Monday, June 20, 2011

Brain Grains

Regarding the many data that suggest inborn differences between liberals and conservatives and how they process information, here's another bit; an article about an article.

Here, we present the first genome-wide analysis of Conservative-Liberal attitudes from a sample of 13,000 respondents whose DNA was collected in conjunction with a 50-item sociopolitical attitude questionnaire. Several significant linkage peaks were identified and potential candidate genes discussed.


The rather amazing result–for any of us who stops to think about the incredibly vast distance between the genes we are born with and our political attitudes as adults–was that three regions were found to be linked in a way that was “significant” (one reaching the most stringent test of it) and one was linked in a way that was “suggestive.” (The technical stuff on all of this is in the paper.)

What could this mean? Well, as the authors write:

As we identified four regions of interest, and one that meets the strictest criteria, our findings are consistent with what might be expected if the genetic component of variation in Conservatism-Liberalism resembles any other polygenic human trait, for which the genetic resemblance between relatives can only be resolved reliably into the effects of a large number of genes with small effects that typically cannot be identified by linkage.

In other words, no gene is acting directly to determine our political views–there is no “liberal” or “conservative” gene–but there might be a combination of genes acting together that somehow predispose us to have particular politics... The authors couldn't resist speculating here:

Thought organization, information processing, capacity for abstract thought, learning, and performance are related to blockage of NMDA. Of particular interest to political ideology is the relationship between NMDA and performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST). The WCST is a neuropsychological test of the ability to display flexibility in the face of changing schedules of reinforcement. By definition Conservatism and Liberalism have much to do with flexibility of opinion in the face of a changing world. (emphasis mine)

Though the accumulation of this stuff tends to support my own perceptions that liberals and conservatives are different animals (and that when it comes to the above-mentioned flexibility in facing a changing world, liberals are far better suited and more committed to factuality), in the end it's pretty bad news.

I'd like to believe that the thought processes demonstrated by the occasional and fleeting conservative commenters here don't represent the best that conservatism has to offer; our problems are too serious to be ignored in the way commenters ignore what I say, only to make asinine and unrelated retorts that they presumably consider highly effective counters. (In the name of preventing their own embarrassment, and bleeding eyes in the rest of us, I've rejected many.) I'd like to believe that in a fast-fading future, as even conservatives are forced to realize there are facts out there that demand serious attention, it's still somehow possible to work together on solutions. But evidence is against me; and I'm nothing if not evidence-based.

No, it's not easy to be optimistic. If the comments here from conservatives are particularly vapid, there's no evidence in the halls of congress or in the polling places of teabaggers that they're very much beyond the mean. Nor does it help in any way to recognize that it might not be their fault, that they were born this way. If half our country is genetically and anatomically unwilling and unable to address issues logically, cooperatively, with our common future in mind, it really doesn't matter what their excuse is. We're screwed either way.

One is left to wonder how it came to this: what accounts for the evolution of the conservative brain? There must have been, at some point in our development, a use for people whose certainty in their own rectitude was unmoved by contrary evidence. In simpler times, when survival was about not being eaten alive, ultra-concrete thinking, lack of subtlety, might well have been determinative: stay or run; friend or foe; wind in the willows or tiger in the trees. Nowadays, though, the tigers in the tall grass are of a different stripe. Nothing in the evolution of the conservative brain came from or prepared for dealing with such complexities as anthropogenic climate change or globally-connected economies; in bygone eons, selfishness meant hoarding stones for throwing, which was probably a good thing. But now it's become derivatives trading and insufficient tax revenue, xenophobia and religious fundamentalism. Selection for reactionary thinking stopped being useful when we moved out of caves. But by then, it was too late. The advent of civilization meant the time for deselection had passed.

Perhaps we should acknowledge conservative thinking for getting us safely to the stone age. I know I, for one, will always be grateful. So, thanks for that.

But these times demand more of us. Like the advent of rational medicine, which has removed survival pressure to make appendices extinct, conservatism remains from a pre-sapiens era. Now, the problems of modernity have come upon us too fast for the pace of evolution, with the only possibility of genetic elimination of such a dysfunctional cerebral subset being extinction of us all.

Oh well. Whacha gonna do?

There are darkly amusing ironies, however: it's only evolutionary theory that can explain the development and persistence of the grouping of mind-behavior that subsumes all evolution deniers. The need to reject the evidence that sexual preference is inborn is inborn. And it's the very liberal thought that today's conservatives so vehemently reject, which assures their continued ability to walk among us, tolerated, relics and reminders of a time which most of them claim never existed.

[Okay, yeah, a certain amount of tongue. In cheek. But people with more credibility than mine also see the descent of the Republican party away from reality, and wonder how it happened.]


Anonymous said...

Jeez Sid, substitute "Black and White" for "Liberals And Conservatives" and you could be the reincarnation of William Shockley, the inventor of the Transistor, who you probably had over for tea and crumpets back before pointing out the genetic inferiority of Blacks was socially unacceptable.
Reminds me of this creepy Neuropathology Fellow, which I know is totally redundant, like "White-Anglo-Saxon", who said he could identify the patients race by the morphology of there Purkinje Cells...
And I know it was just a trick, a gimmick, like the one I use to predict what day of the week a future date, any date, will fall on, works great to cement that Idiot Savant rep..
Its just a stupid trick, that a substitute 8th grade Math teacher taught us one day instead of whatever was on the lesson plan..
And as a believer in Evil-lution funny you totally ignore the influence of Nurture vs Nature. My Mom came to the US in 1959, a card carrying Commie, 4 years later she's drivin a GTO with a Wallace Sticker...
And it had nothng to do with her brain, it was the (Redacted) who stole her purse and got nothing but a Freie Deutsche Jugend card...


Kim said...

For the record - I'm a conservative who absolutely believes that sexual preference is inborn. When my parents, also conservatives, explained homosexuality to me waaaay back in the day, they told me some people were born attracted to the same sex - no value judgement attached. That's just the way it was.

Then again, I had very cool parents. :) Very strict, very conservative parents who managed to raise non-RWS conservative kids! It is possible! :D

Sid Schwab said...

Kim: I know it's possible. You're just being drowned out, politically speaking, by the crazy ones.

Anonymous said...

Frank, did you say your mom was a racist? That's a very conservative trait....

Anonymous said...

it's my Dad who's the racist.
my Mom's the holocaust survivor, get it right..


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