Monday, January 21, 2008

Gene Genie

The continued fractious nature of the campaigning leading up to the 2008 Presidential election demonstrates once again how divided a country we have become. It’s no longer a matter of political party, or of red states and blue states. There’s now the black candidate, the woman candidate, the minister candidate, the progressive candidate, the populist candidate, the keep-us-safe candidate(s), the fiscal conservative candidate, the father-figure candidate, the commander-in-chief candidate, and several different variations and combinations of the above. Which leads me to further ruminations about tribal bonding and tribal identification…

Through the magic of the Internet, I’ve recently established email contact with several long-forgotten high school classmates. To my amazement, many of these ‘70s-era, post-hippie friends have proven to be quite politically conservative (I’m an admitted liberal).

These email exchanges, the current political season, and a book that I recently read, have all led me to some interesting conclusions. More on that below. But first, a bit about the book…

“The God Gene” is a fascinating work by Dr. Dean Hamer, a Harvard-trained NIH geneticist. In it, Hamer proposes not only that it’s possible to quantitatively place people on a scale of predisposition toward spiritual belief, but also to pinpoint the actual genes that effect this predisposition. Hamer’s book is far removed from such polemics as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” “The God Gene” takes a completely neutral stance as to whether God exists, the nature of such a God, or the pros and cons of any and all organized religions. In fact, Hamer’s definition of “spirituality” might be considered by some to be quite far removed from the tenets of any traditional religion.

In order to gauge a given subject’s predisposition toward spiritual belief, Hamer uses a “self-transcendence scale” developed by Dr. Robert Cloninger, a Psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. Cloninger’s scale is simple but elegant, comprised of three distinct but related components--“self-forgetfulness” (the ability to lose oneself in an activity and “get into the zone”), “transpersonal identification” (a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it), and “mysticism” (the sense that not everything can be explained by science and materialist logic). And sure enough, Hamer did find a statistically significant correlation between a particular gene that controls certain monoamine neurotransmitters, and one’s score on Cloninger’s self-transcendence scale.

As a result of reading “The God Gene,” and then recent email exchanges with former classmates, I've come to suspect that, in the same way people can be placed on a scale of spiritual predisposition, they perhaps can also be placed on a scale of tribal predisposition. I find that the political conservatives I know exhibit a number of common and easily identifiable behavioral traits. They regularly make statements like: "We're the greatest country on earth," “God bestows a special blessing on America,” and "The terrorists want to destroy our free way of life." And they summarily reject any sense of nuance or evidence to the contrary in terms of such beliefs. It's clearly not an entirely logical process.

It's occurred to me that such tendencies lie at the heart of conservative political belief--a sense of “special” separateness, of being drawn to "exclusive" business and social organizations (such as Rotary and fraternities), a xenophobic sense of others as existing outside of their realm (immigrants, Socialists, Muslims, "liberals," "intellectuals," etc.), and feeling regularly threatened by such outsiders.

Meanwhile, liberalism tends toward an almost antithetical belief set--emphasizing "leveling the playing field," inclusiveness, diversity, tolerance, etc. These differences in mindset are so clearly defined that it’s often an easy matter to deduce one’s political persuasion merely by reading bumper stickers on a car. An American flag sticker typically means: conservative. A sticker picturing the earth as a whole typically means: liberal. A sticker picturing a specific religious symbol usually means: conservative. A sticker picturing all religious symbols placed alongside one another usually means: liberal. A sticker stating “God bless America,” typically means: conservative. A sticker stating “God bless us all, no exceptions,” typically means: liberal. And so on.

This led me to ponder whether there might be actual genes that dictate such tribalistic tendencies. Such leanings would seem to offer clear survival benefits during more primitive times--depending upon a given culture's environmental resources, social organization, and external threats. If such a gene/genes existed, one might hypothesize that political liberals would score low on such a tribalistic scale, and that political conservatives would score higher.

If eventually proven true, it might be interesting to explore such a set of genes in terms of different nationalities. On average, would those in a country such as Sweden, which has an image of non-aggressiveness and low-key nationalism, score lower on such a tribalism scale in relation to a country like the U.S.? And how might this scale play-out in countries such as those in the Middle East, which seem perpetually fractured by tribal and regional infighting? Certainly such tendencies, in a hostile desert environment with limited physical resources, would have offered clear survival benefits in more ancient times.

I increasingly realize that such hard-wired tribalistic tendencies seem to be a real phenomenon among the people I meet--how strongly they identify with their country, their workplace, their city, their former university, their race, or even their favorite sports team. Whether correlation amounts to causality, and whether such causality could be pinned down at the genetic level, remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a fascinating prospect. Obviously, such lines of investigation would be highly controversial--the possibility that one might predict political affiliation via a mere cheek swab. And certainly there is more to complex human behavior than mere genetics. But it's still interesting to engage in such conjecture.

It might further be argued that feeling “one with the universe," as in Cloninger's scale, is in-part related to feeling "one with humanity"--which is the antithesis of a powerful tribal identification. Which could indicate a subtle interplay/connection between spiritual and tribal-bonding tendencies.

Interestingly, Cloninger and Hamer found that a high “spirituality” score does not always entirely correlate with real-world religious affiliation. In other words, those with strong spiritual predispositions do not always attend church, and those who attend church do not always have a particularly strong spiritual predisposition. Which makes perfect sense. Such affiliations can be powerfully influenced by family and community. And in a similar vein, I suspect that a tendency toward tribalistic attachment might also have many possible real-world manifestations--depending upon one's upbringing and background. In other words, someone with a powerful sense of tribal identification, if brought up in an ultra-liberal environment, might just as easily manifest that tendency in terms of a narrow and rigid identification with hyper-liberalism. I know many people like this in the Bay Area, who are really just the flipside of heartland Republican fundamentalists. They're often just as strongly identified with their belief set, just as intransigent in these beliefs, and just as intolerant of those lying outside of that realm.

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Wow, I'm going to the library right now to get that book. What a fascinating theory. It would explain so much. Thanks for inspiring thought.