Biopolitics

Shades of Gobineau.

Ashford and Hibbing, 2007. The New Empirical Biopolitics

Comparative politics could be greatly assisted by recognition of the fact that groups of people are genetically distinct from other groups of people. To provide a concrete illustration, we reference diversity of an important gene in the dopaminergic system. Imbalances in the neurotransmitter dopamine have been implicated in Parkinson’s disease as well as in several behaviors including novelty-seeking. The relevant gene is called DRD4 because it is instrumental in laying down the D4 class of dopamine receptors. An insufficient supply of these receptors would minimize the effect of any dopamine that is present, since all the dopamine in the world will not matter to a biological system incapable of receiving that dopamine. Previous work has found evidence that, compared to those with short alleles, individuals with one or two long alleles of DRD4 are more likely to exhibit risk-taking behavior, display behavior, and perhaps attention deficit disorder (Chen et al. 1999, Harpending & Cochran 2002, Ding et al. 2002). There is substantial variation from group to group in the presence of these long alleles (defined here as at least seven repeats of a key 48-nucleotide base-pair sequence in exon III). Data on the frequency of long alleles have been reported for 39 different groups (Chen et al. 1999) and range from a high of 78% for the Ticuna and Guahibo peoples of Colombia to a low of 4% for the Atayal of Taiwan, followed closely by the Han (China) and Samoans, both at just 5%. Continent-by-continent breakdowns reveal interesting patterns. African and European groups are on average quite similar, with the four African groups in the sample (the Biaka, the Mbuti, the San, and the Bantu) averaging 21% long alleles and the five European groups (Sardinians, Danes, Swedes, Spaniards, and a mixed European sample from the United States) averaging 15%. Some African groups, such as the San, have fewer long alleles (9%) than some European groups, such as the Swedes (19%). But the biggest variations can be seen between the East Asian groups, with a mean of 9% (just 6% if the Malay are excluded), and the South American groups, with a mean of 69%. These allelic differences across groups are immense and we can say with confidence that they are not coincidental. Certain groups are genetically different from other groups. Although such a statement may elicit gasps in some quarters, it is far from surprising; any time breeding populations are kept separate for numerous generations, differences will be evident.

The obvious question of interest is whether this undeniable genetic variation across groups has any influence at all on group behavior. Given that research in this area is normatively charged, we should state clearly that we are not claiming that the Ticuna and Atayal people behave differently because of genetic differences. Genes are expressed differently in different environmental contexts, so once contextual factors are introduced, these sizable genetic differences may very well be completely irrelevant to behavior. But they may also be relevant, and to deny this possibility simply because we do not want it to be true alters the status of our inquiry from science to wishful thinking or perhaps even religion. The most startling revelation of all may be that social scientists have not conducted any tests to determine if these sizable genetic variations from group to group have any behavioral implications.

If understanding of politics is to advance, the grip of environmental determinism must be loosened, and appreciation of the role of biology must extend beyond think pieces and “calls to arms.” Serious empirical research on the interaction of biological and environmental independent variables needs to become the order of the day. Recent work in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, experimental economics, and behavior genetics serves as a valuable guide for the manner in which empirical biopolitics should be conducted. This article has given the most attention to behavior genetics because momentum is building in this area and because its data and research methodologies are of a sort that is familiar to many political scientists. The implications of a possible role for genetics in accounting for variance in political attitudes and behaviors across individuals and groups may seem disquieting, but acknowledging a role for genetics does not equate with intolerance.

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4 thoughts on “Biopolitics

  1. then there’s that majority that flat out denies the existence of any differences

    How do you know it’s a majority? Most scientists in relevant fields seem to prefer not to talk about the topic at all. In the 1980s someone did an anonymous survey of psychologists and sociologists which showed that HBD beliefs were widespread in academia.

  2. Ashford and Hibbing, 2007. The New Empirical Biopolitics

    Is “The New Empirical Biopolitics” supposed to be a hyperlink? It is blue, and it shows an underline when my pointer highlights it, which is all typical of hyperlinked text, but it doesn’t actually link to anything.

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