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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Is or Ought, true or good

Satoshi Kanazawa

I’ve recently discovered the blog of Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics (LSE), which happens to be one of my alma maters (I got my Masters there).

It is called The Scientific Fundamentalist, and for good reason. As he says here,

From my purist position, everything scientists say, qua scientists, can only be true or false or somewhere in between. No other criteria besides the truth should matter or be applied in evaluating scientific theories or conclusions. They cannot be “racist” or “sexist” or “reactionary” or “offensive” or any other adjective. Even if they are labeled as such, it doesn’t matter. Calling scientific theories “offensive” is like calling them “obese”; it just doesn’t make sense. Many of my own scientific theories and conclusions are deeply offensive to me, but I suspect they are at least partially true. Once scientists begin to worry about anything other than the truth and ask themselves “Might this conclusion or finding be potentially offensive to someone?”, then self-censorship sets in, and they become tempted to shade the truth. What if a scientific conclusion is both offensive and true? What is a scientist to do then? I believe that many scientific truths are highly offensive to most of us, but I also believe that scientists must pursue them at any cost.

Well, in this post, The Hannibal Blog would simply like to endorse and celebrate Kanazawa — both his approach and philosophy and his research and style.

Subscribe to his blog! It will do what I secretly hope The Hannibal Blog occasionally does for you:

  • intrigue you,
  • offend you,
  • delight you,
  • enrage you,
  • enthrall you.

How? Because it does not — as so much of the politically correct piffle out there does — try to achieve one half of the above effects without the other half. It has writerly courage. More specifics to come.

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The leopard and the baby baboon


I have been puzzling over, and moved by, a scene from Eye of the Leopard, a film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, a handsome couple (above) who are quite the up-and-coming wildlife-documentary makers.

It is the second clip in this video, called “Unlikely Surrogate”.

The “plot”, as provided by Mother Nature (and as narrated by Jeremy Irons):

A leopard hunts a baboon mother, kills her and begins to drag her up on tree for the feast. Suddenly, something wriggles, and it is the one-day old baboon baby that was clinging onto her mother and now falls out.

The leopard pauses. … It does not know how to react. It watches the baby for hours. Then it gently picks the little primate up with its fangs and carries it further up to the tree to safety from other predators. The leopard licks and comforts the baboon baby whose mother the cat has just killed. The baboon baby recognizes the kindness and snuggles into the leopard’s chin. They cuddle for hours together against the cold. Then the leopard moves back down to eat the baby’s mother.

You can study biology, Darwin, evolution. You can hypothesize why this trait is passed on and not that trait. You can throw around fancy terms, such as cross-species altruism. And just when you’re feeling reassuringly scientific, nature reminds you of her eternal, sublime, moving mystery.

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Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?

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Lee Kuan Yew on Darwin and breeding

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

Just one quick follow-up to the last post on Darwin: I was reminded of a controversy from my days in Asia, involving Lee Kuan Yew, the “founding father” of Singapore. (Most Asian controversies seem to involve Lee Kuan Yew, if you look closely enough.)

He had once opined on the truly bizarre situation that humans have created today. Biologically and historically, the “fittest” (most adapted) members of a population are the ones whose genes (alleles) are most represented in future generations. Lee Kuan Yew, perhaps contemplating his own daughter, who was then a neuroscientist as intellectually impressive as she was single, observed that

our brightest women [are] not marrying and [will] not be represented in the next generation. The implications [are] grave.

Some of the fittest among us, in short, are voluntarily opting out of evolution. A biologically suicidal strategy, and thus worthy of study.

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Greatest thinker, runner-up: Darwin,

So here we are in the ninth and penultimate post of The Hannibal Blog‘s search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. And the runner-up is…. Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s thought fits all the criteria The Hannibal Blog has laid out so far: his insight was simple and yet non-obvious and subtle (and thus still frequently misunderstood). He appears to have been right. And for good measure, his insight is also extensible, explaining far more than “just” speciation.


Even though the details are still being debated, the core insight is so simple that I always think it borders on tautological. Those genes whose vehicles (phenotypes) are relatively better at making it to the next generation and the next and the next … are the ones you see around you today. Duh. Those genes that manifested themselves in phenotypes that kicked off too early to reproduce, or that reproduced but created offspring that couldn’t repeat the performance … are not the ones you see around you today. Duh.


As Geoff Carr, our science editor at The Economist, once reminded me, people often get the implications of natural selection and evolution (which is what I described above) wrong. I’m not even talking about the fire-and-brimstone creationist types. What many people infer is that evolution is somehow about improvement. (This is the seed of an entire genre of cartoons.) It is not. Instead, evolution is about adaptation. It would merrily go on if we humans were to wipe ourselves out tomorrow with a nuclear war. The bacterial slime in thermal vents would carry on unperturbed.

The other thing that people get wrong is to overemphasize the survival part. It’s the reproduction part that drives the process. Somebody once explained it to me best by saying it’s about which organisms have the most grandchildren. Ie, think of a strapping stallion and a purdy donkey. Both are great at surviving, and great at reproducing, but something in their genotype makes them choose each other. They will have lots of sterile mules. Two generations later, their genes will be gone.


I think the expansion of the concept really kicked off in earnest with Richard Dawkins and his idea that even non-biological systems evolve. Culture is such a system, and the equivalents of genes are idea snippets called memes. Some memes (ideas, fads, fashions) adapt, travel and spread, others do not.

The basic concept also explains so amazingly much else. Why grandmothers tend to be closer to their daughters’ children than to their sons’. Why women show a bit more skin at one time of the month than during the rest of the month. Why humans are sometimes altruistic and sometimes not. Why so many of us are religious. And on and on and on. In short, why we are who we are….

Next time: the overall winner. Once again, I promise a surprise.

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