Predisposed: genes and our lifestyle choices

I often think it’s comical — Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive — Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (2013) by John R. Hibbing et al. is a highly interesting read about liberals and conservatives that goes far beyond politics and familiar attitudes like pro-choice or pro-life. A lot of the book is about different lifestyle choices. One humorous chapter is devoted to what places with only conservatives and liberals respectively would be like:

Conservaton is, for some people, the perfect place to live. Its neighborhood watch program is vigorous but hardly needed because people are law abiding, not to mention heavily armed. The schools emphasize discipline and respect for authority, and build their curriculums around rule-based instruction like phonics for reading and memorization of formulas for math. Conservaton’s similarly designed houses are well maintained, clad in pretty much the same two colors of vinyl siding, and fronted by beautifully manicured lawns. There is a church on nearly every block and congregants give generously to them. Conservaton is quiet after 10:00 pm.

The place where liberals live is very much the opposite:

Though Conservatonians would never believe it, Liberalville is a perfect place for some people to live. The schools promote experiences rather than rules and their curriculums change with the latest educational fads and experiments. Houses are an architectural hodge-podge […] Lawns are unlikely to be showered with the copious amounts of chemicals and water needed to maintain thick carpets of green grass. Some residents don’t even bother mowing-they just let nature take its course and enjoy the results. The town is light on churches, but has some pretty hip bars and pubs. It also has a community theatre and coffee shops that sponsor interpretive readings and poetry slams. Along with the latest blockbusters, the movie theater makes an effort to bring in award-winning documentaries and foreign films. New restaurants are constantly popping up, and Liberalites can go out for Thai, Ethiopian, Greek, and sushi.

As a liberal surrounded by conservative neighbours, it’s astonishing how accurate this description is. I rarely mow the lawn, most of my neighbours at least only once a week, and always on Saturdays. It’s eerily like everyone was in about a secret schedule which chores to do at what time exactly on what day of the week. Needless to say that soon after 9 pm the last lights go out. Once I got a complaint because my children were still playing at 7 pm at the playground, making too much noise. Conservatives places are often not child-friendly (at least as far as “other people’s children” are concerned) despite their love of “family”. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, practice alloparenting (everyone helps to raise kids) and whenever you see a family taking in lots of neighbourhood kids, chances are they are liberal.

Our predispositions are only “statistical” and correlations are often rather low, but significant and constant. The genetics are very complex. One constant finding is that the 7R polymorphism in the dopamine receptor D4 gene is linked to liberalism, as well as a host of other traits, such as susceptibility to ADHD and addictions as well as creativity. It’s been nicknamed the “wanderlust gene” and it is evolutionarily likely connected to nomadism (vs sedentism). It should also correlate with Big 5 trait “Conscientiousness” and the distinction between perceivers (P) and judger (J) in the Myers-Briggs inventory. This leads me to the conclusion that conservatism is a bundle of traits that evolved with farming only, whereas nomadic foragers and herders are much more freedom-loving and much less happy with a routine 9–5 job.

What this means is that conservatives pretty much follow an evolutionary “farmer” programme: working hard, loving routine and everything tried and true, relying on tradition, going to bed early, conforming to your community and being suspicious of people and things that are novel and different. Early farmers lived under constant threat of raiding and a certain amount of xenophobia was therefore adaptive. Sameness helped distinguish potential friends from potential foes.

From the moment of conception, it’s written in our genes if we would rather live in Conservaton or Liberalville and how likely we will be to come to love foreign foods like sushi. If you are a liberal born into a conservative family or community, you will feel like an alien, like young Sheldon Cooper growing up in Texas or like Olga Khazan, daughter of Russian immigrants and author of Weird (2020) in the very same state. The rift between conservatives and liberals is getting bigger because in the past people had few lifestyle choices. The variety we have nowadays makes assortative mating and friendships even more natural than in the past. When I was a teenager my best childhood friend was interested in fast cars, sports and girls, I was interested in books, arthouse movies and computers. When we met, there was little we had to tell each other and our friendship finally evaporated.

The authors of Predisposed end their book with a plea for conservatives and liberals to try to understand each other and get along. I hope that by tracing our evolutionary origins to foraging, farming and herding it will be easier for people to understand others. Last, but not least, we are all a bit mixed and a couple of conservatives may end up having a liberal child. The best thing, in that case, is being able to understand why your child/parents are so different from you.

There are many more examples of differences between conservatives and liberals provided in the book, e.g. preferences for cars or dogs. If you know someone is a farmer type it isn’t too hard to guess what kind of dog they will prefer: an obedient watchdog would be an obvious choice (or the trendy must-have breed of the moment). One study even linked muscle mass to conservatism (which would make sense for hard-working farmers).

For more about the evolutionary psychology of the “three tribes” check out my book:

Originally published at on August 17, 2021.