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Is this a new form of determinism?

A bit of a buzz has generated around the idea of Jonathan Haidt, with his notion that some people are born more “conservative” or “liberal” (in the US usage of those terms) than others, and that we can use genetics to explain, or partly explain, why people hold the views they do. It is easy to see why a lot of people might be wary about this sort of thing, as it might smack of determinism, but I think Haidt tries to be very careful to avoid falling down that particular rabbit hole:

“Innate does not mean “hard-wired” or unmalleable. To say that a trait or ability is innate just means it was “organized in advance of experience.” The genes guide the construction of the brain in the uterus, but that’s only the first draft, so to speak. The draft gets revised by childhood experiences. To understand the origins of ideology you have to take a developmental perspective, starting with the genes and ending with an adult voting for a particular candidate or joining a political protest. There are three major steps in the process.”

My own take on all this is that yes, it might well be very useful to know more about why we hold the views we do, act as we do, and so on. To know thyself is the beginning of understanding and all that. I am struck by this paradox: we are, as humans, a species that, unique among all others, has the desire to “look under the cover”, so to speak, to see how we got to be what we are and why we are the creatures we are, and then, hopefully, overcome whatever shortcomings and problems we find to become, well, hopefully better. In other words, we may not be a blank slate, but we are not prisoners of some sort of ruling, all-powerful genetic code, either. I sometimes worry that some people become beguiled by these new forms of Darwinism to such an extent that they forget that pesky, and awkward thing that we seem to have in us: volition, or Free Will.

Another point I’d make about Haidt’s idea is this: if it is true that people have certain traits like a predisposition to hold certain views because of their genes, how does he deal with those children who rebel against their parents’ views? I know of several libertarians, for instance, who clearly took against their parents’ hard socialist/other collectivist opinions. And in some cultures, children are more conservative than their parents out of rebellion – I am sure this is something that has happened among parts of the Muslim community in the UK, for example.

Anyway, food for thought. Here is a TED lecture by Haidt.

15 comments to Is this a new form of determinism?

  • RRS

    This area of study is also the subject of “conversations” with Haidt and others (including Sam Harris) on the Edge website.


  • Tedd

    I sometimes worry that some people become beguiled by these new forms of Darwinism to such an extent that they forget that pesky, and awkward thing that we seem to have in us: volition, or Free Will.

    Or outright deny it. I was surprised at how many scientists (judging by remarks at The Edge and other places) deny free will altogether.

    Of course, denying free will is a rather pointless exercise. If we don’t have free will then it doesn’t matter what we do or believe, including whether or not we believe in free will. So it would appear to be a philosophical dead end. But then, a lot of scientists (or scientism-ists, anyway) denigrate philosophy, too, so at least they’re consistent.

  • RRS

    To mitigate smite, I try not to cover too much in one entry of late.

    The “Conversation is in 8 parts: The New Science of Morality.

    We are also somewhat back on track to the much maligned Lamarck.

    Epigenetics and “imprinting.”

  • Hmm

    It will be interesting to see future steps in knowledge in relation to how memory is initially laid down and built upon in both babies and adults brings to light. How memory constructs in relation to memory e.g. initial and continuing protein construction within all types of cells.

    It seems fairly obvious that DNA, which is itself an information manipulation system, would further construct different layers of information manipulation systems throughout the different cell types of a body depending on the type of storage/retrieval/processing required by the cell.

    Just imagine something fractal like in biomorphic action- from a fairly simple base equation all sorts of data could be passed in various biological forms right from conception to birth and thru toddlerhood without recourse to any conscious intent on the part of the parents.

  • Rob

    There may be certain genetic traits which make a person more sceptical about bullshit and more likely to seek evidence to justify a course of action. There are also probably genetic traits which help a person foresee the consequences of an action based on those resulting from similar past actions.

    A deficiency in these could lead person to be a Progressive.

  • ribock

    Suspected long ago by W.S. Gilbert: “Every child that is born alive / Is either a little liberal or a little conservative.” Note not completely liberal, just a little.

