Politics may not be rocket science, but apparently it is brain surgery.
Understanding the genesis of political orientation has long been a subject of biological interest, with every few years a new study suggesting our ideological differences aren’t skin-deep, they’re sub-atomic.
Add to the list the findings of the University College London, which takes the theory of different liberal and conservative genes to another level. Liberals and conservatives have always thought the other had their brains wired differently and, according to the University, physically speaking they’re right.
But the University’s study is also a case example in the sideshow of the politicization of science – namely, “proving” that conservatives are mentally (or genetically) deficient:
Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.
Using every inch of my larger amygdala, it’s hard not to notice how many of these studies inevitably lead to a conclusion that liberal physiological differences are viewed as genetically preferable – if not superior. A similar outlook could be found just this last year with the ballyhooed discovery of a so-called “liberal gene”:
As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that “it is the crucial interaction of two factors — the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence — that is associated with being more liberal.”
Outgoing, popular kids equals well-balanced, politically liberal adults? Conservatives are creepy, adolescent shut-ins? Curse my shriveled anterior cingulate cortex for reading anything into that study.
Of course, not all scientists are inferring that our political and genetic differences are so stark as to invite a Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal comparison. In fact, some recongize the potential for political bias in such a report and actively work to tap down any broad-based partisan conclusions…including the actual authors of the study:
While the London study does find distinct differences between Democrats and Republicans, its authors caution that more research needs to be done on the subject. One unknown is whether people are simply born with their political beliefs or if our brains adjust to life experiences–which is a possibility, Kanai writes.
“It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions,” he said in a statement accompanying the study. “More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.”
Talk about burying the lead. And I thought we were just told that larger anterior cingulate cortexs led to understanding complex subjects better.
Truthfully, we want our differences to be genetic for they absolve us of needing to convince others. And seeking to find that absolution – that genesis of political thought – in the genius of others brings to mind the words of the discoverer of the double helix, J.D. Watson:
“One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”