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It’s Genes and Environment, Stupid

On May 27, 2008, the New York Times published an editorial titled “It’s the Genes, Stupid.” The editors, it seems, were intrigued by a forthcoming article on the possible correlation between certain genetic variants and voting behavior. That article, written by two members of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego, holds that individuals with a polymorphism of the MAOA gene are significantly more likely to have voted in the 2004 presidential election. They also claim to have found evidence that an association between a polymorphism of the 5HTT gene and voter turnout is moderated by religious attendance. They assert that “these are the first results ever to link specific genes to political behavior.”

What is remarkable here is not that a pair of political scientists have engaged in a somewhat dubious and reductive quest to link the highly complex and both temporally and socially variable behavior of voting to two distinct genetic variations. For years, the literature has been rife with genetic association studies, most which are never replicated or are simply found to be spurious. 1 Natural scientists and social scientists will continue to look for curious or interesting associations that involve complex social behaviors, such as voting, or social categories, such as race or ethnicity, and they will keep finding associations. But these associations are largely bogus. Because there are some three billion base pairs of DNA in any individual genome, one could even find statistically significant variations in certain allele frequencies in populations classified by Zodiac sign.2

No, what should concern us here is the eager credulity with which the editors of the New York Times, our national “paper of record,” have embraced this questionable and speculative research. Admittedly, the Times takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to the study; it’s the editorial concludes with the admonition: “Keep the drugs that target the specific genes out of the hands of political consultants.” But they would have done far better to present the authors’ own concluding caveat: “Association studies like ours require further replication before their findings can be truly considered anything more than suggestive, therefore more work needs to be done in order to verify and better understand the specific associations we have identified.”

One wonders whether the Times editors actually read through the study to this concluding statement before giving the speculative findings one of the most prominent fora in the American media. Even if they did read the whole study, one has to wonder why they did not more actively raise questions about its findings and underlying assumptions. On the one hand, of course genes influence the decision whether to vote. Genes influence everything we do because we are organic beings comprised of DNA. On the other hand, in this view, genes explain everything and elucidate nothing.

The study at issue examines data only from one electoral cycle in one country. It finds an association between two genetic variations and the likelihood of having voted in that one election. But surely the authors – and the Times editors – are aware of hugely significant variations in voter turnout that have occurred over time and across different societies. One need look no further than the current Democratic primaries with their record-setting turnouts. Did the thousands (perhaps millions) of people who voted in primaries this year but not four years ago suddenly develop the requisite genetic variation? Moreover, the study at issue only looked at a cohort aged 18-26. We also know that older people are more likely to vote than younger. Do our MAOA genes miraculously change as we age? Are we entering some sort of Neo-Lamarkian age when it comes to looking at genes and behavior?

Historically, the turnout of eligible voters has varied tremendously depending on such practical social and political factors as poll taxes, registration requirements, the location of polling places, and the length of time polls are open. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, voter turnout in the North was regularly in excess of 80%, compared to less than 60% in recent elections. After the implementation of Jim Crow laws, voter turnout in the South fell from over 60% in the 1880s to under 30% until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And, of course, voter turnout varies widely across different societies. All of this, however obvious, was apparently lost on the New York Times in its rush to present its reductive spin on this highly preliminary and speculative study.

It is instructive to note that the Times itself characterized the evidence as “tempting.” I suppose this says it all. The Times could not have been tempted by the concreteness or verifiability of the findings, as the authors themselves point out the limitations of their work. No, it was the association of genes and behavior, in any form, no matter how tenuous, that tempted the Times. The authors did not force this study on the Times. The editors went out, found it, and publicized it, even before it was published and subjected to a critical scholarly reception. If this was the apple the Times, played both the Serpent and Eve, feeding to itself a fruit that, in fact, was far from ripe and should leave a sour taste in any critical reader’s mouth.

Jonathan D. Kahn teaches law at Hamline University School of Law.

1 See N.A. Patsopoulos, A. Tatsioni, and J.P.A. Ioannidis, “Claims of Sex Differences: An Empirical Assessment in Genetic Associations,” JAMA 298 (2007): 880-93; J.P.A. Ioannidis et al., “Replication Validity of Genetic Association Studies,” Nature Genetics 29 (2001): 306-309.

2 See P. Ossorio and T. Duster, “Race and Genetics: Controversies in Biomedical, Behavioral and Forensic Sciences,” American Psychologist 60,  (2005), 115, 117-118; and P.C.Austin et al., “Testing Multiple Statistical Hypotheses Resulted in Spurious Associations: A Study of Astrological Signs and Health, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 59 (2006), 964-69.


Readers respond

The reasons we are doing the questionable research that is reported in this article is that WE CAN. New and powerful tools have spawned an academic and commercial “industry” that demands they be used, if only to gain academic recognition and advancement and to sell the technology necessary to enable its conduct.

Equally revolutionary advances in the complex study of environmental influences are yet to be made, and their numbers may be as great as the genes in the human chromosomes.

Lewis Lefkowitz, Jr.
Vanderbilt University


Published on: June 4, 2008
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology

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