Humanist Perspectives: issue 189: Genopolitics and the Future of Secular Humanism

Genopolitics and the Future of Secular Humanism
by Sophie Dulesh

1. New concept of inheritance

What is “Genopolitics”? The term was coined by Emily Biuso, who wrote in 2008: “This year two political scientists published studies claiming that in addition to environment, genes may be a primary influence on [our] political engagement.” “Primary,” no less!

We know about the primary defining influence of our genes on our appearance, intellect, emotional makeup, susceptibility to certain diseases and so on. But can they really have a primary predestinating influence on our sociopolitical engagement?1

“Primary” is defined as being something intrinsic to ourselves, such as our sex and our eye colour. It does not include extrinsic influences, undeniably powerful though they may be, such as upbringing and culture, parental role models or peer pressure, the media, religious doctrines etc. Could this mean that some part of the population carries, for example, “conservative” and the other part “liberal” gene(s), that define different, even opposing, attitudes in their bearers’ lives? Could it mean that about half of Americans are born as prospective Democrats and the other half likely to become Republicans? If true, this could be of extreme importance in defining the future goals and prospects of secular humanism.

The social intuitionist model was advanced by the Renaissance philosopher David Hume, who argued that people have strong “gut” feelings about what is right and wrong, and that they struggle, even if subconsciously, to construct post hoc justifications for those gut feelings. Even if they are unsuccessful, that is if their reasoning (a “servant” designed to justify our intuitions) fails, the “master” (intuition) remains unaffected. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will struggle to find an escape route – a reason to doubt your argument; and they will almost always succeed (Haidt, 2012).

2. The creed of secular Humanism and the role of education

Education from a humanist perspective focuses on developing rationality and critical thinking, autonomy, responsibility and a concern for humanity that can range from empathy to solidarity, and from one’s own community to the world.

Humanists think that most human beings can be dramatically changed by education and that people are by nature intelligent and sane. Consequently, as soon as quality education spreads, violence, poverty, and the ethno-religious intolerance fuelled by ignorance and tribalism will all disappear along with parochial mistrust and animosity. And then liberty, equality and mutual tolerance and care (fraternity), prosperity and democratic social harmony will rule globally.

With the Industrial and Information revolutions thundering their way across the West, accelerating with the scientific achievements of the mighty human mind freed from religious constraints, these rosy dreams seemed fully justifiable. The way forward to free, prosperous and enlightened humanity appeared in full view: the spread of quality education seemed all that was required. Education has always been a cornerstone and the most powerful ally of secular humanism. Humanists were enthusiastically ready to work hard for it. The European Renaissance, as the beginning of modern Western history, brought one sweeping novelty: the revolution in education, directed to universality and secularism. Humanists created schools and wrote passionate books to enhance education.

The European Renaissance, as the beginning of modern Western history, brought one sweeping novelty: the revolution in education, directed to universality and secularism.

So what, if anything, has been achieved?

The first university in Italy was opened in the 11th century and by the 14th century there were 29 universities in Europe; in the 15th century alone, 28 more were added. By the 17th century, educational systems were so improved and schools so widespread that they approached the levels of today. Literacy in Europe nearly doubled between the 17th and 18th centuries.

Have those herculean efforts borne the desired fruits?

3. Fruit borne by humanistic education

3a. As a first example, let us briefly investigate the impact of “mass education” on the dynamics of globally declining religiosity.

Atheism is on the rise. By 2010, self-defined “atheists” comprised an estimated 2.01% of the global population, and the “non-religious” a further 9.66%, according to the World Factbook. In a Gallup Poll interview, more than 50,000 people from 57 countries were asked: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?” China topped the list of non-believers, with 47% of those surveyed answering that they are “convinced atheists” and only 14% claiming to be “religious.” China was followed by Japan (31% atheists and 16% religious), the Czech Republic (30% atheists versus 20% religious), and France (29% atheists versus 37% religious). The top religious countries were Ghana (96% claimed to be “religious”), Nigeria (93%), Armenia (92%), Iraq and Kenya (88% each), and Brazil (85%).

My first question, Question A, is: Suppose poverty were eliminated and education had triumphed globally, could we then justifiably expect and aim for the total global demise of religiosity and the triumph of rationalism as defined by Holyoake (1986): “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life”? (It was Holyoake who coined the term “secularism” in 1846.)

3b. As a second example, let’s investigate how education has affected the dynamics of violence versus empathy.

