Intelligence and liberalism

Probably Republican

The Hannibal Blog recently introduced you to Satoshi Kanazawa, a controversial evolutionary psychologist.

A willingness to be controversial, when paired with actual research and intelligence, is a trait The Hannibal Blog applauds. Even so, you guys appropriately rang the alarm bells about some of Kanazawa’s more out-there views in the comments under my post.

That said, those views were not the ones that I found interesting (or had even been aware of). So allow me to re-introduce you to some of Kanazawa’s thinking.

1) The Savanna Principle

Evolutionary psychology starts with the premise that our brain, like our liver or eye or gonads, has evolved. This immediately leads to interesting insights, such as The Savanna Principle, a term that Kanazawa coined.

It states that we (Homo sapiens sapiens), having spent most of our evolutionary time in the African savanna, have adapted to its circumstances. We have not had much time (in terms of generations) to adapt to modern life. Therefore

the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.

(The word difficulty is important: Dealing with modern circumstances is not impossible, merely difficult.)

Thus, humans will see a banana as yellow (= recognizably edible) under all conditions except in a parking lot at night, because sodium vapor light did not exist in the savanna.

Let’s take another easy example. I recently railed against driving while texting or talking on the phone (the former is worse than drunk driving, the latter is as bad). Why are both activities so dangerous (whether or not you use “hands-free” devices)? Well,because

carrying on a conversation with someone who is not present in front of you is evolutionarily novel. Our ancestors never carried on a conversation with anyone who is not present in front of them or whom they could not see during the conversation. We have had the telephone (which allows us to have such conversations) for more than a century now, but it is still evolutionarily novel. Our brain has not adapted to the telephone in the last century. So it is possible that telephone conversations per se, not necessarily cell-phone conversations, are cognitively taxing and distracting because they are evolutionarily novel.

Everyone (legislatures and publics alike) assumed that what was causing the accidents was the manual and mechanical handling of the device, not the conversations per se. After all, drivers have conversations with fellow passengers all the time, with seemingly no effect on safety. [But] drivers who use hands-free devices are just as likely to cause road accidents as those who use hand-held devices.

2) Relevance to intelligence

More recently, Kanazawa has been thinking about how intelligence might have evolved in the Savanna, given that it would have been mostly useless there.

By intelligence he means general intelligence, as opposed to any set of specific adaptations to address specific threats in the Savanna (such as the specific ability to recognize a cheater in a social setting). Put differently, how and why would Homo sapiens have evolved to deal with any novel threat?

Well, it must have evolved since we left the Savanna. Our departure meant that we started encountering one (evolutionarily) novel situation after another, and those of our ancestors who happened, by mutational chance, to be better equipped to think about these new situations would have had a reproductive edge.

But intelligence can be misunderstood. As Kanazawa says:

more intelligent individuals are better than less intelligent individuals at solving problems only if they are evolutionarily novel. More intelligent individuals are not better than less intelligent individuals at solving evolutionarily familiar problems, such as those in the domains of mating, parenting, interpersonal relationships, and wayfinding (finding your way home in a forest), unless the solution involves evolutionarily novel entities. For example, more intelligent individuals are no better than less intelligent individuals at finding and keeping mates, but they may be better at using computer dating devices. More intelligent individuals are no better at finding their way home in a forest, but they may be better at using a map or a satellite navigation device.

3) Relevance to politics

The controversy starts right about now.

One by-product of this recently evolved general intelligence, according to Kanazawa, is an ability to empathize with people to whom we are not genetically related.

In the Savanna we only cared about kith and kin, because we hardly knew anybody else. (We lived in groups of up to about 150 individuals, the so-called Dunbar number.) Modern cities or countries did not exist.

But they exist today, as evolutionary novelties. Does general intelligence help us to deal with the situation?

Yes, says Kanazawa, by making us “liberal”. He uses not the correct and traditional definition but the modern American definition of liberalism

as the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. In the modern political and economic context, this willingness usually translates into paying higher proportions of individual incomes in taxes toward the government and its social welfare programs. Liberals usually support such social welfare programs and higher taxes to finance them, and conservatives usually oppose them.

And indeed, he has found a certain correlation between intelligence and liberalism:

And by the way, Kanazawa considers himself conservative.

So, as he says in a follow-up post, this is not to imply that liberals are “smart” and conservatives “dumb” in the conventional sense.

In fact, it may well be that liberals lack, and conservatives have, “common sense” — if by common sense we mean precisely that more pristine and specific intelligence that allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the Savanna.

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29 thoughts on “Intelligence and liberalism

  1. Very interesting, and it actually makes sense. But most importantly, it shows that human intelligence can’t be distilled down to a single measure or characteristic.

    I know it’s considered a no-no to plug your stuff in comments but I once wrote an apocalyptic story about the evolution of the human brain:

    Click to access little-stars.pdf

    • An extremely engrossing chapter of fiction, Thomas.

      It’s a great story, and Vienna and Kreckstein are great characters, but you probably realize that you’re using the concept of evolution loosely. It’s not about progress to higher stages, such as this post-mammalian brain, but about adaptation that results in more copious procreation. Vienna and his ilk, by the sounds of it, were killing each other off and would not have reproduced enough to actually become evolution.

      But that is neither here nor there. This is a great story!

    • Wow! Thanks for the positive feedback. It means a lot coming from you.

      Sorry about the sloppy science–I wanted to make observations about society and used evolution to cover a multitude of sins. You’ve given me the motivation to go back and clean it up a little. Thanks!

    • thomas,

      haven’t read the story, but i will, thanks for the link.

      andreas thanks for correcting a pet peeve, the misuse of evolutionary concepts, i am like a broken record on this topic.

      perhaps because i equate “adaptation” with sone of the less common-sense “isms”. altruism, humanitarianism, and many of the other “isms” that are now being used in conjunction with the hate speech of these trouble times.