  • It’s difficult even to know what he means when he bandies about what are themselves changeable political terms. After all, W S Gilbert would have understood a little Liberal as laissez-faire more anti-state than a little Tory (little as in small, not only partly liberal, of course :).

    Now, if they had looked at whether people were likely to be statist dependency biased or liberty freedom biased that would be another thing.

    I had an essay on political socialisation last semester and it seemed to me that most previous evidence and debate was about nurture experiences rather than nature. Obviously if you were horsewhipped by pater in front of nanny every week you would turn into a Tory 🙂

  • Alisa

    JP, the point about rebellion against one’s parents’ values is neither her nor there, since many genetic traits (such as diseases) are known to skip a generation or even several ones.

    I do agree with your overall point, though.

  • Alisa

    Jock: his notion that some people are born more “conservative” or “liberal” (in the US usage of those terms)

  • Alisa

    Sigh, let’s try that again for clarity:


    his notion that some people are born more “conservative” or “liberal” (in the US usage of those terms)

    Another comment is still in Smiteville…

  • Laird

    It’s an interesting article, worth reading in full. And as to how he deals “with those children who rebel against their parents’ views”, what he claims to be genetic is certain predispositions toward threat response and novelty-seeking, not specific political views themselves. So even if the child’s predispositions are the same as his parents’, his development path will be different, so those predispositions will manifest themselves in different ways.

    What I found most interesting in the article is near the end, when he talks about the ability of conservatives and liberals (in the modern US sense) to “put themselves in the shoes” of the other. Conservatives were fairly good at it; liberals rather bad. Conservatives can at least understand how liberals think, even if they disagree; liberals can’t even do that. And this is why there is such a divide between the two camps, and why I can’t see it getting any better anytime soon.

  • RRS

    Despite the current political and other references to “Darwinism,” I don’t think that is the inference to be drawn from the trend of these schools of enquiry.

    Further, it is not “determinism.” Rather than “survival” by some cellular preconditions through “competition” in adaptations, this school is enquiring into what other factors may be in play in the morphologies of human societies.

    Just as the work of Lynn Margulis has established evolution of cell structures by symbiosis, rather than competition or predetermined adaptive characteristics, we have major examples in the development of our social order.

    That example has been (and continues) in “collaboration;” the Division of Labor, the development of interdependence, that from about 1730 on began the rapid and steady displacement of self-sufficiency units that previously dominated our social organization.

    The study of the “sociological” and psychological factors that are the “soil” in which this shift away from “pure” Darwinian or Hobbesian conclusions is taking root involves conjectures about all the elements that make up the motivating forces of human life.

    This is not new Darwinism.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I read similar comments over a year ago, and mentioned them here. I pointed out, since people seem to be hardwired towards authority or anarchy, we should just shoot all the authoritarians. We could just say, “I couldn’t help myself- my brain made me do it!”

  • Paul Marks

    I wonder if J.H. can even clearly define what these terms he uses (“conservative” and “liberal”) mean?

    Or whether he just defines his terms in a vague series of platitudes.

    If, by some strange chance, it turns out that he does not even understand the terms he is using (“conservative” and “liberal”) it may put a debt in his theory of how genetics predetermins humans to be…..errrr, to be things he can not clearly define, errrr, and resorts to platitudes about errrr……

    But they I would say the above – as I am predetermined (by a series of causes and effects going back the Big Bang) to believe that determinism is bullshit.


    To be fair.

    Yes both biology and environment effect human choices – they do not PREVENT human reasoning (humans being beings – i.e. making REAL choices), but they do make reasoning and choice an EFFORT.

    And it is harder for some people than for others.

    But, hey, no one said this world was supposed to be easy.

    Reason (the “I”) is only a “slave of the passions” if we let it be so – if we grit our teeth (till the blood comes – if need be) it need not be so.

    As for reason “ought” to be the slave of the passions….

    Well you can burn in Hell for that one Davy Hume.