The murder rate in medieval Europe was over thirty times higher than it is now. Thomas Paine opined that when people grow richer and are better fed, healthier and more comfortable, they come to value their own lives, and the lives of others, more highly. Steven Pinker examined the decline in violence during what he called the “Humanitarian Revolution.” The replacement of warring fiefdoms with the nation states in Europe has dramatically advanced the social contracts between people and the authorities; it has improved safety, productivity through the division of labor, trade, commerce and prosperity.

The most sweeping change in everyday sensibilities left by the Humanitarian Revolution is the reaction to suffering in other living things. People today are far from morally immaculate. They may covet nice objects, fantasize about sex with inappropriate partners, or want to kill someone who has humiliated them in public. But other sinful desires no longer occur to people. Most people today have no desire to watch a cat burn to death, let alone [a human]. In that regard we are different from our ancestors of a few centuries ago, who approved, carried out, and even savored the infliction of unspeakable agony on other living beings. ...As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer (Pinker, 2011).

A sharp decline in homicide rates occurred in Europe, starting in the 17th century in England and working its way down to Italy by the 19th century. Where the state decreed that it alone had the right to deliver revenge, violence collapsed. The annual homicide rate per 100,000 population now ranges from 10 in the USA to 2-3 in Europe. Where revenge is not state-appropriated, homicide rates continue to soar. The annual homicide rate per 100,000 people is 100 in Inuit societies and 40 in some African countries or Malaysia.

Consider also some other numbers. In the USA, the rates of homicide and rape dropped between 1990 to 1995 (by 75% and 35%, respectively) and declined again from 2000 to 2010 (by a further 65% and 20%). From the 1980s to 2003, the annual abortion rate (per 1000 women aged 15 to 44) declined in Russia from 120 to 55, in Eastern Europe from 70 to 30, and in the USA from 30 to 25.

Decriminalization of homosexuality began in Europe starting in 1945 and in the USA in 1965. At least three-quarters of the world’s people live now in places where the law no longer criminalizes gays. This actually does qualify as real progress on human rights. Vegetarianism (as anti-cruelty to animals) has spread in England since 1985 and in the USA since 1995 (Pinker, 2011).

From this second example of the fruit of education – its impact on violence versus empathy–we can conclude that the spread of humanizing civilizing education has worked beyond doubt.

Rape, hate crimes, riots, child and elderly abuse, cruelty to animals – all experienced formidable reduction, thanks to the role of government, to the spread of literacy, trade and cosmopolitanism: we increasingly exercise self-control, empathy toward others, we bargain rather than plunder, deploy reason to control impulses for violence and debunk toxic ideologies (Pinker, 2011).

Or as Thomas Friedman put it:

[...] “Teach for All,” the network of 32 countries that have adopted the Teach for America model of recruiting highly motivated college graduates to work in their country’s most underprivileged schools, is “the anti-Al Qaeda.”

It is important to note that some might consider it unfair to attribute the progress listed above entirely to democratic humanistic education. Should we not also (or even primarily) thank religious teachings and preaching for the reduction of violence?

The answer is clearly “no” and here is why. Every religion is parochial and exclusive by definition; each is based on “MY God (not yours!) is supreme.” It is true that religions increase cohesion and reduce violence, but only among co-religionists; they are invariably divisive and hostile toward outsiders. The Torah, Bible and Quran and the Hadiths are all full of calls to fight..., destroy..., ruin..., and “put to the sword” every outsider, including babies and elderly (more in Dulesh, 2012).

The proof that it is not religion that has reduced violence and enhanced empathy globally is the fact that where revenge and justice have not been made a monopoly of the state (as in Africa, parts of Asia etc.), religion flourishes and so does violence. Furthermore, if we look at the countries where revenge is state-controlled, violence in secular Europe is 3-5 times lower than in the religious USA (Pinker, 2011). So, once again: no, not religion, but, yes, secular humanistic education has been powerfully helpful in civilizing and humanizing the world.

A rosy picture, indeed. However, some secular humanists have been disappointed that organized religions persist and still promote sectarian hatred and that intolerance and religious bloodbaths and massacres flourish. All this, despite the sweeping progress in literacy and mass education. Why, but why? Again, the lack of quality education for the masses has been commonly and justifiably considered the culprit. Pat Duffy Hutcheon, for example, explains how democracy (the social contract favored by secular humanism) can run amok: “The problem inherent in democracy is that it is absolutely dependent upon a knowledgeable and reasoning citizenry... We simply do not have the option of neglecting to instill in all of our children the scientific way of being in the world”. Or as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, “The occupational hazard of democracy is know-nothing voters.” Are we back then to the same old battle cry: “Education, Education, Education”?

