The Corner

The Openness of Liberals

Yo Jonah:

Interesting paper. The methodology looks sound. Key sentence (from page 2):

This article is the first to identify a specific gene-environment interaction that is associated with the direction of a person’s ideological self-identification.

Science can tackle human nature from two ends: from the genome up, or from the organism down. Human-nature studies are like teams of engineers boring a tunnel through a mountain, working from both ends and hoping one day to meet in the middle.

As the extensive references in the paper show, most of the really suggestive discoveries to date about the human BIP traits (behavior, intelligence, personality) have come from the organism end — from studies of actual finished human beings. A typical study shows us that some trait is heritable and/or congenital to some degree, and therefore likely has a genetic contribution, though nobody has a clue how the genetics works, nor even which genes are implicated.

At the other end, the actual molecular-genetic mechanisms that drive the ontogeny of BIP traits, we’ve barely dented the rock face. To identify a contributing BIP gene, and the environmental factors that cause it to be expressed — which is what these researchers have done — is therefore a pretty big story, though of course one wants to hear peer criticisms & see the thing replicated. You don’t run off chortling to the science bank with just one paper.

It’s not preposterous, however hard it may be for a conservative to get his mind around, that self-identified liberalism and personality traits like “novelty-seeking behavior” or “openness to new experiences” travel together. You can in fact, in a speculative way, develop a Decline-of-the-West theory from that. As follows:

Let’s suppose there is a generalized personality trait called something like “willingness to believe that the other guy might have a legitimate point of view.” I’ll call it “the W-trait” for short.

(1) The W-trait would be closely associated with the “novelty” and “openness” traits that Settle et al. are studying — might perhaps just be a linear combination of them.

(2) The W-trait is at a sufficiently high level of generality that it might, like those other personality traits, have a genetic contribution.

(3) If this is the case, the relevant alleles (variant forms of the contributing genes) are likely distributed unevenly among the big old inbred human populations, being more frequent over here, less frequent over there. This will be the case anyway; but it will be even more the case if the W-trait is susceptible to natural-selection pressures, as seems likely on heuristic grounds.

(4) Like most other BIP traits, the W-trait is stronger in some individuals, weaker — perhaps absent — in others.

(5) You have a better shot at a robust consensual political system if your population has a high frequency of the W-trait.

(6) If your population is like that, though, you probably have a widespread openness to the “other” — to alien cultures, religions, cuisines, physical types, etc.

(7) If there are two characteristics that seem to set off the West (that’s putting it broadly: on a different day I might just say “the Anglosphere”) from other continental-scale cultures, they are (a) long spells of good, stable government, and (b) curiosity about and openness to other cultures.

(8) Perhaps, therefore, these are two sides of the same coin. High frequencies of the W-trait give us a better shot at good government than other populations have; but they also make us receptive and open to other cultures in a way that they are not open to us.

(9) That latter receptivity gives us the multicultural, open-borders mentality that, in the opinion of some sane and thoughtful people, could lead us down the road to perdition.

(10) If this is right, the seeds of the West’s eventual destruction are from the same fruit that has given us centuries of robust consensual government.

All speculative, as I said, but there’s no harm in that. Indeed, speculations help drive science forward. The atomic theory of matter was mere metaphysical speculation for 2,000 years; then it turned out to be true fact.

And while human-nature studies today are about where physics was when the Royal Society was founded in 1660 (motto Nullius in verba, “Take nobody’s word for it” — the best empiricist slogan ever, later adopted I believe by the people of Missouri), we can at least make some definitive pronouncements of a negative type. Just as Hooke, Boyle & Co. at least knew that the sky was not a crystal dome, we at least know that the human personality is not a blank slate; that much of what I am, and you are, and he is, and she is, was right there in the zygote.

The other thing to be said about human-nature studies in a political context is that the political Left detests and abhors the whole business. The relevant quote, from the great E. O. Wilson, is on page 145 of my book, which you can now buy in a sumptuous paperback edition.

(While I’ve got your attention, Jonah, d’you think we might get some new music for the grotto? Nothing against Mel Tormé, you understand …)

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