Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution

Public Opin Q. Summer 2013;77(2):497-521. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfs049.


Conventional wisdom suggests that political conservatives are more likely than liberals to endorse genetic explanations for many human characteristics and behaviors. Whether and to what extent this is true has received surprisingly limited systematic attention. We examine evidence from a large U.S. public opinion survey that measured the extent to which respondents believed genetic explanations account for a variety of differences among individuals as well as groups in society. We find that conservatives were indeed more likely than liberals to endorse genetic explanations for perceived race and class differences in characteristics often associated with socioeconomic inequality (intelligence, math skills, drive, and violence). Different ideological divisions emerged, however, with respect to respondents' explanations for sexual orientation. Here, liberals were more likely than conservatives to say that sexual orientation is due to genes and less likely to say that it is due to choice or the environment. These patterns suggest that conservative and liberal ideologues will tend to endorse genetic explanations where their policy positions are bolstered by "naturalizing" human differences. That said, debates over genetic influence may be more politicized with respect to race, class, and sexual orientation than population differences generally: We find that left/right political ideology was not significantly associated with genetic (or other) attributions for individual differences in intelligence, math skills, drive, or violence. We conclude that conceptions of the proper role of government are closely intertwined with assumptions about the causes of human difference, but that this relationship is a complex one.