Brescia’s aim is “educating the whole person,” says professor Ed Bell. Photo by Michael Swan

Brescia research in genetics reveals political insights

By 
  • October 20, 2019

If you ever wondered why we can’t all just be friends, why political divisions tear at the fabric of nations and even religions, a sociologist at Brescia College has some new insights. Maybe we’re just born that way.

Brescia professor and chair of the school of behavioural and social sciences at Western University Ed Bell has worked with geneticists, political scientists and psychologists in the United States and Germany in an effort to discover what makes us political and what makes our politics lean one way or the other. In the spring 2019 issue of the journal “Politics and the Life Sciences,” Bell and his collaborators have published a study of German twins that shows genetics have a lot to do with our political persuasions.

“It doesn’t mean that genes are our destiny or that there’s biological determinism,” Bell told The Catholic Register. “What it means is, for example, some people are more easily shaped into conservatives than others. And other people are more easily shaped into liberals than others.”

It turns out that an inclination toward liberal or conservative politics corresponds with other heritable attributes, including openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion. Until recently, sociologists and political scientists believed political commitments were formed entirely by experience and environment. People who grew up in liberal households or were educated in liberal schools became liberal. The same thing was true for people who had a conservative upbringing.

But the nature versus nurture argument isn’t a black-and-white, either-or proposition, according to Bell.

“It’s not a destiny or determinism. It’s more a shaping, more proclivity,” he said.

If we really take this on board, then it might change how we interact across ideological lines.

“In my own experience, I have been a little bit more understanding about people who disagree with me, knowing that to some extent we’re kind of shaped in one direction or another,” Bell said. “Maybe parties and politicians and political operatives should give up on trying to convert people, thinking that if only they gave the right argument then everyone would see it their way.”

If our politics aim to drive everyone into one camp or the other, they are doomed to fail. Given political identities that are deeply linked to our social and psychological identities, as shaped by our genes and our experience, the goal of transforming liberals into conservatives or conservatives into liberals is up against powerful forces.

Genetics may make a politics of listening and compromise the only way forward, according to Bell.

“The implication is you kind of have to make allowances for people who disagree with you,” he said. “If you are a natural liberal, you can’t say, ‘In order to unite this (country) I’m going to convert everybody to my way.’ Maybe if I’m naturally liberal somebody else is naturally conservative.”

Bell’s research is relevant to a Catholic approach that tries to find common cause in our common humanity, separate from our politics. Though he’s not Catholic himself, more than a quarter century of teaching at the Ursuline-founded Brescia College in London, Ont., has taught Bell that a Catholic liberal arts education provides fuel for the engine of curiosity.

“Brescia has always been kind of one of the leaders in educating the whole person,” Bell observed. “What we try to do at Brescia is educate the whole individual. So that means morally, spiritually, socially — in addition to the strictly academic aspects of what we do. That’s not easy to do.”

Students at Brescia begin their university studies with the half-year Brescia Bold course, aimed at orienting students toward what the college calls its seven “Brescia Competencies”: communication, critical thinking, inquiry and analysis, problem solving, self awareness and development, social awareness and engagement, and “valuing,” meaning an ability to reason ethically.

They aren’t just the basis for a successful four years at university. They are also a starting point for living together with people who disagree.

“I like to think that when people go to university they get more out of it than a strictly academic education,” said Bell.

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