My Genes Made Me Vote For Obama: Predisposed Reviewed

My brain made me pick this image.
My brain made me pick this image.
Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford.

If a conservative is a person who clings to what is, who resists change and who distrusts innovation, then, to pick an example at random, a New York Times op-ed writer is a conservative. The last thing anybody who works at that paper wants is a change in the culture. Except for eliminating his enemies, he wants everything to stay just as it is.

What’s a liberal? Somebody who delights in the new? Who’s willing to take risks? Who thrills venturing into the unknown? Who is happy to leave other people alone as long as they leave him alone? Then, brother, Yours Truly is as liberal as they come. The last thing I want is a continuance of Modernity.

Maybe I had no choice except to be so liberal. Maybe each of us born with our politics and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why, babies born and raised in China, Kenya, or Fiji, were they transported here as eighteen-year-olds, would surely line up reflexively at the polls behind the jackass or elephant.

Sound strange? Well the key thesis behind Hibbing’s book is that we can “measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and [that] these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context” (emphasis original). Neuro- or bio-politics, as it were, is a new field, and one for which I have some sympathy. Our biology surely accounts for some of our behavior.

Yet I can’t figure the academy out. Haven’t we heard we’re all born equal, that none of us are different except for the pernicious or beneficent environment in which we were raised?

Take a lump of genes wrapped in skin and from birth let it live with two adults (let’s not be judgmental and call them “parents”) who listen to NPR, shop for organic food, and who attend marches for X Rights (where X is variable), and that lump will grow up to be one of the bien pensant. Or let him slog it out with a blue-collar mom and dad who watch Fox News, eat donuts, go to church, and attend Fourth of July parades. Then the lump will turn into Patrick Buchanan. Or Yours Truly. Environment and education—nurture, that is—rules.

But the academy also tells us there is no such thing as free will, that our genes our “selfish”, that our choices are made for us by that which is us biologically but not us mentally, that our behavior is hard-wired, that the reason we don’t like arugula is because of this gene, and the reason we are generous is because of that gene.

Hibbing and pals are somewhere in the middle—definitely not in the first camp. The view that “social context alone determines human behavior…has been a source of misunderstanding and even catastrophe throughout history.” Biology plays an under-appreciated role.

For example, they say it is because of biology that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women—no! Wait. No, no. That can’t be right. I correct myself. Absolutely not. Math ability can’t be genetic. Do you think these guys are some kind of sexists? No, sir. What Hibbing and others say is that the way we act politically is partly genetic.

They have the statistics to prove it. Weak, almost non-existent-correlation, small-sample, based-on-questionnaires, limited-applicability statistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger collection of maybes, perhaps, probablys, could bes, supposings, possibles.

Here’s the problem. To prove any biological component of ideology you first have to separate the sheep from the goats. Only way to do that is to ask questions, which must be shaded such that divisions can be found, further supposing these divisions are forever fixed. These divisions will be fuzzy and accompanied by great uncertainty. Next is to investigate some ideologically driven behavior, like (they claim) smell preference or what jokes people think funny. That, too, will be measured with error. Last is to correlate the two measures (almost always using a straight line) and report on statistical “significance.” Unless the measurement error is accounted for, which is never is, the conclusions will be far, far too certain, which (as far as I could tell) they always were for the studies reported in this book.

Nobody outside the academy disagrees that biology is influential in our makeup. Some people are naturally delightful, like Yours Truly, and some are naturally bitter pills, like Harry Reid. Some of us are inveterately honest (me) and others choke on the truth (Reid). Others have massive intellects (you know who) while some can only parrot easily won slogans (thanks, Nevada). And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.

Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep. The few studies Hibbing cites show twins are often found to be on opposite sides of the same questions, but perhaps not quite to the same rate as non-identical siblings. Environment plays its part: our intellects are ever at work. A man who was a liberal (as that word is commonly thought of) for much of his life can change to be a conservative, and vice versa.

The biological signal of political views is weak at best. I was convinced by none of the studies described in the book, all of which used the kinds of classical statistics (p-values, mostly) which guarantee over-certainty. Though there is enough evidence (from the book and elsewhere) to say biology is often determinative. Why didn’t the authors look to, say, intelligence, which has a robust biological signal? Too political: the findings go in the wrong direction.

Anyway, the authors are keen on their program: they claim their research will bring happiness to one and all by drawing a parallel argument about the course of the politics of homosexuality.

