MANN TALK: The Liberal Gene

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann

E. O Wilson is a biologist who has spent a lifetime studying ants. From his studies, he has concluded that the social behavior of all animals, including humans, is influenced by genes, a position contrary to the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). Locke believed that the mind of a new born was a blank sheet upon which experience wrote and thus determined the character of the individual. Nurture was everything, nature nothing. 

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and philosopher, contends that the ability to speak and understand language is built into the human brain, a position also contrary to Locke’s. He believes that a Universal Grammar is wired into the brain of every child; that is, language is in the genes.

In 1996 I wrote an article titled “The Liberal Gene,” which was published in the Nicholas Chronicle, the paragraph above being a paraphrase of the first paragraph of that article.  In the article, I argued that “there is a political gene, a gene that determines whether one is conservative or liberal. Liberals are not made, they are born. Or one’s politics is more a matter of nature than nurture.”

I have just recently finished reading Stevens Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” in which there is a chapter titled “Politics.” In the chapter he expounds: “Liberal and conservative attitudes are heritable not, of course, because attitudes are synthesized directly from DNA but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments. Conservatives, for example, tend to be more authoritarian, conscientious, traditional, and rule-bound. But whatever its immediate source, the heritability of political attitudes can explain some of the sparks that fly when liberals and conservatives meet. When it comes to attitudes that are heritable, people react more quickly and emotionally, are less likely to change their minds, and are more attracted to like-minded people.”

In my 1996 article, I contended: “What the liberal gene builds and the messages it sends constructs the basic characteristics of a liberal.” And I questioned: “What are these characteristics and traits engineered and dictated by the liberal gene?”

Imagination. No person with the liberal gene ever read the following words of John Donne, the English poet, without being intellectually stimulated and emotionally moved: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Verbal fluency. The liberal gene endows the person with skill in words. Liberals are not the tall silent type but the flexible and loquacious type. For evidence of liberal’s verbal assets one can note the difference between the speeches of Clinton and Dole; FDR and Dewey; Stevenson and Eisenhower; Kennedy and Nixon; or any liberal and Bush II.

Sex temperment. The liberal gene tempers the sex; that is, it produces a person that is somewhere in the middle of the sex spectrum. Maleness is modified. Raw predaciousness is diluted with cerebral chemistry. The quarterback spends some time in the library; the hunter cultivates grain. Do or die competitiveness becomes reasonable cooperation. Absolutes give way to compromises.

Empathy. The liberal discerns that no man is an island, that every man is part of the main, and that every man is involved in mankind, and that he is to some degree responsible for mankind’s victories and its defeats, its champions and its scoundrels, its saints and its sinners. He sees that one’s destiny is not always a matter of will but of fate.

Cooperation. The liberal’s predisposition is to cooperate rather to compete. There is some socialism in every liberal just as there is some social Darwinism in every conservative. Every economic safety net ever conceived and implemented was the work of liberals over the wails of objections from the more competitive and predacious conservatives. The hunter can’t abide the herder.

Altruism. A world without altruism would be worse than any jungle; for even in a jungle species work together to survive and mothers of whatever kind sacrifice for their young. The liberal gene predisposes the carrier to altruistic action, to an understanding that the welfare of everyone is the welfare of all. And that the raw rule of the survival of the fittest is no longer valid or tenable in a man-made environment.

From the earliest records, the political spectrum has run from conservative to liberal, from radical to reactionary. For every Attila the Hun there has been a Buddha, every Ratko Mladic a Gandhi, every warrior a poet. Political power through the ages has tilted from conservative to liberal and back. The impetus was and is the liberal gene.

Pinker writes: “Liberalism and conservatism have not just genetic roots, of course, but historical and intellectual ones. The two political philosophies were articulated in the 18th century in terms that would be familiar to readers of the editorial pages today, and their foundations can be traced back millennia to the political controversies of ancient Greece.”

Political history is the work of the liberal gene and its civilizing influence.

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Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He turned 90 this year; he was born in Charleston, WV in 1921.

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