Can science find a cure for conservativism?

Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

Iolanthe, W. S. Gilbert

There was an interesting article in New Scientist last week about research suggesting a genetic basis for political opinion (You can’t read the full article? You mean you don’t subscribe? Tsk!).

I have to be honest and admit that beyond the most banal level of accepting that certain genes no doubt contribute to an individuals’ personality to some extent, I’m not convinced. There are several problems with this article. The most fundamental one is that it doesn’t seem to be clear about what a “liberal” and a “conservative” is. For example, they approached the American Enterprise Institute for comment from the “conservative” end of the spectrum. They came up trumps:

David Frum says that he is “flattered by the evidence that conservatives are more honest and dutiful than liberals”. But given the huge number of variables that affect the outcome of an election, it would be a foolhardy researcher who would draw generalisations from Jost’s work, he says.

The AEI supports “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate” – that sounds pretty classically liberal to me and about a million miles away from a fruitloop like Mike Huckabee. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sort of “drawbridge up” conservativism cited in the rest of the article. Overall, it’s a bit of a mess.

But it, and another article about autism, got me thinking. It cites one piece of research purporting to have found a link between a gene which regulates serotonin levels in the brain and propensity to vote. What appears to be happening here is that people who can better regulate their brain chemistry tend to be more sociable. In principle therefore, it would be hypothetically possible to come up with a pill that would make people more pro-social, which in turn would probably do a lot to improve election turnout.

What, in essence, is the moral difference between such a pill and encouraging pro-social values at school? Since there is clearly a link between diet and behaviour, how is it fundamentally different from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners? If we can justify mass medication for things like tooth decay, can’t we justify this? We already treat depression in such a way (or at least we attempt to).

Could we cure other anti-social attitudes as well? Xenophobia? Misogyny? Violence? We’re not talking about major surgery here or anything even vaguely resembling a lobotomy, just the slight changes in the chemical balance in the brain which leads to certain basic instincts behaving differently. Wouldn’t that be better than locking people up or wasting time attempting to reason with people who science informs us cannot be reasoned with?

(These are genuine questions by the way, not rhetorical ones.)

At the same time, we have reviewed and are in the process of reviewing a whole range of things which were at one point viewed as mental disorders and are now coming to conclude are merely personality traits. Homosexuality was regarded as a disease 50 years ago. Increasingly autistics are fighting a battle which at least superficially has many similarities to the gay rights movement.

The reason I’m pondering all this is not because I want to create a “cure for conservativism” but because I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that science and our notions about free will are increasingly coming into conflict. On one level that tension does not, and never will be particularly meaningful. Science is unlikely to ever become so adept at understanding our genes, brains, bodies and environment to such an extent that it can predict exactly what anyone is likely to do at any given moment. But on another level, it is likely to throw up all sorts of inconvenient truths such as levels of intelligence and modes of behaviour which have fundamentally chemical bases and can thus be altered in a similar way. We’ve created distinctions between “disorders” and personality traits which are looking increasingly unsustainable. Surely there needs to be some kind of distinction between a negative thing that we should seek to cure or otherwise discourage, and a neutral thing that we should tolerate in a pluralistic society? But that line seems to be becoming increasingly blurred and just as we are having to seriously consider reclassifying some things from the former to the latter, so we may have to consider others going the other way. Or is it to be anything goes?

I wonder to what extent we are ready for this debate. There is a real reason why we need to be. If we aren’t, the interests of pharmaceutical companies are likely to dominate it, at least in the short term.

Or is this all merely paranoid delusional fantasy?


  1. I’m not sure we have the luxury of “keeping away from this”, nor do I see how that approach can be consistent with holding “full, free argument with them”.

    What I forgot to mention above was that this dilemma is already with us. Schools are already holding trials over Omega-3 oils and their putative improvements to intelligence levels. Now, you might regard fish oil salesmen as, um, snake oil salesmen, and we will certainly have more effective drugs in the future, but it’s happening right now.

  2. Interesting post. My opinion would probably be that individuals should pretty much be allowed to do what they want with their own brain. If people want to get high the should be allowed or if people want to take pointless Omega-3 oil supplements they should be free as well. But whether society should mandate treatments? Really I would say a uniform no. If people are xenophobic or anti-social or even violent, well then they are those things, it’s their choice (even if that choice was determined by down-regulation of neurotransmitters) and I can’t reconcile my brand of liberalism with forcefully changing the very essence of someone.

    I agree with you though that this is something that could become a big issue. Predicting and altering behaviours in animals is surprisingly easy. The concept of “free will” in these cases obsolete.

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