The Malcolm Gladwell of Evolutionary Psychology Strikes Again

I haven't even finished Satoshi Kanazawa's new opus, but as Andrew Gelman refuses to do his blogging duty, I thought I might as well give you this quick gem:
In order to make reasonable inferences about what values our ancestors might have held during the course of human evolution, I have relied on two sources. First, I have consulted the ten-volume compendium The Encyclopedia of World Cultures (Levinson 1991-1995), which extensively describes all human cultures known to anthropology (more than 1,500) in great detail.


Out of more than 1,500 distinct cultures throughout the world described in The Encyclopedia of World Cultures, only 19 contain any references to atheism. Not only do all these 19 cultures exist far outside of our ancestral home in sub-Saharan Africa, but all 19 without an exception are former Communist societies (Abkhazians in Georgia, Ajarians in Georgia, Albanians, Bulgarians, Chuvash in Russia, Czechs, Germans in Russia [but not in Germany], Gypsies in Russia, Itelmen in Russia, Kalmyks in Russia, Karakalpaks in Russia, Koreans in Russia (but not in Korea), Latvians, Nganasan in Russia, Nivkh in Russia, Poles, Turkmens, Ukrainian peasants). There are no non-former-Communist cultures described in The Encyclopedia as containing any significant segment of atheists. Nor is there any reference to any individuals who do not subscribe to the local religion in any of the monograph-length ethnographies cited above. It may therefore be reasonable to conclude that atheism may not be part of the universal human nature, and widespread practice of atheism may have been a recent product of Communism in the twentieth century.


pj said...

I think this may deserve a prize for the most question begging and contradictory explanation ever posited in evolutionary psychology:

"To the extent that these evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems happened frequently enough in the ancestral environment
(different problem each time) and had serious enough consequences for survival and reproduction, any genetic mutation that allowed its carriers to think and reason would have been selected for, and what we now call ‘‘general intelligence’’ could have evolved as a domain-specific adaptation for the domain of evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems."

LemmusLemmus said...

Do you see more than a liguistic problem in the bit you quoted?

LemmusLemmus said...

By "linguistic problem" I mean, of course, referring to a solution to nonrecurrent problems as "domain-specific".

pj said...

That was what I meant by contradictory.

pj said...

Question begging refers to the idea that there could be "any genetic mutation that allowed its carriers to think and reason".

Surely it is literally impossible to believe in the evolution of a general intelligence or non-domain specific ability to reason that didn't, at least originally, develop from a domain specific modality?

LemmusLemmus said...

Why? Isn't it conceivable that an ability evolves that has general applicability (although it will initially only be applied to a number of tasks)? Or am I misunderstanding you here, in particular your use of "modularity"?

I think this whole song and dance about "domain-specificity" for assorted problems has to do with evolutionary psychologists (for whatever reason) suggesting that learning, behaviour, etc. are highly domain-specific ("swiss army knife view of the mind") and Kanazawa tries to fit this in conceptually.

pj said...

I just don't believe that it is going to be possible for a complex domain independent problem solving function to arise de novo from incremental selection for mutations. In a similar way I wouldn't believe that animals just evolved to fly straight off - I would think that this ability would need to supervene on some other ability (in the latter case limbs for terrestrial ambulation).

In the case of general problem solving it seems a lot more likely to me that this ability grew out of a more domain specific ability - perhaps a mechanical ability to sequence actions, but whatever it was I don't think it makes sense to talk of its evolution as if it just arose in little steps (what would the increments even be?).

I'm sceptical of swiss-army knife views of the mind and quite receptive to views that consider the processing abilities of the brain to be more general and less domain-specific (or modular) than orthodox cognitive psychology* or EP would suggest, but, on the other hand, I think this kind of 'high level process X evolved because of low level environmental reason Y' hand-waving argument is facile. In the same way I don't believe that there is a rape module or an infanticide module, or that these evolved directly as congitive strategies to optimise fitness rather than being predictable consequences of more basic processes such as the sex drive or differential bonding to offspring.

(I didn't say 'modularity', I said 'modality')

* The modularity argument goes back to the idea that cognitive psychologists didn't need to understand the organisation of the brain to deduce the 'cognitive' architecture of the mind (an odd kind of dualism that was paradoxically inspired by evidence of neurological modularity), EP adopted this idea because it supported their focus on cognitive traits being encapsulated, not interacting, and thus being simply influenced by single genes and driven by natural selection. i.e. these are largely a priori assumptions posited in fields where they make things easier (like, say, the efficient markets hypothesis).

LemmusLemmus said...

(Yeah, "modality").

As for your position on domain-specificity vs. more general mechanisms, I'm afraid you've lost me.

pj said...

What I'm trying to say is that the interesting question (evolutionarily or mechanistically) is how could a general probloem solving ability arise - to say that there was selection for it by the presence of general problems in the environment is an empty answer, not only circular but also failing to address the fundamental questions.

pj said...

One way to look at it is to say that he's just saying that general intelligence is beneficial - well no shit!

But the mistake is to assume that you can turn this facile observation on its head and make it explanatory, i.e. that the beneficial* nature of general intelligence explains general intelligence. Well it just doesn't. In the same way the beneficial nature of language does not explain the origin of language.

I'm quite sure that 'evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems' happened to every organism there has ever been, yet they don't all seem to have developed general problem solving abilities.

So we are left with an essentially trivial observation that doesn't actually explain anything.

* Note that EP advocates rarely seem to consider the costs of these sorts of things (e.g. the costs of having a big energy hungry brain) other than again supplying an easy answer as to why this beneficial nature of general intelligence has achieved intelligence with so many limitations. Again, we simply find that we have a Panglossian answer - general intelligence is not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

LemmusLemmus said...

Well, the question, it seems to me, is: Does the theory imply new ideas that are testable, ideally with contemporary data.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I'd say no. I mean, it might be the case that increased intelligence leads to increased offspring in contemporary societies, and if it was then this would be taken as evidence for the theory, but if it wasn't the case then this wouldn't necessarily mean that it wasn't the case in the past.

pj said...

That was me above.

LemmusLemmus said...

I don't see contemporary reproduction coming into it. Kanazawa's view (which I'm not saying is right) are more likely to show behaviour that didn't make any sense in the past but may make sense now.

Still haven't finished the paper, by the way.

Troy Camplin said...

He forgot the fact that Marxism is a religion. There are secular religions. Marxism does after all have a prophet, a teleology, salvation, an (earthly) heaven, and sacred texts.