In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genetic Underpinnings of Political Attitudes and Behaviors

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Work
  • Objections
  • Responses to Objections
  • Future Directions

Political Science Genetic Underpinnings of Political Attitudes and Behaviors
Matthew R. Miles
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0330


At present, few political scientists would argue that biological processes do not influence political attitudes and behaviors. In large part this is because of the pioneering work of political scientists who merged political science with biology, and genetics in particular. In the early years, traditional political scientists were alarmed by these findings; in part because of popular misunderstandings about what it means for a trait to be genetically heritable. In the intervening decade, the literature is clearer about what it means for a trait to be genetically heritable and why it is important for political scientists to incorporate this into their theories. Unfortunately, the cost to develop and maintain samples of subjects with genetic information makes it difficult for political scientists to pursue this kind of research without large collaborative groups operating with considerable funding. As such, developments in genopolitics are slow and only occur within small research groups dedicated to this kind of research. Very few graduate programs train PhD students in genopolitics, and jobs in this subfield are scarce. It is too early to determine if we are witnessing the beginning of a research agenda that will have long-lasting impact on the field of political science, or a flash in time that simply forced political scientists to acknowledge that biology plays some role in the development of political attitudes and behaviors.

Foundational Work

As political science evolved from a field that largely described political institutions and explained how they operate into a discipline seeking to understand how individuals behave within those political systems, most of the theoretical development and empirical work emphasized the importance of family socialization on individual choices about how and whether to participate in politics. In 2005, Alford, Funk, and Hibbing challenged this assumption by demonstrating that—aside from partisan identity—most of what was assumed to be caused by family socialization had a strong genetic component. Many of these findings were not new (see Martin, et al. 1986). However, Alford, et al. 2005 grounded these findings in the political science literature and developed a new research agenda for political scientists. Important subsequent work includes Fowler, et al. 2008, a study that combined twin data with voter files to demonstrate that voter participation is genetically heritable, and Fowler and Dawes 2008, which identified two genes that might influence voter turnout.

  • Alford, John R., Carolyn L. Funk, and John R. Hibbing. “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” American Political Science Review 99.2 (2005): 153–167.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055405051579

    Genes have a strong influence on political attitudes and ideologies but a more modest role in forming party identification.

  • Fowler, James H., and Christopher T. Dawes. “Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout.” Journal of Politics 70.3 (2008): 579–594.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381608080638

    This is the first study to link specific genes to political behavior and caused a lot of controversy in the field of genopolitics. Many of the top political science journals dedicated considerable space to the debate about whether these findings are important.

  • Fowler, James H., Laura A. Baker, and Christopher T. Dawes. “Genetic Variation in Political Participation.” American Political Science Review 102.2 (2008): 233–248.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055408080209

    Reports that a significant proportion of the variation in voting turnout can be accounted for by genes.

  • Martin, Nicholas G., Lindon J. Eaves, Andrew C. Heath, Rosemary Jardine, Lynn M. Feingold, and Hans J. Eysenck. “Transmission of Social Attitudes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 83.12 (1986): 4364–4368.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.83.12.4364

    The first study to demonstrate that political ideology is genetically heritable.

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