical traits, but also of social and behavioral traits. "They're looking for a genetic explanation for almost anything you can think of," Allison says: "alcoholism, stubbornness, criminal behavior."

Indeed, Funk says, there's been a broader "biotechnical revolution. Political science has not been aware of that."

The article and its findings may be making headlines, but it's not news to Lindon Eaves, professor of human genetics and psychiatry at VCU and director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

Eaves says in the late '70s his own genetic research "got into social attitudes because we thought that they would be a model of non-genetic influence. The first surprise in 1975 was, whoa, this stuff is a bit genetic."

Eaves came to VCU in 1981 armed with experience in twin data analysis and mathematical models he'd developed to decipher the numbers. He had questions in the gray areas of behavior where environment and inheritance both seemed to be in play.

In 1986 he began compiling the Virginia 30,000, a data set that would include twins and their relatives and "allow us to test the assumptions of everything we'd done to that point." Eaves' set contains information on 30,000 twins and family members. Its size and the new information it generated has made VCU a beacon in the world of twin studies. Eaves and his methods are internationally recognized.

Eaves, however, says the study's authors don't go far enough with their findings. Twin data alone doesn't help explain the effect of genetics, which is why he compiled the Virginia 30,000, which includes information about twins' relatives. "I've got an army of post-docs here right now figuring why the twin model" isn't better at predicting similar behavioral patterns between other siblings and parents.

"My concern really is that, in a sense, political scientists have been sold a view of reality that was put out there 30 years ago, but the current studies were designed to test," Eaves says.

Of course Funk shares Eaves' interest in getting the nuances of the genetics right, but for now, she's just happy political scientists know it's out there. "After political scientists recognize the idea that there could be a heritable component, then they'll also need to pay attention to changes in genetics too," Funk says. S

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