Thursday, October 28, 2010

Liberal Genes

A recent study reveals that some people have a gene that predisposes them to be liberals. I don't know what to make of this. Does that mean that if liberalism is genetically determined liberals can't be held responsible for the damage they do? Does it mean that liberals are a kind of mutant? I don't know. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Is political ideology derived from a person's social environment or is it a result of genetic predisposition? It's an interaction of both, according to a recent study on our political leanings that boosts both sides of the nature versus nurture debate.
Scientists at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University determined that people who carry a variant of the DRD4 gene are more likely to be liberals as adults, depending on the number of friendships they had during high school. They published their study in a recent issue of The Journal of Politics.
The 7R variant of DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene, had previously been associated with novelty seeking. The researchers theorized novelty seeking would be related to openness, a psychological trait that has been associated with political liberalism.
However, social environment was critical. The more friends gene carriers have in high school, the more likely they are to be liberals as adults. The authors write, "Ten friends can move a person with two copies of 7R allele almost halfway from being a conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal."
I wonder if Obamacare will cover gene therapy.

Good Without God

Frans de Waal has a piece at The New York Times' Opinionator blog in which he argues that God is not necessary for human morality. Professor de Waal holds that morality is hard-wired into us by evolution and therefore appeals to a Divine sanction for morality are superfluous. There's so much wrong with his reasoning that one scarcely knows where to start, but perhaps this paragraph would be a good place to focus our attention:
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.
The question to ask Mr. de Waal is how it helps his case if morality is somehow built into us? If we've evolved to act in certain ways how does that make those ways "morally right"? If what we call morality is indeed part of our genetic inheritance then it has been encoded into our genes either by Divine agency or by impersonal natural forces. If it's the latter, which is Mr. de Waal's position, how could this innate moral sense possibly obligate us to conform to it? How can blind, purposeless, impersonal forces impose upon us a moral duty to do anything?

If, on the other hand, the moral sense is instilled in us by Divine agency then the rest of Mr. de Waal's paragraph is pointless. If God gives us the moral law, writes it on our hearts as Paul puts it in his letter to the Roman church, then of course people could have followed it before they had formal religion, but that doesn't mean that God is any the less necessary for its existence.

Furthermore, that humans worry about their communities and contrive laws to facilitate their survival has nothing to do with whether it would be right or wrong to break those laws or to do anything that would harm the community. In a godless universe there's no reason why I should care about the community, especially if it's in my own interest to act in ways that harm others but benefit me. Why would it be wrong to treat others unkindly if I prosper from it? What imposes the duty upon me not to behave this way?

Mr. de Waal says that whatever it is it's not God, but, in fact, it's either God or it's nothing at all.