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Candidate Genes and Political Behavior

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2012

Duke University
Harvard University
Evan Charney is Associate Professor of the Practice of Public Policy and Political Science, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, 250 Rubenstein Hall, 302 Towerview Drive, Duke Box 90311, Durham, NC 27708 (
William English is Lab Fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, 124 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 (


Political scientists are making increasing use of the methodologies of behavior genetics in an attempt to uncover whether or not political behavior is heritable, as well as the specific genotypes that might act as predisposing factors for—or predictors of—political “phenotypes.” Noteworthy among the latter are a series of candidate gene association studies in which researchers claim to have discovered one or two common genetic variants that predict such behaviors as voting and political orientation. We critically examine the candidate gene association study methodology by considering, as a representative example, the recent study by Fowler and Dawes according to which “two genes predict voter turnout.” In addition to demonstrating, on the basis of the data set employed by Fowler and Dawes, that two genes do not predict voter turnout, we consider a number of difficulties, both methodological and genetic, that beset the use of gene association studies, both candidate and genome-wide, in the social and behavioral sciences.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2012

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