There’s Money, Not Bigotry, in Our Genes

There’s big, big money available for anyone who’s ready to find the source of all human problems in our genes. It can construct whole institutes and enormous buildings. You’d have thought that with all that money around we would have found a genetic cause for heterosexuality by now. But there’s probably little, if any, funding for that study since it’s not considered a defect. Genetic research promises a slew of possibilities for improving humanity. But it can also be useful to deflect our attention from the systemic causes of bigotry, violence, and inhumanity that are embedded in the values of our political-social-economic system. The promise of genetic answers to these problems can keep the institutions of a culture the way they are — profit-oriented, not human-oriented, coping-oriented, not healing-oriented. There might even be more money available for research to ensure that the research that does. I’ve set out before in Scared Straight why I think political arguments for accepting LGBT people because sexual orientation is genetic, no matter how true genetic origins might be, are ultimately self-destructive and even self-hating. Genetic answers can be an excuse – poor things, they can’t help themselves. Arguments like that only work temporarily. In reality, racism is justified through some kind of genetic argumentation. And the fact that people can’t help being the color they are hasn’t ended white racism. Remember the study reported in a 2000 issue of The Sciences that theorized that rape is a natural product of evolution? Those researchers concluded that: “prevention efforts will founder until they are based on the understanding that rape evolved as a form of male reproductive behavior.” Last month the journal Nature Neuroscience reported a new study from researchers at NYU and UCLA that there are “two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style.” It received a lot of mainstream media attention. The researchers studied 43 college students who rated their political orientation on a scale from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.” Using a simple response test while the students were wired to an electroencephalograph, they found a difference in brain activity related to political orientation. Liberals were determined more likely than conservatives to have a strong response in the area of the brain used to inhibit responses at a time when they were supposed to inhibit responses. As a professor of communication told the Chicago Tribune, the study “provides scientific evidence for conclusions people (studying political rhetoric) have reached previously.”

“A higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity is typical of people who are liberal,” he said. “That’s not a surprise. It does, however, suggest there may be a hereditary and neurological basis for that. It might also suggest there’s less likelihood of people shifting their political ideology if its hard-wired in there.” Another UCLA researcher in the field advised caution, but then added that if political attitudes are tied to neurophysiology, “it would make bashing conservatives — or liberals — pointless. It’s not as if people are making a choice to see the world this way or that way. It’s how they’re built.” Hold on. Don’t jump to the conclusion that there’s no hope for change yet. That the responses of conservatives and liberals are deeply held and related to their current neurophysiology as such scientific evidence shows, is thoroughly understandable without looking beyond the experiences of their past lives. The more substantial history of research since World War II into “authoritarian personalities” that John Dean raised to public attention in his Conservatives Without Conscience (2006) is another example. That research shows that something like 20% or more of the US population is most comfortable submitting to and adopting the conscience of an authoritarian figure.

On that basis, people who measure highly on these researchers’ measures of authoritarianism are consistently associated with right-wing, not left-wing, ideology. They are willing to give up their own values and do great harm to others if they believe the authority sanctions it, while others who score highly are willing to take advantage of them. As University of Manitoba author and researcher Robert Altemeyer explains: “I have called them ‘God’s designated hitters.’ We end up with the irony that the people who think they are so very good end up doing so very much evil, and, more remarkably, they are probably the last people in the world who will ever realize the connection between the two.” To hear people conclude from these studies that there is something genetic that produces authoritarian personalities is also to go too far. Just as concluding that addictions are hard-wired, no matter how there may be a predisposition in some people’s genes, is to ignore the factors in our society that produce and encourage such mentalities. Fear does much to the human brain. If we get too scared, we can easily become conservative. Threatened, we pull away from everything else to protect the little we have — our families, our money, our very lives. Fear from childhood on — fear of the adults around us, fear that we are really less than fully human and deserving of punishment, even eternal punishment — is an effective motivator to seek any means out of the fear. And fear changes the way we think. It affects our self-esteem and our very neurophysiology. So will we face the fact that we’ve been raised in a fear-based society that this current administration has only ramped up? Or will we do everything we can to blame the results of fear on something genetic and evolutionary? As I’ve argued in When Religion is an Addiction, there are people who are so addicted to their feelings of righteousness to escape from their fear and loathing that only recovery methods will help them. And religious addiction is only one of the approved coping mechanisms to escape what scares us. No matter how difficult it may be to give up coping mechanisms and seek personal and societal healing, this doesn’t mean that they’re so hard-wired that there’s no hope. It means there’s much work to do to change a society that thrives on addictions by challenging our own and those of others.