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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Pew and me, “imagining the internet”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project invited me to participate in the next iteration of their serial “expert” reports on the future evolution of the Internet.

The questions themselves were interesting and telling, and I thought I might share them with you and let you know how I answered. (I look forward to finding out what all the other participants said when “Future of the Internet” is published by Cambria Press.)

The questions were “tension pairs” of alternative scenarios around the following themes:

  • Human intelligence
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Social and human relationships
  • The Internet’s “end-to-end principle”
  • Desktop versus cloud computing
  • The next takeoff technologies

Human intelligence

Here is one tension pair (their words):

By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.


By 2020, people’s use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

I chose alternative 1 and elaborated (my words):

What the internet (here subsumed tongue-in-cheek under “Google”) does is to support some parts of human intelligence, such as analysis, by replacing other parts, such as memory. Thus, people will be more intelligent about, say, the logistics of moving around a geography because “Google” will remember the facts and relationships of various locations on their behalf. People will be better able to compare the revolutions of 1848 and 1789 because “Google” will remind them of all the details as needed. This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more “stupid” by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.

Reading skills

Here is another tension pair (their words):

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.


By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Here, too, I chose alternative 2 but elaborated (my words):

We are currently transitioning from reading mainly on paper to reading mainly on screens. As we do so, most of us read more, in terms of quantity (word count), but also more promiscuously and in shorter intervals and with less dedication. As these habits take root, they corrupt our willingness to commit to long texts, as found in books or essays. We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts. This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in “Haiku-culture” replacing “book-culture”.

Friendship and intimacy

Here is another tension pair:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.


In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

And again I chose alternative 2, but said:

The question presents a false dichotomy: Technology has no impact whatsoever in the long term on human relationships. What it does is to facilitate some aspects of it for a time (thoughts with letters, speech with telephony, updates with social networks, nearness-awareness with geo-location, etc) at the expense of outrunning the etiquette and courtesy protocols of the previous generation (disturbance during dinner time with telephony, privacy and discretion with social networks and geo-location, et cetera). Over time, etiquette catches up (or evolves), but efficiency advances elsewhere. But throughout, people remain responsible for their human connections–ie, the commitments in time and trust they make to others and their expectations of reciprocity.

Privacy and “sharing”

One more tension pair:

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.


By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

And again, I chose alternative 2 and elaborated:

The human maturation process does not change because of a new technology. Starting before we left the savannahs, the young members of Homo “Sapiens” have over-shared in order to make themselves socially interesting to the group and to potential mates, only to discover the enormous risks involved when shared information reaches malicious individuals or a group at large, at which point they have re-learned the discretion of their parents. Thus sharing on the internet will continue on its present trajectory: more will be shared by the young than the old, and as people mature they will share more banal and less intimate information.

The other topics didn’t interest me quite as much, although I gave my opinions. Regarding the question of “cloud computing” versus PC-based computing, I made my thinking quite clear when Apple’s support team gave me ample (in terms of time) opportunity to ponder it.

Can’t wait to hear what you guys think.

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Intelligence: Good servant, bad master

Intelligent? Me?

My favorite quote from B.K.S. Iyengar. (For the Yogis among you, I practice Pattabhi Jois‘ style, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Intellectuals tend to be arrogant. Intelligence, like money, is a good servant but a bad master. When practicing pranayama, the yogi [makes] himself humble and without pride in his intellectual attainments.”

Page 85 in this book.