This brings us to Question B: Supposing that poverty is eliminated and humanist education triumphs globally, can we expect and aim for the global elimination of violence and the universal dominance of care – forever (save for the occasional clinical sociopaths and the few who are psychologically different)?

4. Genopolitics

Most humanists still think that our educational efforts will suffice to achieve the global goals inherent in Questions A (lead to the demise of religion and allow the triumph of rationalism) and B (lead to the elimination of violence and poverty and promote concern for others) even though it may take longer than we had hoped.

An affirmative answer to both Questions A and B should lead to a third question, Question C: If we eliminated poverty and provided quality education for everyone, would it bring about a secular, democratic, enlightened, and universally harmonious (these last two words are key) paradise? Are there any obstacles on the way to this eternal bliss?

Enter genopolitics.2

The new concept of genopolitics challenges what has long been and continues to be a prevailing point of view among secular humanists: that it is only a matter of time before universal humanist education bears the desired fruit of a universally secular harmonious society that is rooted in rationalism.

Darwinian evolution guided by natural selection gave rise to sophisticated sociopolitical cognition in the human brain. Genopolitics is a new attempt to decode the elusive mechanisms of this cognition and its social effects. Could it be that our genes directly control our sociopolitical mentality and our preferences while our upbringing and environment only powerfully modify but do not define them? In the other words, could our political tendencies be innate? It’s a theory on matters for which the stakes are high and whose potentially dire consequences in our times reveal themselves only too graphically in the dysfunctional, paralyzed American Congress.

John Alford (Rice University) and John Hibbing (University of Nebraska) claim that genetically inherited political predispositions are the stumbling block in the contemporary polarization between the Republicans and Democrats, and conservatives and liberals. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat, are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals;” simplifying, the neurotransmitter dopamine, involved in pleasure and risk-taking, may be more operational in those people (Haidt, 2012).

On the other hand, Haidt suggests (again using schematic simplification), that a genetically high activity of the neurotransmitters serotonin and glutamate that are involved in mediating fear and the response to threats might shape the brains of conservatives. Conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger and reminders of death than do liberals, hence they are generally more cautious and anti-novelty. Conservatives are traditionalists who

...wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government. Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God (Brooks, 2012).

Once again, Haidt, following David Hume, claims that human emotions and intuitions are the primary even if subconscious driving forces of our decision-making, while reasoning (human intellect) serves to justify and approve of the choices that intuition favoured. There are six innate “intuitions” (primeval human urges) that Haidt calls “moral foundations” and that are the basis of the mentality of the conservatives (Republicans): care (versus harm), fairness (the unfairness of taking tax money from hardworking and prudent people to support “cheaters, slackers and irresponsible fools”), liberty (versus oppression by the government), loyalty (as patriotism, valor, military virtues), authority (respect for police, authorities, God and traditions), and sanctity (theirs is the party of “family values” as opposed to the alleged “Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah”) (Haidt, 2012).

The conservatives’ basic social unit is the family rather than the individual, and they favour the sociocentric society, which stresses interests and ethics of community and divinity over individual rights. “Ideology,” as defined by Haidt, is “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.” Conservatism though is not Orthodoxy (which is an obligatory “transcendent moral order” worth killing for, like the Shariah law of Islam), Haidt clarifies.

The social moral vision offered by the Democrats since the 1960s, in contrast, seems “narrow, too focused” on helping victims and fighting for the oppressed. Liberals use the first three moral foundations (care, fairness, liberty) and neglect the last three (loyalty, authority and sanctity). That is why, Haidt suggests, rural and small business Americans vote for the conservatives even though it is the liberals who want to tax the rich and to increase social mobility. Due to their habitual neglect of the last three moral foundations, liberals have difficulties connecting to the masses and binding “pluribus into unum.” “E pluribus unum” – from many, one – is an unofficial motto of America that can be read on its coins.

