Rebecca Watson takes on the evolutionary psychologists again. I’m glad someone is.
I looked into the papers she’s talking about several days ago. I was unimpressed with and disgusted with them, and just said to myself, “Do I really want to wade into this shit again?” and let it pass, because I tell you, evolutionary psychology fans are the worst. Every criticism is dealt with by suggesting that the critic doesn’t really accept science, because the whole field is cloaked in a layer of pseudoscientific pretense that the true believers don’t question.
I first read “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy: A Critical Analysis of Kevin MacDonald’s Theory” by Nathan Cofnas, published in Human Nature. As it says, it’s critical of the idea that Jews have some exceptional genetic trait that makes them more tribal and capable of ‘taking over’ the world, which is a positive sign…but at the same time it blithely accepts a whole lot of biological assumptions.
MacDonald argues that a suite of genetic and cultural adaptations among Jews constitutes a “group evolutionary strategy.” Their supposed genetic adaptations include, most notably, high intelligence, conscientiousness, and ethnocentrism. According to this thesis, several major intellectual and political movements, such as Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and multiculturalism, were consciously or unconsciously designed by Jews to (a) promote collectivism and group continuity among themselves in Israel and the diaspora and (b) undermine the cohesion of gentile populations, thus increasing the competitive advantage of Jews and weakening organized gentile resistance (i.e., anti-Semitism). By developing and promoting these movements, Jews supposedly played a necessary role in the ascendancy of liberalism and multiculturalism in the West. While not achieving widespread acceptance among evolutionary scientists, this theory has been enormously influential in the burgeoning political movement known as the “alt-right.” Examination of MacDonald’s argument suggests that he relies on systematically misrepresented sources and cherry-picked facts. It is argued here that the evidence favors what is termed the “default hypothesis”: Because of their above-average intelligence and concentration in influential urban areas, Jews in recent history have been overrepresented in all major intellectual and political movements, including conservative movements, that were not overtly anti-Semitic.
The “default hypothesis” claims that two factors are sufficient to explain Jewish success in certain fields of endeavor: IQ (they’re smart) and geography (they live in urban areas). OK, but the reliance on IQ as a factor raises my hackles. The author even admits that this might not be due to genetic factors.
The default hypothesis is not tied to any particular explanation of the cause of above-average Jewish IQ. Some researchers favor a genetic explanation. In an influential paper, Cochran et al. (2005) argued that during the Middle Ages Ashkenazim were selected for the intellectual ability to succeed in white-collar occupations. However, it is theoretically possible that the Jewish–gentile IQ gap is due at least in part to some yet-to-be-identified cultural factor (Nisbett 2009). Whatever the cause, high Jewish IQ presumably plays a role in Jewish overrepresentation in cognitively demanding activities.
That’s a start, but I’d have to say that the “yet-to-be-identified cultural factor” has been identified. It’s a cultural value that promotes literacy and education as a social good. You may not have noticed, but a lot of cultural subgroups don’t — I know that the white protestant subculture I grew up in disparaged academic achievement and put a much higher priority on sports and money. Do we really need to bring this fuzzy, poorly defined thing called IQ into the discussion? Evolutionary psychologists certainly do, and simply take it for granted. This same paper also includes this garbage:
The mean Ashkenazi Jewish IQ appears to be around 110 (Lynn and Kanazawa 2008)—moderately lower than MacDonald’s estimate of 117. Jewish intellectual accomplishment is consistent with higher mean intelligence.
That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology in a nutshell. It’s built on a foundation of bad evolutionary theory with a set of assumptions about genetic determinism that are never questioned; instead, they constantly churn over the same old discredited authors and same old unfounded theories, and treat the fact that they’ve been published in uncritical, lazy EP journals as sufficient to establish their truth. They can’t question their assumptions about the primacy of genetic causes in determining complex phenomena like culture because, if they do, the whole field collapses about them.
Cofnas’s article isn’t as terrible, though, as the original article by Kevin McDonald, the “neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic”, nor is it as ghastly as the putative rebuttal to Cofnas published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. That one uses Herrnstein & Murray, Philippe Rushton, and the ubiquitous Richard Lynn as sources, and again fails to question the genetic causes and instead unquestioningly endorses “group selection”.
Kevin MacDonald (1998) has argued that a series of twentieth century ideologies which have challenged European traditions should be understood as part of a Jewish evolutionary strategy to promote Jewish interests in the West, as evidenced by Jewish leadership of and disproportionate involvement in these movements. Cofnas Human Nature 29, 134–156 (Cofnas 2018a) has critiqued this model and countered that the evidence can be more parsimoniously explained by the high average intelligence and urban location of Jews in Western countries. This, he avers, should be the ‘default hypothesis.’ In this response, I argue that it is MacDonald’s model that is the more plausible hypothesis due to evidence that people tend to act in their ethnic group interest and that group selectedness among Jews is particularly strong, meaning that they are particularly likely to do so.
This is the kind of thing the alt-right loves: Jews are just so tribal, they want to claim, as they march around with torches chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They are justified in wanting to oppress them, because gosh, those Jews are just so oppressive.
EP journals are just sitting there indulging them, too — my objection isn’t to the Cofnas article itself, but the whole field that seems to think this is a subject that is worth discussing, to the point where they’re feeling the need to publish rebuttals to bad theories that are widely endorsed in their own journals. I think it’s a good idea for science journals to be open in criticizing creationism, for instance, because those bad ideas are currently widespread in popular culture (as are racist ideas). It would be a disgrace if science journals were also publishing creationist trash, but that’s exactly analogous to what EP journals do: publish an onanistic mix of terrible, awful, ridiculous articles with a few articles that try to rebut them. It’s a roiling mess that keeps the publishers in business but does nothing to advance our knowledge.
If you’re in evolutionary psychology, get out while you still can. Distance yourself. Refuse to publish in the usual EP journals, because you’re just going to get tarred with the deplorable taint of the whole field. Maybe you’re a competent scientist with great logical skills, but you can’t build on a foundation of invalid rubbish.
It’s too late for the editorial board of Evolutionary Psychological Science. I hadn’t looked until Rebecca mentioned it, but all the usual suspects are there: Kurzban, Buss, Pinker, and Sam Harris (his affiliation is listed as “Independent Scholar”). They ought to be as embarrassed as the board of a molecular biology journal that started printing articles by creationists.