World's Fair

Too much listening to Tea Baggers (their most appropriate name?), and the 100% Republican opposition to the Health Care Bill that just passed the House (hooray!!!), and fear of violence in the streets of Haiti as justification for the slow US response there, and the many bizarre responses to what I thought was a really excellent “State of the Union” address a couple of months ago- all of these things colluded to make me wonder if the basic difference between Democrats and Republicans is the dosage of their altruism gene(s). It would also help explain why neither side can really understand how the other side can “think that way”.

This gulf of mutual incomprehension seems to be common in some other genetically linked behaviors – addictions, compulsions, etc. – if you don’t (or do) have them, it’s usually difficult to understand people who do (or don’t) “think that way”. Even simple behaviors: people who keep a clean house don’t understand those who don’t, people who mow their lawn every week don’t understand those who don’t, people who talk on their cell phone while driving and kill innocent people don’t understand those who don’t. And of course: scientists and artists.

So why not: strongly Democratic voters have strong expression of their altruism genes, while strongly Republican voters don’t. Of course, I’m certainly not the first person to discuss this possibility.

Now like any behavior, the mix of what is genetic and what is environment is exceedingly complex. Some people might be born with no altruism genes, but then grow up in an altruistic environment and eventually even choose to work at a university or in social work. Having or not having the gene, or having the pre-disposition, doesn’t always mean expression of the behavior.

Now this sounds bad for Republicans, right? But what about overly rich, career Republicans who start philanthropic foundations? This is a good thing. (One question is: how many of those don’t name the foundation after themselves?) And from a purely biological perspective of individual fitness, aren’t less altruistic people making the more “correct” choice?

The commonly used definition of altruism: just “to help someone else”, is not the biological definition, where altruism also means some detriment to the individual’s fitness occurs during the helping (e.g. paying higher taxes to give everyone health insurance). It is this detriment to the individual that complicates the choice: in other words: relative to pure individual fitness, it is stupid to be altruistic: so the logical choice from this perspective is to vote Republican. It’s also a highly logical Economics system: maximization of individual economic agents who are effective at increasing their individual fitness lifts up the whole economy. Still, it just feels “wrong” and it’s difficult to see how people could “think this way”.

Altruism clearly has behavioral overlap with cooperation and compromise, so people with high dosages of altruism will also be the most likely to attempt and re-attempt to bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension with those who don’t’ “think that way,” while those who have low dosages of altruism will be far less inclined to reach across the gulf – they are hardwired to just keep saying no. At the extremes: one side can’t see the forest beyond their own tree, and the other side can’t see anything but the forest to the detriment of their own tree. The ecosystem needs a compromise between these views to survive.


  1. #1 Lampang
    March 23, 2010

    For many – myself included, obviously enough – the idea that the Democrat-Republican division tracks the altruism-selfishness division doesn’t really hold up. As a European Socialist, now living in the developing world, both Democrats and Republicans are firmly in the ‘selfish’ camp and even from the tamely bourgeois perspective of European politics, the Democrats are a centre-right party. Democrats may not understand how Republicans can “think that way”, but a good proportion of people outside America can’t understand how any of you can “think that way”. How does that fit the genetic explanation?

  2. I agree that both parties come off as extremely selfish. When you see a bill pass with 1 party completely voting against it – mainly to tow party lines.

    Republicans would rather see the US fail under a Democratic president so that they can inherit the problem. The problem that was caused by their lack of support for the closest thing to a bipartisan president in my lifetime. Foolish

  3. #3 Sarah
    March 23, 2010

    “And of course: scientists and artists.”


  4. #4 Jesse
    March 23, 2010

    I am insanely skeptical of behaviors people link to genes — at least once you get out of really broad definitions.

    I mean, obviously there’s a genetic basis for being attracted to the opposite sex, for instance. But an “altruism gene” strikes me as a definition looking for a subject.

    Let me put it another way: i can’t come up with too many ways to conduct an experiment that would even demonstrate any genetic basis for altruism, at least if you wanted to pinpoint differences between people. Unlike other animals, humans haven’t been subjected to specific selective breeding, (like domestic cats, dogs or cows) and we are awfully plastic in our behavior. The fact that you can come up with a zillion counterexamples (Republicans who donate to charities and people who vote Dem but are selfish jerks in their personal lives) bears that out.

    And just what would count as altruism – even in the strictly biological sense? If I contribute to an anti-abortion group, am I not behaving in that way (acting to help people who are not genetically related)? If I contribute to a group dedicated to womens health, that provides abortions, could I not be said to be doing the same thing?

    “Just so” stories are just that — stories.

  5. #5 Mike
    March 23, 2010

    You are missing a huge segment of altruism. Studies have shown that Republicans voluntarily give more time, blood and money to charity than do Democrats. Yet, Democrats, in a fit of denialism, have created this myth that Republicans are greedy and selfish.

    I think the true difference would be the interaction between altruism and authoritarianism. Republicans give altruistically. Democrats are altuistic only if they can also be authoritarian and force others to pay as well. Take away the specter of getting to force other pay and the Democrats lose their altruism.

