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.