    • i love “isms” and “ists”.

      however i am currently in shock of how many “isms” or “ists” have been distorted into terms of disparage “ments”.

      has no one noticed the caption under your caveman? it made me laugh.

      Kanazawa’s reasoning is full of holes, however. How is an ability to empathize increased by living in a “modern world”?

      wherefore the origins of empathy? (when you come full circle with the hero thread, i will make a strong argument that it is a necessary attribute).

      Kanazawa would make a bit more sense (only by a hair) if the argument was made in reverse – by defining “conservative” as “opposed to change” or “slow to change” therefore less able to “adapt” – it gives “liberal” one advantage.

    • A good story is worth feedback.

      Here is one more bit of knit-pickery: Your joke about the “Weiner” should read “Wiener”. (as in: male Viennese. Peter G is a Wiener.)

      Love the Dusseldorf bit. 🙂

    • True, a “Wiener” is a male Viennese, but actually the joke should read “Wien,” as that’s the German word for Vienna.

      A “Weiner” is a male person who cries a lot, from “weinen” = to cry.

  2. Since women tend to be more liberal than men, more liberals are women than liberals are men. So, in terms of Kanazawa’s reasoning (liberals are more intelligent than conservatives) women must be more intelligent than men.

    But Kanazawa says in others of his pieces, that men are more intelligent than women. This is because, according to Kanazawa, tall people are more intelligent than short people, and men are generally taller than women. Therefore, according to Kanazawa, men are more intelligent than women.

    Since men are more conservative (less liberal) than women, it would follow that conservatives (mostly men) are more intelligent than liberals (mostly women).

    Hence Kanazawa doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    • The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

      Sometimes that which strikes us as contradictory turns out not to be so. Perhaps gravity and quantum physics are different sides of the same coin after all.

      All this who’s-more-intelligent-than-who business is ultimately meaningless, as it only applies to groups, not individuals. Brunettes may be smarter than blondes, and men may be better scientists than women, but that doesn’t tell me anything about whether the hot blonde over there is a dunce or a physics genius.

    • Theoretical physics, I meant, not the physics of keeping her balance in those stilettos, given the center of her weight being located all the way up in her chest area.

    • Regarding apparent contradictions, in statistics there’s a phenomenon called the Simpson’s paradox, defined as a statistical paradox wherein the successes of groups seem reversed when the groups are combined, i.e., a first look at the overall data appears to suggest one thing, but a more detailed look suggests the opposite; the overall percentages seem to go one way, but the subcategories go the other way.

      So for instance, a university may accept 50% of its male applicants, but only 40% of female applicants, therefore it appears the university is biased against women.

      On closer inspection, however, one may find that every individual department of the univeristy accepts a higher percentage of female than male applicants.

      The question arises, how can a university overall be biased against women while each department seems biased against males?

      Here’s the Wikipedia article about this phenomenon.

  3. didn’t ‘brothers karamazov’ address the tension you speak of — caring for small groups versus larger? father zosima basically suggests that an individual can choose to love his immediate family and neighbors OR humanity as a whole. and that the more you love one, the less you love the other.

    this post by a conservative, who happens to still live in the savannas of africa… and who runs barefoot.

    • Welcome to thee in the Tanzanian motherland. Returning to our roots, as it were.

      I’m googling myself to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of the Brothers Karamazov….

  4. Is this post an April Fool’s Day thing? You guys are writing like it’s serious. I ignored it and then I started reading the comments and then, well, now I’m not sure.

    I’m too lazy to check where I read it in the Economist, but I did, so it must be true. Willingness to pay higher taxes does not necessarily correlate with concern for welfare of others. While we’re generalizing, one could say (and people do) that ‘conservatives’ are willing to pay more for social welfare, but not through the government. You could easily say that willingness to pay higher taxes goes along with willingness to fight wars and occupy countries populated with brown people who don’t speak English.

    The author makes a huge leap from the questionable statement of “willingness usually translates…” You could say that willingness to pay for social programs (and/or war) comes from personal fear. Compassion has nothing to do with it. I’m not sure whether fear is a trait that is more or less evolved.

    • OK, you’re not writing like it’s that serious. I over reacted. But is Kanazawa serious? Someone make me a stone implement that I can use to pound on Kanazawa’s plot. Error bars on the vertical axis and adjectives on the horizontal axis? Ack. I’ve been slimed.

    • I was half serious. Meaning: I find the Savanna Principle quite compelling, some of its extensions quite intriguing, and then this leap into politics amusing.

      BTW, Kanazawa has been making fun of liberals in this thread. Some of you might have missed this.

      One other thought: If he mapped IQ to liberalism by how the people in his study self-identified, then it doesn’t really matter how he defines liberal and conservative, does it?

  5. Good Evening Andreas

    So liberals are more willing to pay higher taxes to help others genetically less fortunate? I missed the connection between this assertion and his statement of fact that “liberals” have higher IQ’s than “conservatives”.

    I am just an advocate by profession, and really not a social scientist, but one could argue that Kanazawa’s liberals are not very inteeligent at all because they think they are helping the little guy in supporting higher taxes and spending when many, if not most, of the social programs do not, in fact, help the people that need it the most.

    Based on his science, since I am getting more conservative with age; and fed up with my Democratic party, I must be losing IQ points. Is that possible? And yet I am still empathetic and care about the less fortunate. ?

    Labels like liberal and conservative are troublesome these days. I think we need to be really careful in using them to group people. Even those like me that claim we are independent” really aren’t.

    Thanks for the interesting thread. Provocative as usual.

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