Epigenetics is really a nascent field and that means there is a lot of interpretation. That also means people can try to make the case that politics is genetic. Which means partisan spinmeisters, within science and outside it, will find new avenues for the confirmation bias of their faithful.
Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality, has written an op-ed for CNN blogs making the case that politics is partially biological, much like he tries to make it in his book, as you can see by the title.
If you are buying into a closed system - that political science is real, social psychology is rigorous and that twin studies lead to settled science - then you may already agree that voting is genetic. He doesn't claim that voting is all biological or that genes are destiny, but instead that about half of the reason Republicans are not Democrats (i.e., that they are stupid and anti-science and hate puppies) is because of their flawed biological makeup. Pity them, don't hate them.
It gives me a chance once again to invoke the great Bertrand Russell. He proposed that once a contradiction is allowed into a closed system anything can be proven. One time, it is apocryphally said, someone in the audience challenged him on that: "If 2 plus 2 equals 5, prove that I am the pope."
Russell replied: "If 2 plus 2 is 5, then 4 is 5; if 4 is 5, then (subtracting three from each side) 1 is 2; you and the pope are two, therefore you and the pope are one."
Look for that Bertrand Russell thing to show up in someone else's article real soon. Jonathan Haidt, writing in Reason and adapted from his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, quotes Gilbert and Sullivan from Iolanthe to make a claim about old-timey beliefs about nature and nurture: “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!”
Chris Mooney used the same verse in his CNN op-ed a few days ago, "In the 1882 comic opera Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan planted precisely this idea - long before there was any science to back it up. Here’s their verse – which is, admittedly set in a humorous context:" and then quotes it.
Science media is apparently a pretty small place.
Back to this biologization of politics business. Basically, if you do some clever mental algebra - epigenetics is real, voting changes our brains, therefore voting leads to epigenetic changes - you can be convinced that Republicans are a distinct race. Because if you believe that the brains of Republicans are different from other brains, you also surely believe that there are races in our species. Despite no science basis.
It's not to say there aren't different colors of people, there certainly are, just like some people's brains function better than others - but gerrymandering neuroscience to imply that liberals somehow have developed supersmart brains that are deep-thinking and tolerant while conservative brains are reactionary and paranoid feels a little pseudoscience-y. Or a lot. Instead, it is a case of picking a cultural topology, that liberal people are smart and nice, and then mapping data to fit it. It's terrible science but great salesmanship.
It's terrible science because in the real world, people are not conservative or liberal. Left and right polarity is almost wholly an American invention. So now we are to believe American Republican brains are biologically different from the rest of the world? A whole bunch of American progressives are cheering that idea but a whole bunch of American liberals, most actual scientists, are throwing their shoes at the computer screen right about now.
You see, progressives are no more liberal than conservatives are libertarian. Both progressives and conservatives are not liber at all, they are social authoritarians, just about different stuff; conservatives want to ban gay marriage while progressives want to ban sales of goldfish and McDonald's Happy Meals. Progressives do better public relations, since they have managed to convince liberals they are the same as them and that 'conservatives' are anti-science.
Quoting a political scientist claiming he can detect epigenetic changes in people based on their voting seems like a recipe for disaster, but Mooney cleverly calls for tolerance of conservatives if their brains are flawed. If it is biological, they can't help it, like homosexual people, he notes. But he really means like retarded people. Patronize them and help them function in a world of super-smart Democrats.
That may be part of the problem. If you go out of your way to frame everything you write through a prism of how terrible the people who don't vote the way you do are, you can't be taken seriously even if you make good points.
After writing about the science of left and right in my new book The Republican Brain and discussing the possible role of genetics - albeit only for a handful of pages - I have learned that rampant misconceptions are attached to the notion that there might be a role for genes in politics.Well, no, the biologists criticizing that idea understand genetics just fine. They are just not accepting social psychology surveys as evidence the way a political writer out to smear the other side will.
Do Democrats tend to have children that are Democrats? Sure, just like a blacksmith in the 1800s tended to have kids with big arms. But is that culture, epigenetics, or Lamarckian belief about evolution? To the scientifically curious public, evolution's nuances are already difficult to understand so it is easy to fool them by making a fuzzy line between epigenetics and culture, just like a mathematician can postulate time travel. It sells books but it doesn't increase science literacy.