Haidt refers to Darwin’s suggestion that morality evolved through natural selection at the individual (about 90%) and the group (10%) level. Thanks to that 10%, some people now have strong innate moral foundations of the loyalty, authority and sanctity that liberal brains undervalue at their own peril. Haidt points out that ancient communities that developed religious beliefs turned out to be more cohesive than those that failed to develop them. Moralistic gods emerged 10,000 years ago together with agriculture. In our time, newly formed communities were studied in the USA for 20 years. Six percent of secular and 39% of religious communities survived, confirming the role of religion in intra-community cohesion. I focus here on Haidt because his ideas are foundational and clarifying for genopolitics. Chris Mooney is another vocal advocate of the grossly underrated role attributed to innate psychological differences in at least partially shaping our socio-political preferences.

Haidt further refers to the concept of social or moral capital – an interconnected system of values that works against the sole self-centered interest of a person and makes vital cooperation in a community possible. He warns against intolerance that is a perpetual threat: “Morality binds and blinds” with its innate tendency to be exclusive. He quotes Bertrand Russell:

From 600 BC to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. [...] It is clear that each party to this dispute – as to all that persist through long periods of time – is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution and subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.

The central idea of genopolitics then is that there are genes (DNA) directly shaping our (six?) innate moral foundations (intuitions), based on both individual and group levels of evolution, thus predestining our inherent sociopolitical preferences and moral capital.

This new idea was certainly met with the customary opposition: recall Bernard Shaw’s motto “Every great truth begins as a blasphemy.” Some claimed that the idea is based on “absurdly high estimates of heritability of behavior” and called it the modern-day analog of phrenology. What facts support the idea, if any?

5. Facts supporting the concept of genopolitics

Let us begin with a close look at the identifiable obstacles inherent in twin studies, the major methodology used to investigate genopolitics. The core idea of twin studies is crystal clear: identical twins share 100% of their genomes while fraternal twins share on average 50%. Thus, comparing the frequency of expression of certain traits between those two groups could be indicative of their respective inheritability.

This sounds attractive, save for possible pitfalls such as the following.

i) Is human mating random? If, on the contrary, people tend to choose partners with traits like their own, fraternal twins could share more than 50% of their genetic material – revealing a greater similarity of genetically influenced traits – because they would have received similar genes from both their mother and father.

ii) How identical are the environments of twins, even if they are raised in the same families and homes? Some research suggests that parents, teachers, and peers may treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal twins, a non-genetic factor that might affect their sociopolitical mentality.

iii) How different are the controlling genetic mechanisms? Dominant genes inherited from one parent trump recessive genes from the other parent. Additive genetic mechanisms, in contrast, mix together. Twin studies, in general, assume (for the lack of exact knowledge) that usually the additive mechanism controls the expression of a particular trait, an assumption that carries a danger of simplification.

All this needs thorough evaluating.

Here are some statistics of interest, even if they might reflect a combination of allegedly genetic and environmental influences: in the USA, over a 12-year period (2000 – 2011), centrists or moderates declined from 40% to 36%; conservatives went up from 38% to 41% and liberals went up from 19% to 21%. It appears that on average the conservative “righteous” mould of mind is slightly more prevalent than the ambivalent mind, and the daring liberal mind is only half as common.

We proceed now to the positive assessment of the twin method because, however important, the limitations listed above do not negate the obvious benefits of twin studies. For traits that are substantially influenced by heredity, the approximately two-fold difference in genetic similarity between the two types of twins should outweigh any complications, says John Hewitt (University of Colorado).

The pioneer researcher is Peter K. Hatemi, a professor of political science and biochemistry (Penn State). His group summarized the results from the

[...] analysis of a combined sample of over 12,000 twins pairs, ascertained from nine different studies conducted in five Western democracies (Australia, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and the USA), sampled over the course of four decades as the definitive evidence that heritability plays a role in the formation of political ideology, regardless of how ideology is measured, the time period or population sampled.

The findings suggest that our genes undoubtedly directly influence the expression of political attitudes. However, searching for a single “political gene” would be fruitless. Rather, the aim is to uncover major neurobiological pathways that account for a substantial part of how ideologies are formed and maintained to guide human behavior. Needless to say, genes and experience do not operate independently in our social world. Parenting, siblings, income, education, nutrition, weather, and all our life experiences have a crucial role in development of our differences.

In 2012, Hatemi and Rose McDermott (Brown University) published The Genetics of Politics with a chart – “Summary of relative genetic and environmental influences on political traits,” which is based on “findings from all reported twin and kinship studies which provided estimates of genetic and environmental influences on political traits from 1974 to 2012.” In their estimate, genetics directly (that is, not via upbringing) influences from one-third to over one-half of the political traits examined.


