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.