A Sustainable Point of View

Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind

Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind

We now know that the liberal/conservative divide runs deeper than we thought: to temperament and neurodiversity. The result is a political discourse fraught with barriers built on incompatible paradigms that start in our biology. If we want to evolve our culture politically, if we want to change things, we must know what we’re really up against: a deep political neuro-divide.

This is part four of a story in four parts:

  • We Are All Individuals: The Limits of A Worldview – Individualism is a system of cultural meaning, one that make us neurotic and unhappy and hides an intuitive truth: that we have more in common than we think.
  • The Unknown Story of Evolutionary Neurodiversity: A Tale of Two Temperaments – Though culture often demands ideological conformity, an evolutionary phenomenon called neurodiversity makes that nigh impossible. Neurodiversity is the basis for broad biological differences in how a given population makes meaning of the world; yet, its story – of purpose, politics, community, and mental health – remains largely unknown.
  • A Functioning Cog In Some Great Machinery: Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health – Neurodiversity evolved as an interaction between culture and genes for temperament; consequently, our cultural environment determines whether we experience that temperament as serving a “purpose,” or as the friction and sparks of mental ill-health.
  • Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind – Just as invisible as our neurodiverse temperaments, are the deep coalitions they form in society, what we call “liberals” and “conservatives.” Politics aren’t battles of reason and logic because each temperament has an incompatible biological paradigm, each with its own unique function in defacto cooperation with the other, even as we busy ourselves with bloody business of the culture wars.

Evolutionary Politics

An individualistic society is a paradox, as individualism in other species suggests that it doesn’t work as a one-size-fits-all social strategy. Accordingly, an individualistic society will come to thrive from the population’s natural temperament diversity, yet doing so presents a challenge in how to reconcile that diversity within the society’s singular beliefs and values. This makes the challenges of ushering change to such a system highly complex, particularly as each temperament group seeks to dominate how the prevailing cultural values should be interpreted rather than accommodate one another’s strengths.

This takes on a surreal new dimension in the US, where the minority temperament innately aligns with the culture of individualism, while the other does not; and yet the numerical strength of the majority temperament earns it a disproportionate influence over the culture it doesn’t intuitively grasp. The result is a highly complex and contradictory political landscape that makes the challenge of paradigm evolution convoluted at best.

To transcend our current political deadlocks, it may be necessary to interpret how our political narratives have been shaped by these evolutionary forces, and see how paradigm evolution must create a vision that transcends any one temperament to create a framework where both can co-exist according to their respective needs and drives for meaning, while also serving their evolutionary purpose to one another.


As interesting as temperament is, it becomes all the more so when we realize that these temperament genes are highly relevant to our politics in a way that may seem familiar: the liberal/conservative divide.

In a now classic TED talk, psychologist and moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt looked at what he called the “moral roots of liberals and conservatives.” What he found fits nicely with what we’ve already established: across all cultures, two kinds of temperaments underlie our political differences by showing a robust, divergent pattern in what values they subscribed to. Gleaned through over 30,000 surveys, both groups showed a predictable difference in how they endorsed a list of quintessential, universal human values discovered by Haidt and his team: 1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity, 3) power/respect, 4) ingroup loyalty, 5) purity/sanctity. The first group, possessing a trait called “openness to experience,” seemed to create a bifurcated pattern on the values chart: they rated the value of hierarchy and ingroup loyalty very low, while finding the remaining values highly salient. The other group, being lower in trait openness, seemed to find moderate salience in every value equally. The former were liberals; the latter, conservatives.

The Moral Matrix

From “Jonathan Haidt and the Moral Matrix: Breaking Out of Our Righteous Minds” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/jonathan-haidt-the-moral-matrix-breaking-out-of-our-righteous-minds/)

Like Garret LoPorto, Haidt speculated that these two groups served to create a Yin-Yang tension with one another that drove social and cultural evolution. His thesis was that once you saw this, you could come to appreciate each group for being a necessary counter-balance to the other; kind of like a crappy buddy-cop movie where the audience will only ever relate to one of the two leads, yet both are indispensable to bringing down the bad guy. Haidt called our general inability to see this the “moral matrix” (referring to the Wachowski Siblings movie) and said that if only we could step outside this matrix, we could transcend our political deadlocks by appreciating a deeper synergistic relationship between us. Because like Joker and Batman, Superman and Lex Luthor, our nemesis really does complete us.

Work by James Fowler takes us the rest of the way. In a study called “Early Friendships Moderate a Relationship Between the DRD4.7r and Political Liberalism,” we see that 7r alleles are associated with liberalism if someone had many friends in childhood; if not, the temperament led to a more Libertarian-style bent. Echoing Haidt above, the 7r was confirmed to be associated with the temperament trait “openness-to-experience” as in the liberals in his moral matrix. Still other studies confirm the relationship between a temperament of heightened amygdala activity, a bias toward negative information and political conservatism, while others relate conservatism to the SERT gene specifically. From an entirely different angle, a separate study affirmed the meta-thesis running through our neurodiversity argument that conservatives are a crowd strategy, liberals, a solo exploratory one.

Figure 1 - no. of friends + two 7r alleles = self-reported liberalism

From “Friendships Moderate an Association between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology” (http://fowler.ucsd.edu/friends_drd4_and_political_ideology.pdf)

The relationships between temperament, group role and politics brings something new to the fore in our temperament discussion: antagonism. From a certain perspective this is surprising, because one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate that if bees could talk, drones and scouts might not be able to stand one another. But because human temperament diversity rests on an entirely different kinds of character – or, cast in the language of this blog, entirely different ways of making meaning – the result are fundamentally incompatible paradigms; paradigms that serve their Yin-Yang role well, but are incompatible and full of friction.

