Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Genetics of Group Identity

Christopher Hitchens has said that the religious impulse will never fully disappear; he ends God Is Not Great with a great quote from Camus in exactly this spirit. I tend to agree. To truly eradicate the tendency for humans to promulgate authority-seeking superstitions, we're probably talking about genetic engineering more than about improved arguments. That doesn't mean we rationalists should stop what we're doing. In the last few centuries we've made massive progress in separating it from public decision-making, and we're making excellent progress right now.

But that genetic engineering comment is meant to be taken somewhat literally. James Fowler is one-half of the team that's best-known for investigating the effect of contagion in social networks (obesity, depression, etc. - the other half is Nicholas Christakis.) But the network research is hardly Fowler's most interesting work. Through twin studies, he suggests that our specific political leanings are as much as 50% determined by our genes.

Understand? It's not just that you were raised by a liberal; while that certainly helped make you liberal, you have liberal-predisposing genes. If these results are generalizable to other ideologies beyond politics, there are obvious implications. In the West, one in twelve people as adults end up in a different religion (or lack thereof) than their parents'. In a society like the U.S. that's highly pluralistic and has a very loose nuclear family structure, that doesn't seem like a very big loss, although I don't know how we would predict how often offspring would drift away in the complete absence of a genetic component. Granted, it does seem silly to argue for a Methodist vs. a Baptist gene. But it seems slightly more plausible that overt non-afiliation and rejection of the dominant ideology - as with atheists, or small religious minorities - might require different personality traits; namely, strong reasoning ability and self-confidence. Might there be a genetic component there as well?

But before you think I'm taking this too far, Fowler and his fellow authors have gone as far as to start trying to pin the genetic component of partisan intensity on a specific gene, DRD2 (a dopamine receptor). DRD2 is an interesting receptor for sure. Hallucinogens overstimulate it, modern antipsychotics selectively block it, and some alleles are associated with schizophrenia. That said, Fowler and Dawes seem to have picked DRD2 a bit randomly out of a number of genes known to contribute to neurobehavioral differences.

But the details of whether DRD2 specifically is involved are beside the point of this post. The salient implications to atheists are:

1) There are certainly genes with variants that have an effect on cognition, personality and behavior, in a range of cognition that we would call "clinically normal" (i.e. we're not talking about Downs Syndrome or bipolar disorder here.)

2) Certain types of personalities and styles of thinking to which these alleles predispose us are likely to be more or less suited to certain ideologies, political or otherwise.

3) Therefore, it is not implausible that people can carry genes which make them better at becoming part of an in-group (general) or even adhering to certain core beliefs and behaviors of a group (specific). To this end I don't think it's a coincidence that, in general, most atheists are not sports team fanatics.

Certainly none of this is to diminish the effect of environment, but the point is that not everyone is equally motivated by, or reachable by, rational argument, and that this cognitive variation is an irrevocable part of their make-up one way or the other. As with Fowler's social network research, we are all subject to pre-rational forces that bias our decision-making.

I expect we'll be seeing more studies that are able to correlate seemingly complex behaviors with anatomy, chemistry and genes. If the phenotypes regarding ideological intensity and content run along a spectrum from "strongly subject to arguments from authority", to "rejecting arguments from authority", one approach is to look at this as a form of neurodiversity that got out of control in the neolithic, when agriculture and writing created politically centralized states that acted as testing and breeding grounds for more and more virulent arguments from authority. (Alert anthropology-minded readers will be thinking "mismatch hypothesis.") I submit that there is a principle like this operating which ensures, as Hitchens warned, that the impulse to religion will never leave the species entirely. The world will never be entirely composed of Russells and Jeffersons. And that is exactly why we can never stop working to keep theists and ideologues from exploiting the intensely partisan among us.

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