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Vanderbilt class explores genetic link to voters’ behavior

Mar. 3, 2008, 2:32 PM

A quirky new Vanderbilt University course blends politics and biological science to explore the effect of genetic make-up on political choices. Distinguished Professor of Political Science John Geer and David Bader, a professor of medicine and cell and developmental biology, are co-teaching “Genetics and Politics” this spring.

“A series of papers and books suggests there is a potential connection, and we are excited to look at this emerging field of study with our students,” said Geer, who teaches and writes about campaigns, elections, public opinion and the presidency. He noted that so far the study results have been mixed. “Some research suggests that your partisanship – whether you tend to support the Republican or Democratic Party – is a product of how you were raised,” Geer said.
“However, your ideological bent toward conservatism or liberalism could have a genetic component.”

Geer cites a study published in September 2007 in Nature Neuroscience by David Amodio, a New York University assistant professor of psychology. It tested how a certain portion of a person’s brain reacted when confronted with information contrary to that individual’s beliefs. Self-proclaimed liberals seemed more responsive to new ideas than those who said they were conservative. “Genetics has to play some role, and researchers still want to know how much and under what conditions,” Geer said.

Bader, the Gladys Parkinson Stahlman Professor of Cardiovascular Research, said that while some biomedical science is covered, the material is manageable for students in all majors. It is beneficial also for biology students to look at the broader issue of how genetics affects society.

Topics being covered include how politics influences science, such as funding for stem cell research, and the continuing debate over teaching evolution versus creationism in the schools.

Among the recent speakers was Elizabeth Cohen, medical correspondent for CNN’s Health and Medical Unit. She talked with students about the media’s coverage of science news and how she chooses what stories to cover.

“Political science has a history of being influenced by other disciplines, and this course helps our students think about politics from a different perspective,” Geer said. His friendship with Bader makes the class fun as well, with the professors playing off each other’s areas of expertise.

For more information on “Genetics and Politics,” contact John Geer at

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens

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