Despite the common misconception that politics make progress through rational discourse about “the facts,” it seems that our political ideologies are hopelessly divided from the outset, with rival frameworks both felt deeply and running equally beneath awareness. In fact, far removed from the subjective experience of “right” and “left,” each paradigm might be best understood as serving a function only seen panoramically, one that gives us alternating periods of stability and change across election cycles, and makes cultural evolution a far more cautious and gradual proposition. And even within those periods of change, rarely does our growth come from facts and data that penetrate some new and guarded mind; rather, painful social and environmental circumstances sometimes drive people to reinterprete or renarrate their worldview out of necessity; a new openness to old facts and figures follows begrudgingly.


Politics across insurmountable communication barriers would be interesting enough if we were perfectly self-aware about our deep divides. In the US, however, things become particularly absurd when you force everyone to idealize individualism, a framework that is isn’t particularly intuitive to all but a fifth of the population. This becomes even more comical when you consider that the group charged with conserving those values are the ones who don’t really get them; a group that gets a lopsided say in their interpretation because they make up almost twice their numbers at 40% to 20%.

Consider that US stabilizers (the aforementioned 40% of the population) must conserve a culture that flat out reads like a playbook for the other team. It would be like the Chinese rooting for freedom, individuality and self-determination. Or once again, something like this:

Recall that stabilizers/conservers resist change through fear of it, preferring tradition and stability to protect the integrity of the system and hopefully, some wisdom implicit in its dynamics. Thus, conservers tend to rationalize the social order at all costs; even if that order is predicted on values that run fundamentally opposed to their own. Only in this way can we make sense of why those most hierarchical, conformist, and normative cry the loudest about freedom, individualism and self-determination. The result is that where their influence is most dominant, you have a culture that says to “be yourself” and “follow your bliss,” when in practice, norms are a tightrope of normalcy and conformity under threat of social death.

In this environment, temperamental 7rs – both liberal and libertarian – find themselves in the confusing position of loving American values on paper, while the lived culture seems to obey a more bewildering set of rules. For instance:

  • Liberals are 7rs with a social bent. They might expect an individualistic culture to be tolerant of diversity, only to find that the social narrative is accepting of inequity. Liberals might expect a fairly egalitarian society (“all people are created equal”), yet find stratification is not only alive and well, it is disproportionately aimed at historical and minority scapegoats. Liberals might expect to be championed for taking up the heroic call against such injustice, only to be surprised that their righteousness is valued by a small minority at best, and derided by the rest.
  • Libertarians, broadly-speaking, are liberals who turned their novelty-seeking inward, creating robust worlds of fantasy, intellect and self-improvement. They too might assume that the American mythos is a reflection of their innate values, yet be surprised that their bedfellows are religious conservatives. They might celebrate a culture built on secular reason and evidence-based change, only to be surprised at how weak the power of facts and data really are against social ideology. As culture warriors of an American narrative purpose-built for them, they may side with liberals on social issues, only to be surprised that liberals aren’t on the same page about the ideological significance of the sacred code of their values, The Constitution.*
It is possible for people to have liberal/libertarian and conservative elements to their temperament. As we established, liberals and libertarians have the same temperament, with some moderating effect by their number of social ties early in life; this creates an outward or inward-facing disposition, with many people likely falling somewhere in the middle. Conservatives have a different gene that governs their political behavior, the SERT gene with its short-alleles, but being on a different chromosome, it’s possible to have both the inefficient dopamine and serotonin alleles, which means we can be at once liberal, libertarian and conservative. We can go further, as there are also multiple dopamine genes (DAT 1 and DRD2, for instance), and even an MAOA gene that tweaks serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine. For each of these genes, there is an efficient or inefficient allele, coding for moderate or more sensitive chemical needs. This means that not only can we all be more or less individualistic and collectivistic, we can theoretically be both highly individualistic and highly collectivistic, creating a deep internal tension that mirrors the deep social tension of our country. And yet, as much as our social world demands we pick a side, this internal friction may serve a unique purpose as a bridge of social and ideological gaps around us, possibly of the kind that this very blog attempts.

There are other ways in which the strategy of cultural individualism is self-contradicting. For instance, arguments could be made (for another time) that individualism does indeed serve a big picture function: to foster an atmosphere friendly to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship through its unstable hierarchy, a more flexible, if unstable, social order. This unique cost-benefit might be even more valuable in the context of the global, not national, economy. Still, the fact that the US aspires to be a utopia of hedonic self-expression and unadulterated freedom puts it at odds with the needs of most of its citizens. This means A) 7rs need to find people to do the work that they themselves won’t; and B) 7rs need to somehow convince the majority of non-7rs that the ill-fitting individualistic culture is their own.

As for the first part, we know how the US has tackled the problem historically: by creating wave after wave of slave castes. If we include every such iteration, the list includes everyone from African-Americans to the Irish and Chinese; female homemakers to indentured servants; prison labor and those who currently don’t make a living wage. As for the second, we find that it is because this doesn’t work, that 7rs are uniquely unhappy in their own culture. When individualistic beliefs and values are routed through a conservative majority, they are codified into pale imitations of their former glory, leaving temperamental individualists feeling bewildered, confused and frustrated.

We’ve only scratched the surface of a systemic and tangled problem: our political paradigms are full of nested contradictions that can’t be dismantled subjectively or philosophically; their roots transcend reason, are difficult to see, and are buried beneath meaningful ideological paradigms. This means that the best ways of understanding our social and political problems lay beyond us, a subject for future posts.

DRD4.7r 17A

PICTURED: The mind of your average DRD4.7r gene-carrier