  6. #6 Rokkaku
    March 23, 2010

    I think the second last sentence of this article is extraordinarily hubristic. In fact I think the whole article is. What utter nonsense.

  7. #7 ScottKnick
    March 23, 2010

    “Studies have shown that Republicans voluntarily give more time, blood and money to charity than do Democrats. ”

    And what studies are those?

  8. #8 plutosdad
    March 23, 2010

    Handouts to big business is not altruism.

  9. #9 Mike
    March 23, 2010

    You and the OP are only thinking of altruism from a governmental standpoint and ignoring the truest form of alturism which is when a person voluntarily and generously gives of herself or himself with no thought as to how others will give.

  10. #10 Lynxreign
    March 23, 2010


    Wow, that’s a load of made up crap. Completely out of fantasy-land. The idea of Democrats = Authoritarians coming from a right winger is a textbook example of projection. Also a pretty good approximation of insanity.

  11. #11 Mike
    March 23, 2010

    Excellent use of ad hominem attacks and righteous indignation. However, there was a complete lack of substance.

    I did not say that Democrats=Authoritarians. I said that democratic altruism seems linked to being able to force others, while republican altruism is freely given. that certainly does not mean that democrats are always authoritarian or that republicans are not. However, when it comes to this particular trait of altruism, that link is apparent.

  12. #12 Chad
    March 24, 2010

    Read George Lakoff if looking for substance. Also, consider that the right-wing-conditioned mind thrives upon the lower emotions, (the reptilian brain), the other can be found hanging out with the limbic. And, I think Leonardo might disagree with the incompatibility between the scientific and artistic minds.

  13. #13 J Bergstrom
    March 25, 2010

    Mike, I think you are making up this thing about authoritarians.
    I have never seen any such evidence.
    Giving money cannot be a factor, since Republicans generally have more assets, and percentage of assets to donations made has never been accurately studied (people lie about their worth).

    Who creates more non-profits* – Republicans/Democrats?

    I am in the non-profit world, and the answer is overwhelmingly: Democrats

    Republicans are not bad people, they simply think they are better than they actually are.

    * non-profits that are for the benefit of the needy – not the kind that are shells and/or shills for other reasons.

  14. #14 Skeptic
    March 25, 2010

    There must be some mistake: I followed a link from, not pullingthingsoutofmya$$.com.

  15. #15 Vince LiCata
    March 25, 2010

    Hi all,

    Nice discussion (except for some skeptics), it’s interesting that a recent article in Science discusses both altruism and “spite” genetic linkages Altruism, Spite, and Greenbeards, so maybe it’s the net balanced dosage of the two genes that determines the party affiliation on your voter registration card. I know the genetic vs. environment discussion is always a quagmire, but one of my main points was that when each side really cannot even fathom what the other side is thinking, it just seems like gene expression is the logical place to go look first. (the “artists and scientists” quip is, of course, in reference to the CP Snow two cultures gap, which also postulated that the two sides could not even talk to each other (in fact, in Snow’s original article he postulated a growing distrust bordering on hate between artists and scientists — sound like Democrats and Republicans?), — but, of course, scienceblogs and SEED are among those attempting to make such an artist-scientist gap disappear.)

  16. #16 Joseph
    March 29, 2010

    A recent poll contradicts this article’s main assumption. I think it would be interesting to investigate the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. I don’t think the answer to the difference lies in the genes, but in beliefs about how the world works.

  17. #17 stephen crozier
    April 5, 2010

    I’ll prerequisite this by saying I know this will mean nothing to most of you. Facts don’t mean much to people that have already made up their minds. First any argument that republicans make more money is absurd. Any person that argues republicans make more on average loses all argument credibility. Second the book with the evidence Mike is referring to is written by Arthur Brooks. He is an independent and has a PhD in economics and public policy. The book’s title is “who really cares” he studied this subject for years and here are some of his relevant findings (much to his own surprise)…

    -Conservatives donate more time and give more blood.
    -Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.
    -Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.
    -In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.
    -Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

    These are the facts.

  18. #18 NJ
    April 5, 2010

    Any person that argues republicans make more on average loses all argument credibility.

    And what happens when you compare median, rather than average, income? Or by comparing percentages (R vs. D for top 1%, 10%, 25%, etc.) In other words by investigating the data, not parroting talking points.

    Perhaps it is as you said:

    Facts don’t mean much to people that have already made up their minds.

  19. #19 beuty solution
    April 21, 2010

    democratic altruism seems linked to being able to force others, while republican altruism is freely given. that certainly does not mean that democrats are always authoritarian or that republicans are not. However, when it comes to this particular trait of altruism, that link is apparent.

  20. #20 boyacı
    August 4, 2011

    help explain why neither side can really understand how the other side can “think that way

  21. #21 mermer
    September 10, 2011

    Many people who are successful in these new paradigms that can be adapted to find the fastest, or the new ones come to realize that.

  22. #22 Zinc
    September 15, 2011

    When you’re tithing 10% to the church, being asked to contribute more in taxes for national health care is likely to be met with, “I already did my part.”. I’m sure Republican altruists would sooner have everyone donate through their church, and Democrats merely find that too easy for people to avoid.

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