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A Russian Quest For The 'Patriotism Gene'

Russian researchers have been doing a rather unusual study that compares DNA across countries with political affinities. A patriotic take on the old nature v. nurture question.

In Saint Petersburg, Russia
In Saint Petersburg, Russia
Kirill Zhurenkov and Olga Filina

MOSCOW — Russian researchers say they've identified a "patriotism gene." And yes, compared to other nations, Mother Russiaboasts a citizenry in which this gene is supposed to be quite well developed.

Researchers at Russia's Laboratory of Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics have been comparing varieties of genes among residents of different countries, using research from the World Values Survey and DNA information from multiple sources. The first results are specifically related to the production of dopamine, which, in part, is responsible for the human sense of happiness, satisfaction with politics — and even how patriotic people feel.

The researchers have also now begun conducting surveys and collecting genetic material in different cities around the country to see how it breaks down by region. It’s still not clear though exactly how much one’s satisfaction with both life and political leaders depends on the “patriotism gene.” If a connection is found, then will government officials who work in genetically disadvantaged regions have to be paid a hardship stipend?

Will it be possible, then, in the future to give people a “patriotism pill,” so that citizens can be happier? It’s an open question, and researchers think that given the pace of current research, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility.

Twin studies

At the same time, the research on the “patriotism gene” is mixing with a similar line of research: a desire to dissect people’s political preferences. The hypothesis that these enthusiastic researchers are trying to prove has already inspired substantial discussion, with people arguing that our political ideas come at least as much from our upbringing and life experiences as from our genes!

James Fowler, a leading researcher from the University of California at San Diego, has studied data from American teenagers who were taking part in a long-term health study. He looked at their genes and how it compared to their ideology on the “liberal-conservative” spectrum. The variety 7R of the DRD4 gene was particularly interesting: It impacted the search for novelty, which Fowler thought indicated an open mind and a more liberal political ideology. Yet it wasn’t actually associated with more liberal views — unless the teenager in question had a lot of friends.

So yes, social factors matter too, but their interaction with genetics is an important part of the puzzle.

There are many ways to research genetics, and one of the most popular ways to do so is by studying twins. Monozygotic (identical) twins share 100% of their genes, while dizygotic (fraternal) twins share just about half of them. At the same time, they live together and have the same parents and environment, making their case ideal for research.

Two researchers at the University of Nebraska, for example, studied 600 pairs of twins and found that those who shared all of their genes had more similar political interests than if the twins shared only 50% of their genes.

In addition to the genetic factor, neurology researchers are also trying to understand whether the brain has something akin to a "political switch." Researchers from London College determined that people who have a larger amygdala (which is partly responsible for emotions and fear) are more likely to be conservatives. On the other hand, people with a larger callosal gyrus — associated with adaptation to uncertainty and conflict — are more likely to be liberals.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania also found that politics can be related to body odor: Liberals can’t stand the smell of conservatives' BO, while conservatives tend to be forgiving of liberals' scent.

This didn’t make American conservatives happy, and they even threatened to cut federal financing for research along these lines.

Generally speaking, researchers think that to deny the effect of genetics on politics is like denying the effect of genetics on cancer. More cautious researchers say that it’s not really about "political" genes, but about discovering how genes influence a person’s personality, which includes his or her political activity or patriotism. But all of these genetic experts agree on one thing: No matter what these studies may find, social experiences will always play a central role in people's political attitudes.

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