Shelf Life

A Zeal for Different Opinions

W.S. Gilbert was right.

By 3.14.14

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Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
By John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John A. Alford

(Routledge, 304 pages, $29.95)

The sentry in Iolanthe wondered at how “Nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative!”

He was right to wonder. For most of the past few decades, however, his suggestion that our personal political leanings are something we are born with would have been thought erroneous, if not downright shocking. The conventional wisdom has been that our minds at birth are formless blobs, to be shaped by education, upbringing, and socialization. There are no predispositions, certainly not political ones.

The authors of Predisposed—three professors of political science—beg to differ. Drawing on a mass of work in experimental psychology, neurophysiology, and even—gasp!—genetics, they show us that: “At least at the far ends of the ideological spectrum, liberals and conservatives are emotionally, preferentially, psychologically, and biologically distinct.”

Their opening qualifier is necessary. Not everyone is passionate about politics. As with other human enthusiasms—music, sport, religion—intensity of interest varies, with many people unable to see what the fuss is about. Others, while disposed politically one way or the other, hold “wrong” opinions on particular subjects. I am frequently told that I can’t be a true conservative because I am irreligious, or too respectful of science, or married out of my race.

(In an attempt to settle the matter I took the Left/Right 20 Questions Game printed as an appendix to Predisposed. My score was 11 out of 20, a tad to the right of center. I am going to claim that this makes me uniquely well-qualified to review Predisposed, whose authors, from scattered clues in the text, I take to be slightly left of center.)

The authors therefore issue many cautions about the nature of the truths they are offering. These truths are, they emphasize, matters of probability, of correlations, of scatter diagrams with many outliers. In their chapters on neuroscience and genetics, they mark many areas of ambiguity or ignorance.

All that said, there are some remarkable facts here. It is, for example, a well-established result, replicated many times in the 60 years since it was first shown, that we can tell liberals and conservatives apart by sight! Test subjects presented with photographs of people’s faces and asked to guess each face’s politics, will guess correctly at well above chance level. This even works when the photographs used are old ones from high school yearbooks.

The main clue seems to be the corrugator muscle that furrows the brow, making one’s face more expressive. Liberals use it a lot, males and females both. When the authors showed emotionally-charged images (babies, wounds, flowers, maggots) to adult subjects:

The most distinctive group by far was conservative males. While corrugator activation in response to the images was significant for everyone else, for conservative males it didn’t budge.

Underlying our individual political inclinations, and tied through the nervous system to physiological features like that corrugator muscle, are the deep contours of individual personality. Conservatives favor the real over the abstract, the tried-and-true over the new and exotic, predictability over openness, the in-group over out-groups. They are more likely than liberals to see the world as harsh and dangerous. Studies of twins and adoptees show these underlying predispositions to be quite strongly heritable.

It is not hard to see why a successful species—I mean, one not yet extinct—should contain both varieties of temperament.

Here is a bush covered with berries. A passing Homo sapiens recalls having eaten similar berries before and finding them tasty and nutritious. He reaches for them … but thinks he sees the bush move. Is there a bear lurking in there?

Two strategies present themselves. Strategy A is to dismiss one’s fears and go for the berries. Strategy B is to back away. The person predisposed to A is less likely to starve to death; the one predisposed to B is less likely to end up as bear scat. Both strategies have evolutionary advantages, though differently weighted according to the numbers of charismatic megafauna in the habitat.

What James Madison referred to, disapprovingly, as “a zeal for different opinions” therefore has deep roots in human psychology. It has always been with us, and will be with us for as long as we are human.

Predisposed is a useful and interesting book, but as with so many messengers from the human sciences, it has a whiff of relativism about it. If our political differences arise in part from our genomes, in what sense does political reality exist? Yet of course it does exist: From the point of view of human flourishing and human happiness, North Korea’s political arrangements are plainly inferior to South Korea’s. There are things we should prefer.

I’ll rest my hopes in the Faber College motto: “Knowledge is Good” and will banish relativism at last. To help us better decide which things we should prefer in politics, we need to advance from aery leftist abstractions of perfect equality and malleability to a true understanding of human nature in all its tangled reality. Work in the human sciences like that reported very capably in Predisposed will help that advance. I cheer it on.

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).