This is a letter I wrote to New Scientist in response to an article by Jim Giles. In a nutshell, 'twin studies' have revealed that personality traits like openness, conscientiousness and extroversion/introversion are inherited, and he argues that these traits indirectly affect one's acceptance of new ideas or tendency to resist change.
Reference: New Scientist, 2 February 2008, pp29-31.
The following text is my response, but the last two paragraphs on fundamentalism were added later.
The dichotomy described by the article ‘Are your genes left wing or right wing?’ goes beyond politics, albeit that is where it has its biggest impact. The human population seems divided between those who seek change and those who want to maintain the status quo, and I would argue we need both. While this division seems to be close to 50/50, it is probably more of a spectrum than a polarisation. There are arch-conservatives who want to turn back the clock, and arch-radicals who want change overnight, but most people have more tempered views.
In the 1960s, Carl Rogers commented on the correlation found by people who were certain about how far a point of light jiggles against a dark background with no point of reference, and their level of racial intolerance as determined by a questionnaire. (The point of light experiment is a well known illusion, even though it doesn’t move at all.) In effect, people who seek and believe in absolute certainties are more likely to be conservative in other respects as well, like resisting change to perceived stereotypes.
I’ve always found it curious, that, by and large, artists are more liberal than other sectors of society. But it’s not so surprising, if one considers that artists are most open to new ideas, are more empathetic to the eccentric and the outsider, and also lack discipline (I’m speaking from personal experience on the last attribute). Even amongst scientists, there are those who are more sceptical, more loyal to traditional ideas, and those who are more likely to entertain fringe concepts, even at the risk of criticism and sometimes ridicule. As I said, I believe we need both.
But the other thing, that history has demonstrated, is that, despite the enormous inertia to change that seems almost natural, change occurs anyway, which would suggest that there is a healthy interaction between these 2 ‘types’ over the long term. In politics, in particular, what was considered radical in the past becomes the norm in the present day, otherwise we would still have slavery and women would not be able to vote. So over the long term, change seems to occur for the better, but in such a way that the conservatives who want to maintain the status quo can accept it as well. It should not be surprising then, that the most radical changes are generational, whereby the new conservatives have new conservative values that were previously considered liberal.
What I have found, from my own experience, is that, despite the prejudices that seem to arise from this divide, qualities like honesty, loyalty and integrity appear to be neither monopolised nor decidedly lacking from either side.
Sometimes, of course, the change can go the other way, and I’m thinking specifically of fundamentalism, which provides an attractive refuge for anyone who feels they’re a lost soul, especially an alienated lost soul. It provides certainty in a world full of unknowns. Fundamentalism is the ultimate form of certainty: it provides an answer to all situations and all questions. Everything is black and white: there is no grey, no doubt and no need to wonder.
In a sense, fundamentalism is a radical form of conservatism, the end result being a complete intolerance of any other point of view. There is no greater conflict than that experienced between 2 or more fundamentalist groups, as we are currently witnessing on a global scale. Fundamentalism is always considered an ultra-conservative position, and the logical consequence is that, in the case of conflict, only moderates can broker a peace, which is rather ironic for the parties involved. As far as the fundamentalists are concerned, peace can only come with the annihilation of the other, which translates to conflict without end.
Footnote: In reference to the third last paragraph, there is an example, albeit a fictional one, in my novel, ELVENE. For anyone who has read the book, it's obvious that the character, Elvene, is liberal, and her immediate superior, Roger, is conservative. Yet both display qualities of loyalty and integrity, and both will buck the system if they feel morally compromised. I have witnessed this in real life.