So, what then would be the answers to our Questions A, B and C above? In the other words, what should secular humanism foresee, expect and work for in the future? Are we ever to expect a universally harmonious human community?

Answer to Question A: No, individual religiousness might not disappear despite the spread of education as in every generation there will be people (up to as many as 40%, if the current statistics in the USA are any indication) born with brains genetically predisposed to be traditionalist and conservative, intuiting that religion is beneficial for the creation of an orderly society and is a necessary disciplining, commanding and uniting force. From the point of view of secular humanists, as long as such religiousness remains a personal matter (as opposed to an organized normative social power), it may have to be accepted as a fact of life.

Does it mean we might as well drop our educational anti-religious efforts (and abandon a long, hard struggle against organized faiths) as doomed? The answer is a resounding “No”: even when the normative religions disappear, it might be a challenge (and a critical one at that) to keep religiosity at bay as a strictly personal matter.

Answer to Question B: Yes, if the trend observed in the post-Renaissance centuries is anything like prophetic, as we think it is, then with the spread of humanist quality education, violence is destined to disappear globally and care and empathy to grow among sane humans. A secular democratic enlightened society where everyone lives one’s life to the fullest of one’s abilities is our goal and we trust it is viable as there is not the slightest evidence against it.

Which brings us to Question C. Can we expect that, despite individual religiousness, there will nevertheless be a harmonious society with most or all people sufficiently enlightened to subscribe to what we now call liberal democratic values – the noble dream of secular humanism for centuries?

Answer to Question C: It is not to be expected. Not only religiosity but also our sociopolitical preferences seem to be partly under direct genetic control. Hence, there will always be not only “undecided” people (about 40%, if the current statistics are any indication; for these people, quality education would be vital), but also those (another ~ 40%), whose brains inherently feel wary, for example, of outsiders and/or are misdirected about the sanctity of life, making them anti-immigrant, anti-gay or anti-abortion, and the best humanist education for them might be able only to mollify or modify but not reverse those attitudes. And the final 20% of population will be born with the mind innately predisposed to liberal values. The direct genetic control appears more defining, less malleable than the effects of upbringing, church, media and environment (also powerful in molding a personality, but less predestining than the DNA). This latter part is the new concept of genopolitics.

Secular humanists need to know what can realistically be expected as achievable goals. In addition, if confirmed, these ideas once again stress the importance of humanist education, which might be crucial in leading the 40% of “undecided” to accept the liberal democratic values that define secular humanism, providing the majority needed in a democracy.

  1. This article will not concern itself with epigenetics, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits can be modified, often through the mechanism of methylation; its role in genopolitics, if any, may be elucidated as the study of genopolitics progresses.
  2. I personally do not appreciate the term as it is vaguely (if inaccurately) reminiscent of some racial injustices, but will use it here for lack of a better one.
  • Biuso, Emily. The New York Magazine, December 12, 2008.
  • Brooks, David. The New York Times, September 24, 2012.
  • Dulesh, Sophie. The Trouble with Religion, CreateSpace, 2012.
  • Friedman Thomas, The New York Times, October 29, 2013.
  • Gallup poll, June 16, 2005.
  • Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, Pantheon Books, 2012.
  • Hatemi Peter K., McDermott Rose. The Genetics of Politics in Trends in Genetics, Norton and Company, 2012.
  • Holyoake, G.J. The Origin and Nature of Secularism, Watts and Co, 1896.
  • Hutcheon, Pat Duffy. Humanist in Canada, Winter, 1995.
  • Mooney, Chris. The Republican Brain, Wiley, 2012.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking Books, 2011.

I would like to thank Madeline Weld for encouraging me to submit this article despite my misgivings about its unusual topic and Thor Henrich for reading and providing his expert opinion on it.

Russian-born Sophie Dulesh obtained her medical degrees (MD, PhD, Dr Sci) in Moscow and worked for 27 years as a medical doctor and researcher in Russia before immigrating to Canada with her family in 1980, where she worked as an MD for another 23 years. Sophie is a secular humanist and is interested in philosophy and the history of religion. She is the author of two books and many articles on medical research in Russian, and has also written short stories and non-fiction books in English, including “The Trouble with Religion,” and “My Red Russia.”

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