If recognizing that sexual orientation is anchored partially in biology leads to greater tolerance of different lifestyle choices, recognizing that political ideology is also tied to biology will lead to greater tolerance of different political viewpoints.

My knuckles locked up on writing “lifestyle choices” (thank God for the lubricating powers of whiskey), and there is hardly definitive proof how much if any homosexuality is caused by biology (but let that pass), but this is balderdash. I’ll tell you what will be “recognized.” When somebody disagrees with a progressive on a political point, he’ll recognize that his opponent is genetically defective. God help us when genetics testing becomes (more) commonplace than it is (especially in abortion decisions).

A last funny thing. The studies of political differences due to biology strangely always come down on the side of liberals. I keep a list of these studies (here and here) and they invariably paint a dark picture of traditionalists. Oh, and yes: there are increasing calls for selective breeding.


  1. Nate

    People are already selecting themselves out. Just not in the ways that the progressives want them to. Intelligent men tend to marry intelligent women. Stupid men tend to sleep with several stupid women (“marriage” being a “cultural” construction that ties the poor man down). Progressive men marry progressive women and do the world a favor by not having children at all.

  2. Scotian

    An additional problem may be that the authors are using a dictionary definition of conservative, as you have indirectly highlighted. A dictionary written by the left, no doubt. They are not, heaven forbid, talking to actual conservatives in order to determine the operative differences between political groups. I can’t take credit for this insight as I read it somewhere, probably on John Ray’s website. This flaw in itself would demolish the validity of the studies.

    “And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.” Best not to. 🙂

    “Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep.” Possibly not although the first sentence does not follow from the second.

    By choosing the title “Predisposed” are the authors giving themselves an out?

  3. Sheri

    If recognizing that sexual orientation (the TWO we approve of, of course) is anchored partially in biology……….

    They left out out an important phrase. I thought I’d put it in for them before some ne’er-do-well added any unapproved ideas to their biological causes.

  4. Briggs


    Biological sex is, as the name says, completely biological determined. “Orientation”, i.e. sexual behavior, is not.

  5. Sheri

    the TWO we approve of, of course: Heterosexual and homosexual. I suppose I should add transgendered, bisexual, but then the ne’er-do-wells will bring up orientations to the deceased, to non-human species (which really should be no problem since many people cannot tell the difference between a child and a pet and think they are pet parents), maybe to deceased, nonhuman species and maybe even the very evil orientation that wants sex with more than one partner AND a marriage certificate (though that one would be some hybrid of politics and genetics). Was hoping to make an end-run around the extreme complexity here and keep the statistics simple. Too many orientations could be bad for p-values……..

    (Didn’t think about the phrase being interpreted as the two genders we approve of–my bad.)

  6. Ken

    To find out what makes a liberal tick and why one should read Chapters 42-46 (give or take a chapter or two, it’s been awhile since I’ve read) “The Liberal Mind; The Psychological Causes of Political Madness” available at:

    From that website, here’s a nice quote (not exactly on point of this essay, but worth the read from a descriptive summary): Other book excerpts are at:

    The download PDF is $10; the paperback $20 (rounded & not including shipping, etc.).

  7. Empiresentry

    To start, appreciated that you read it and not me. Seriously, its time for those of us to start spewing out our own “studies”.

    They failed on several counts. The first is they made assumptions that, if we all recognize we are biologically different, we can all get along. Leftists are proof this is not so.

    The second failure is that the writers base THEIR perspectives and “science” on Leftist propaganda stereotypes. You know the one: the 1950’s snapshot guy with hat, wife in dress, 2 freckled kids standing in front of house. Divisionist propaganda.

    There is a huge disparity between the Propaganda definition of Liberalism versus the reality. Liberal gov does not mean freedom and choice for people, it means freedom for the gov over people.

    I would have asked a very different set of questions.

    I took the “test” twice. The first time very fast, gut, emotional, quick, without any interpretation or thought. I had one point: an extreme leftist.

    The second time I took the “test” I carefully weighed each decision and its outcomes and measures if implemented in our world. Result: +18.

    From my “study” derived from their set of questions I have determined the following: that Leftists are driven by bumper stickers, impulse decision making, emotional keywords, stereotypes and are “less intelligent” since they require propaganda to make their decisions.

    Conservatives are all others who critically think through any topic critically, with fact and concern for outcome.

