Thursday, March 10, 2011

Well, as long as it gets his books sold…

A controversial psychologist's VERY politically incorrect 'truths' about human nature
By NIALL FIRTH, Last updated at 10:45 AM on 1st December 2010

…this is not the first time that evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has stirred up controversy with his outspoken declarations.

Usually perfectly timed to coincide with his latest book, The London School of Economics researcher has come out with a raft of startling claims about what makes us human.

Already this year he has claimed that men who cheat on their girlfriends or wives are less intelligent.
And he claimed that most suicide bombers are Muslim because they do not have enough sex.

He even gave psychological reasons why liberals are more intelligent than those with more conservative viewpoints.

A few yellow flags.

First, this strikes me as our era's version of phrenology. In Victorian times, it was titillating to inspect a friend's head, perhaps surreptitiously, and conjecture what it meant about his character or destiny. Now we like to superimpose a skein of evolutionary impulses onto others and conjecture the same.

Second, to take one example, what does Kanazawa mean by "physically attractive" women? Conceptions of feminine beauty can shift in just a few generations and already varies widely across cultures/regions. Is there a single evolutionary mechanism here that produces such scattered results, or are there really numerous 'occult' mechanisms working diversely in us as subspecies? Either answer is a bit harebrained.

As another example, it's hard to say just how high Kanzawa's analysis of Arab terrorists should extend. What if Arab guys just did a lot of prostitutes, would they still be inclined to terrorism? If the claim is that the motor of Arab terrorism (!) is the fact that most Arab men are competing for a mate, what does it mean to "have a partner"? To have access to a vagina on a regular basis? To have a shoulder to cry on? Or to have someone with whom you can produce offspring so you can transmit your genes? If the latter––and I think that's the only respectable answer a "real Darwinist" would want––, then shouldn't more gay people be terrorists?

Third, these claims are only as good as their statistical corroboration. In other words, as statistical claims, they can't be said directly to cause the behavior b of a particular man m at time t, otherwise the mechanism could be discerned 'straight off' m's actions at t, and then what would be the point of evolutionary psychology versus good old fashioned psychiatry? Laws are generalizations about the dispositions of concrete existents; but those dispositions are not wholly reducible to the laws, since they are merely dispositions dependent for their expression on a convergence of different factors. If the dispositions just were mechanistic laws, then laws could be violated with simple counterfactual adjustments, and that's an insult to the term "law". As always, evolutionary psychology is reifying a collective subconsciousness and ascribing it to "us", as if each of us were a real specimen of the real species Homo sapiens sapiens. Essence pervades the theory or its general claims don't hold for particular speci(e)mens. Since, however, essence is de jure anathema to modern evolutionary reasoning, the theory's general claims don't hold in particular cases.


djr said...

The comparison between evolutionary psychology and phrenology is intriguing. There does seem to be rather more to EP than to phrenology, but as I reflect on these examples, I'm struck by two features. First, they're eminently plausible in a folk-psychological sort of way (of course, the 'folk psychology' I'm talking about partially consists in simplified and decontextualized claims that originate in allegedly scientific psychology). Of course men who are unfaithful are less intelligent than those who aren't; after all, in most cases infidelity is pretty clearly practically irrational. And of course sexual frustration, when combined with political, social, and economic oppression (real or perceived) encourages violence. And it's just obvious that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives; after all, it's a conservative trope to complain about 'intellectuals.'

In all seriousness, none of these claims are obvious (except perhaps that infidelity is usually practically irrational, but I doubt that's what our friend has in mind). But they seem extremely plausible to a great number of people. Of course, their apparent plausibility doesn't have much to do with their appearance in any scientific theories (though I think the sexual frustration idea has come to seem more obvious because of its Freudian credentials). But -- and this is the second point -- when a purportedly scientific inquiry yields these sorts of results, it can be easy to think that the science must be on to something. Otherwise, why would it yield such plausible results?

Something like this seems to account for the acceptance of phrenology (and of astrology, for that matter, though that's a different story). The 'science' wasn't telling us anything about people's psychology, but it could seem to do that because it could yield results that fit with our pre-theoretical intuitions about people and about how psychology works.

MacIntyre has a very interesting essay entitled "Hegel on Faces and Skulls," reprinted in the recent collection The Tasks of Philosophy. Along with another essay in that collection, "What is a Human Body?" it manages to suggest that EP and phrenology make very similar mistakes. Hegel, of course, critiqued phrenology when people still believed it.

Now, if only we could convince more people that rejecting much of EP doesn't entail rejecting evolutionary theory tout court...

Crude said...

Now, if only we could convince more people that rejecting much of EP doesn't entail rejecting evolutionary theory tout court...

I suspect that for some, rejecting much of EP would be quite a thing to give up. In fact, I honestly wonder whether it having much going for it in anything approximating a truly "scientific" sense is even a concern.

There's "pre-theoretical intuitions about people and how psychology works". And there's also socially and politically convenient stories. Probably a lot of crossover between the two too.

djr said...

It's not clear to me that enthusiasm for EP stories correlates much with political ideologies. Some conservatives are very eager to embrace it (James Wilson or Larry Arnhart, for instance), and plenty of left-leaning folk reject it (Charles Taylor, Hilary Putnam). If anything, I'd say left-leaning people are quicker to dismiss EP or its relevance.

Crude said...

I don't think it's a matter of 'People on the left (like/hate) EP and people on the right (hate/like) it.' I think the left-right labels are only so useful anyway.

More that it depends on the EP claim in question, who's telling it, and who's spinning it. It's malleable stuff.

djr said...

Well, I wrote a nice response to this, but blogger decided to disintegrate it. So I'll just give up now.

The tenor of the response was: I really just don't understand how EP claims are supposed to be relevant to politics or ethics in the first place.