    A few examples of their stereotypes:
    – country music or classical (gag)
    – if people are treated more equally there are fewer problems (emotional propaganda)
    – it is sometimes necessary to step on others (evil, greedy people)

    Just another leftists propaganda book to be thrown on the heap.

    So many “studies”, they can now claim consensus. Like this one: Red/Blue is biological….because of levels of risk taking….the median age for Blue group was 22, the median age for Red was 28. Bingo.

  8. Sheri

    Tried the “test” Empiresentry linked to–seems I am a middle of the roader. Really, that’s not what the commenters on my blog say! Nor anyone else who knows me. Of course, the questions really don’t allow for honest answers, since their was not a catagory for “neither”, like on the music question.

    I don’t really understand why one would want political leanings to be at least partially genetic. If that were true, couldn’t we just determine the outcome of the country by who can breed the most little conservatives or liberals? You’re cutting out a huge percentage of available converts if genetics has a strong component. Of course, that would not explain the Red/Blue numbers–age would. People take less risk as they age. So you need forever 22 year olds to maintain liberalism? Maybe…….

    Obviously some people are far more dependent and far less into thinking things through simply by their genetics. The question really is how much environment can overcome genetics. And I don’t think anyone on the left really wants a study on that one.

  9. Ray

    Dr. Briggs,
    Your enemies are at it again. They never give up. I always claim it’s the spell checker’s fault.
    “that our genes our “selfish”,”

  10. max

    Question 4 (Do you get bored by abstract ideas and theoretical discussions?) blew me away, have these people never observed conservatives in nature? The only reason I can think of for classifying a “yes” as a conservative defining factor is if conservatives are more likely to have these arguments and thus get bored by them.

  11. Uncle Mike

    Homosexuals are tolerant and open-minded? I think not. Look at their reaction to Duck Dynasty. The Gay Commies For Censorship had a 5-alarm hissy fit at some mag interview of Phil Robertson.

    “We’re queer, and Phil better shut up!” “Boycott the capitalist profiteers!” and other expressions of anything but tolerance.

    The Gay Commies For Censorship and other Liberal spawn are famous for intolerance, racism, hate speech, and especially fascist authoritarian violence (see Andy the Jew’s call for reviving Hitler’s Death Camps in the previous post.)

    Nope. Sorry. Those who are genetically predisposed to Liberalism are the most intolerant humans on the planet.

  12. Jim S

    As a libertarian, I see almost no difference between a liberal and a conservative. They are both wrong.

  13. Nick

    “People are already selecting themselves out.”

    This is not true (as far as I know). Evolution works back to the mean. Two people with IQs below 100 will more likely (slightly) have a child with an IQ higher than themselves. Same with smart people- and as sort of a parallel, I’ve seen studies where wealth usually takes only 2 generations to erase itself. Generational wealth and stupidity is a myth.

    Of course, I’m self conscious writing that on a statistician’s website, so feel free to correct me!

  14. Sheri

    Nick: I’ve seen wealth go in one generation, but that may be an anomaly!

  15. Nick

    Well people always look at lineages and say, “Wow, wealth really perpetuates itself,” but if a wealthy family has 5 kids and 2 continue to be wealthy, nobody cares about the other 3. All you need as a wealthy person to say “your wealth has continued” is to have 1 person succeed in every subequent generation – if you have 4 kids from each person in every generation, you will have 64 great-grandchildren. All you’d need is 1/64th of them to be wealthy to present the illusion of generational wealth.

  16. The original Mr. X

    Incidentally, if political views are biologically predetermined (or socially predetermined, if that’s your thing), why doesn’t that stop leftists from treating everybody who disagrees with them as moral monsters? Surely we can’t help it if our biosocial origins have happened to make us support small government and traditional marriage.

  17. Mark Luhman

    Liberal or conservative, depend how you define it, I define it do you believe, if you government is subservient to the individual or the individual is subservient to government. Today if you think the individual is subservient to government you are a liberal, yet 200 years ago it was the reverse. So today I am a conservative and when this country was formed if I had been alive I would have a been a liberal. Let us be more accurate the battle is between true liberal and progressives. Again a true Liberal things government should be servant to an individual and a progressive (the modern liberal) think the reverse. As far as stuck in one away of thinking that describes a modern liberal. The modern liberal is said to have an open mind unfortunately it is a pipe. What goes in one end and fall out the the other and nothing is learned, a modern liberalism it not about thinking it is about feeling. Presently feeling is winning out over thinking and God help us.

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